Theaster Gates: Chicago's Very Public Artist - by Dawoud Bey



Photo by Sara Pooley

We often think of art as being something that is made in the privacy of the artist's studio and then brought out into the world when it is time to be shown. This idea of art being made in private is, of course, one of the things that has traditionally given art a certain aura and sense of mystery. Most often, unless we are artists ourselves, we don't know how the art object came into being. This only adds to our sense of awe and wonder. And while a lot of art is still made within the privacy and isolation of the artist's studio, there have always been those artists whose work takes place in very public and interactive ways. Indeed for these artists their works are only meaningful if they take place in the public arena; the public in fact becomes a part of the "art work" themselves, and the space where the event occurs becomes a place transformed. 

This way of working has a long history, with California-based artist Suzanne Lacey being among the earlier and most noted of these publicly engaged artists.  Here in Chicago Theaster Gates continues that history and tradition in a very interesting and provocative ways. Most recently Gates did a series of performances called "Temple Exercises" that stitched together a wide range of Chicago institutions, communities and audiences that otherwise would probably not have mingled, starting with the Museum of Contemporary Art in the downtown (and upscale) Streeterville neighborhood, then moving on to the club Sonoteque on West Chicago Avenue as well as the Little Black Pearl Theater in Kenwood and Shine King, a working shoe shine stand on the West Side where Gates gets his own shoes shined. In each case Gates (who has degrees in both art and urban planning) crafted a kind of socially engaged ritual performance for a diverse audience of people from each and all of those respective neighborhoods along with others. The shifting social locations and the assumptions about who inhabits those spaces and not others is something that Gates challenges so effectively in his performance and architecturally based works.

 It is easy to forget how insular the shapes of our lives can be. In a city like Chicago, which is often described as "the most segregated large American city", this isolation is often taken for granted and assumed to be part of the social norm. City and towns are, of course, socially created and orchestrated places, with a good deal of social engineering going into determining who comes to  live where. Museums and galleries are places where we willingly go to contemplate art objects, but it is also meaningful to encounter art in places where we least expect it, and for it to be presented by those we don't always encounter in those places. Artists like Theaster Gates remind us that art can be not only what we see, but can indeed be a more integral part of where and who we are.



Editor's Note: Theaster Gates does an extremely wide range of work, to the extent that I had to double check Gates' website to make sure it was all done by the same person. He made the pot above, and in this lecture at the Art Institute  (audio) he discusses how the pottery went from creating a form, to becoming an exercise in smashing pottery and destroying one's own artwork.


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  • Hi Dawoud,
    Nice article on my ex - studio mate. Theaster is rare indeed and I think you caught the essence of his work in words. Very hard to do.

    I have enjoyed seeing his work unfold and have tried to attend as much of his work/events as possible. Always a grand way to spend a few hours in this overstimulating city.

    Keep writing.


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