In the Tower: Theaster Gates: The Minor Arts
Theaster Gates (b. 1973) weaves together personal and cultural narratives, creating objects that speak to a particular time and place, and to the arc of American history. Popularly known for large-scale projects that transform vacant buildings into work of art, Gates has said that he is motivated by a desire to “reenvision place. . . not just as an art project, but as a way of living.”
The Minor Arts imagines a world in which up is down, the past is present, and the marginalized becomes central. Salvaging discarded materials found in and around his native Chicago, Gates responds to the decline of urban institutions and traditions, and resurrects them as art. At the same time, he draws from African sculpture and unheralded forms of craft and labor, including the homegrown traditions of roofing and ceramics. In one work, Gates brings the slate roof of a local decommissioned church down to eye level, making it into a wall, part fortress and part mosaic. In another, he scrambles the wood from the gym floors of shuttered high schools, giving it the staccato rhythm of geometric abstraction and transporting it from the arena of sport to art. Repurposing old copies of Ebony magazine, a seminal publication of African American life and culture, the artist constructs a towering library. And he creates a landscape painting out of roofer’s tar, mopping the viscous black material onto yellow Naugahyde to form a vibrant sunset. The Minor Arts reorients the world around us, placing invisible labor, forgotten stories, and overlooked craft at its center. Shuffling existing hierarchies, Gates gives new form to the outdated and the left-behind, and stakes a claim for the artfulness of the everyday.