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Portrait of the Artist: Theaster Gates

Michigan Avenue, Multimedia, Performance Add comments

thumbs1c6a3theastergates09Theaster Gates: urban planner, sculptor, coordinator of arts programming (and an established eccentric-in-residence) at University of Chicago, has transformed a small gallery space at the MCA into a site for ritual and musical conversation that combines his two major influences of African-American and Japanese traditions—Gates has long been involved with Japanese sculpture through his own sculpture study and projects.

The space itself is deceptively simple, lined with boards that resemble the tops of wine crates, and it resembles something of a plywood cave, a canvas as well as a finished room that’s both prehistoric and of the moment, in the middle of its own construction; but the gallery is incomplete without the performances—or “temple exercises,” as Gates calls them, that he leads each Tuesday, which combine communal discussion with a kind of blending of different genres of spiritual reflection. The effect, with an appropriate dose of open-mindedness, is refreshingly humane and a reminder that art’s job now seems to be to help us recreate relationships with the real world rather than imagining it differently or presenting different worlds to us.

The most noteworthy element of the show is its relationship with performances by the Black Monks, a group of Baptist-Buddhist musicians Gates jams with, combining
prayer bells, Buddhist chanting, bluegrass, complex spinning, soul, jazz and slave spirituals: an impressive range of genres of music that truly interact and intervene with one another. Their performances, beautifully paced, kaleidoscopic, and truly narrative (often the instruments speak back and forth as though in an improvised conversation), call both religious ritual and Noh theater to mind; and they’re not afraid to linger on notes of interference, discord and atonality.

thumbs88a7btheastergates01But while the Black Monks’ music comes to its own logical conclusion after a long, slow groove of mounting tension, other elements of Gates’ project don’t sit together quite as well. While he’s managed to create a true space of exchange between gallery, artist and audience, Gates’ production (it is firmly planted in the world of theater, in the end, more than anything else) doesn’t leave enough room for critical interpretation or new ways of seeing the elements he combines expertly as a curator; and certain moments in his own performance, such as when he paints on the wall with his own hair, feel overly exhibitionist rather than truly engaging in specific cultural traditions.

Gates says on his Web site about his work that “practicing art has become increasingly difficult to separate from the rest of life. It is fuel for contemplation, discussion and performance… the work is no longer limited to a particular material or medium. Relationships are now the root.” “Temple Exercises” embodies this kind of relational aesthetics, even if it errs on the side of stagy. (Monica Westin)

Through February 1 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. For related performances, see schedule here.

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