Theaster Gates: Art, lies and pottery

Gates might be known for his real estate projects, yet his first show featured ceramics with a shady back story
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Theaster Gates. Photo by Sara Pooley
Theaster Gates. Photo by Sara Pooley

Theaster Gates is an artist who uses many different media, from ceramics to performance engagement. As this excellent monograph on his life and work demonstrates, he is driven by the ongoing struggle for racial equality in America to apply his art in highly visible ways.

Gates was mentored by Chuck Thurow, an art collector from Chicago who impressed on him the need for transparency in the artistic process. Gates’ first public exhibition, Plate Convergences, at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) in 2007 took this principle to extraordinary degrees – but with a twist in the tale.

 

Smashing exercise (2007) from Plate Convergences by Theaster Gates
Smashing exercise (2007) from Plate Convergences by Theaster Gates

Plate Convergences revolved around a performance in which Gates brought together 100 dinner guests, to whom he served traditional Southern soul food. At the same time, a Mr Yamada from a local Japanese restaurant prepared sushi and sashimi. The food was served up side by side on plates crafted by Gates using ceramic techniques and materials from Itawamba County in Mississippi.

Gates then regaled his audience with the story of how in 1985 he met a master Japanese ceramicist, Shoji Yamaguchi, who had settled in Mississippi after WWII, married a local black woman and civil rights activist, then developed a plate especially suitable for the preferred cuisine of black people. The Yamaguchis developed a convivial dinner table-cum-salon for political discussion and cultural understanding; however, the couple died in a car accident, leaving their pottery collection to their son, who founded the Yamaguchi Institute to carry on his parents’ work.

 

Smashing exercise (2007) from Plate Convergences by Theaster Gates
Smashing exercise (2007) from Plate Convergences by Theaster Gates

Fascinating and moving, a pious saga of cultural collusion; except, it emerged, the story was a fabrication on Gates’ part, a false premise for a gathering. Gates intended to expose the essential artifice of art but also its constructive purpose; through tricksterism, to expose the world as it is rather than as we wish it were.

 

Bitch, I Made this Pot (2013) by Theaster Gates. Buy the print at Artspace
Bitch, I Made this Pot (2013) by Theaster Gates. Buy the print at Artspace

We hope you have enjoyed this brief story on Gates. For greater insight into this important artist's life and work, order a copy of our new Theaster Gates monograph, here. And if you like his take on ceramics, you can buy the print featured above via our partner site, Artspace.

 


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