Theaster Gates has cut a path somewhere between the West African traditions that his work resembles and the European Modernists who also drew from that tradition. His sculpture does not offer the ethereal transcendence of African pieces like the Great Bieri at the Met, but it does address the spiritual life of his community. It does not offer the formal power of the early Modern masters, but every piece is strong. He is not ambivalent about space; he seizes and manipulates it. Like European artists of the past two centuries, his work does not serve a social, transformational, or religious function. It has been directed toward sophisticated collectors of contemporary art in a two-year project in collaboration with this upscale gallery. Every piece has been carefully mounted on a well-chosen plinth of wood or stone.
Despite that beautiful presentation, the show offers a bleak view of contemporary Black America. At its most hopeful, there are youthful, though disembodied, heads. Facial scarification expresses wide-eyed curiosity. At its most discouraging, there are the oppressive qualities of roof tar and chains. One slouching figure, his waist pulled down to his knees, has been wrapped in a dark fabric shroud and buried in mud that still clings to it. It is a sharp portrayal of lost identity similar to that expressed by several Afro-Cuban artists in a current show at the DuSable Museum.
Between those extremes, subtle differences in facial expressions offer a variety of neighborhood folk like the menacing old codger or the many-faced woman. There is also a kind of stiff, androgynous full figure that’s about to awkwardly fall off its 19th-century pedestal, and emerges again, nearby, in cookie-cutter multiples from a thick chunk of clay. What we don’t see are representations of brilliant, joyful, or balanced individuals. Theaster Gates’ figures will never walk the vibrant city streets of Romare Bearden or dance in the nightclubs of Archibald Motley. They cannot rise above their circumstances. Descendant rather than transcendent, the installation sinks beneath the present into the horrible depths of the past. There are no success stories here, other than the project’s highly inventive aestheticization of failure. (Chris Miller)
Through November 20 at Richard Gray Gallery, 875 North Michigan
Though edited and approved, the above was pulled from publication.
No explanation was offered, but one might guess that something like "political correctness" was at play.
The exhibit, as well as my review, involves the kind of racial politics that are so important in the contentious 2016 U.S. presidential campaign that ends next Tuesday.
The following line may have been judged too problematic:
"the installation sinks beneath the present into the horrible depths of the past."
Below, the editor and I discuss it:
Anyone who pays attention to the news would understand that the present is just as rife with objectifying violence against black bodies as there were in the "horrible depths of the past." To deny this is to be complicit in the prevailing racism of our time.
I certainly agree that police need to be better vetted and trained - but I do not agree with an ideology that equates trigger-happy police with the institutionalized Jim Crow, lynching, and constitutionally established slavery of the past.
I subscribe to the idea that mass black incarceration, racially biased policing, and deeply entrenched social-economic disparity between black and white communities is effectively a new Jim Crow, complete with the legal protections and violence of the old ways.