Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates
© Theaster Gates, photo: Ben Westoby, courtesy White Cube Theaster Gates, 'My Labor Is My Protest'

Theaster Gates has become hot property of late, making a name for himself through the unusual route of urban redevelopment – transforming deprived inner-city properties in his native Chicago into artistic community spaces. For his first UK solo show, though, he emphasises the material side of his practice, exploring connotations of particular objects and substances: predominantly fire-trucks – heroic, epic, macho – and tar – tacky, abject and, most pertinently, black (Gates is African-American).

A yellow fire-truck is parked in the gallery's forecourt, daubed with black spots – inside there's a video documenting the work's creation in a garage, accompanied by Gates's gospel band, the Black Monks Of Mississippi, singing a plaintive lament about manual labour. The sense is of black history and identity as ritualised performance – a set of reference points to be invoked and reimagined. Yet it also feels slightly forced, too obviously codified – particularly his paintings using tar and matted roofing paper as signifiers for black skin and hair.

His best works ditch allegory altogether, the vast, floor-to-ceiling archive of books on black culture, compiled by Ebony magazine, is now a functioning library for gallery-goers. Along with the make-up and cosmetic sessions that visitors can also book, it's ultimately this sort of direct public engagement that is far and away Gates's most striking, successful strategy.


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