Theaster Gates: The Minor Arts
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., through Sept. 4
Theaster Gates’ work “buzzes with the restless energy of a social worker driven by a mission,” said Kriston Capps in the Washington City Paper. To fully understand this 43-year-old art-world star, you need to know that he is using the money he makes from art to reclaim abandoned buildings on Chicago’s South Side and turn them into cultural centers and affordable residences. But his small high-profile show at the National Gallery offers a snapshot of the way he operates. One work is composed of the floorboards of a defunct high school’s gym, here “remixed and reordered like a collage,” then hung like a large abstract painting. Elsewhere, a large section of slate roof from a shuttered church rises from floor to ceiling. Nearby, a wooden tower holds bound copies of Ebony magazine’s past issues. Each work reframes some salvaged South Side item as museum-worthy.
The show’s title should be taken with a grain of salt, said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. Gates is not only celebrating the products of manual laborers; he’s suggesting that painting, sculpture, and other traditional fine arts are less useful, “or at least not as important as their institutional overlords might think they are.” Seen up close, the tiles on the roof section are beautiful,“chipped and worn in ways that invite sensuous scrutiny.” What’s more, Gates’ work “mimics the dynamics of colonialism,” impoverishing one place by extracting raw materials that are converted in another place to something more valuable. Gates, who’s clearly conflicted about his role in the whole process, never resolves one looming question: “Is it possible to be at once an insider and an outsider, to work within and critique a system at the same time?”