Concomitant with Under the Big Black Sun at Geffen Contemporary (which I wrote about here) is an exhibit by Theaster Gates called An Epitaph for Civil Rights. Tethering this installation to events during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign in Birmingham in 1963 where demonstrators were hazed by police and fire departments, Gates achieves an exquisite tautness with content and the visual. Using simple and unpretentious materials that reference that civil rights confrontation—lengths of fire hose, fragments of urban living, remnants of where lives have been lived—Gates achieves an aesthetic that I have come to term “potent minimalism”: visuals that are elemental, elegant and clean while also offering an evocative and compelling narrative. Walking into An Epitaph for Civil Rights you get it immediately, and the right response seems to just experience the work in reverential silence.
Gates is on the cover of the December issue of Art in America, interviewed by Lilly Wei about his many-faceted approach to his work. I first learned about his Chicago reclamation initiative, The Dorchester Project, at the Whitney Biennial last year. Gates studied urban planning and ceramics as an undergraduate at Iowa State, then earned a masters in fine arts and religious studies at the University of Cape Town. His work touches on all of those interests and feels enriched because of his broad-based background. He is now the Director of Arts Program Development and Faculty Artist in Residence at the University of Chicago.
This raises an old conundrum for me. I used to believe I could pick out the paintings in an exhibit that were done by women artists. It’s a conceit perhaps and one that touches on a highly volatile topic that burned brightly and fiercely a few years ago. Are there gender differences in visual language and expression? As we explore the biology of gender, more questions are emerging rather than fewer so this is still an undetermined issue (and a topic I am not keen to unpack here.) But recently I have expanded my visual sympathies to another subgroup, an ever increasing coterie of young contemporary African American male artists. Some of my favorite viewing experiences recently have been with works by Mark Bradford, Leonardo Drew, Glen Ligon, Sanford Biggers, Kerry James Marshall, Theaster Gates. Ready for more, more.
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