Theaster Gates: Amalgam

Theaster Gates (b.1973) is no conventional artist, said Rachel Campbell- Johnston in The Times. A painter, a film-maker, a sculptor, a musician, an architect and a social activist, the Chicagobased polymath has created a “compelling new model of artmaking” that often explores the dark history of racial inequality in America. For this new exhibition, Gates has focused on the story of Malaga, a “tiny island” off the coast of Maine on which “a colony of black and white people” coexisted in “mixedheritage harmony” from the mid-19th century. However, its existence was an affront to the authorities on the mainland, where racial segregation was enforced – and in 1912, Malaga’s residents were evicted to make way for a nevercompleted tourist resort; even the graves were removed. They were left without “homes, jobs or any form of support”. Some ended up in institutions. A century on, Gates examines the plight of the island’s inhabitants with a display that encompasses film, sculpture, installation and archival material. The result is a fascinating show that confirms him as a singularly “ambitious” and “determined” artist.

Gates’s first British show features some “powerful, eye-catching stuff”, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. In one room, we see an “enormous, wedge-shaped sculpture, clad with slate roofing tiles”, memorialising Malaga’s demolished homes. “It has a sombre, funerary presence evoking an ancient ziggurat or pyramid.” Nearby is a neon sign flashing the island’s name, representing what it might have looked like had it ever become a tourist destination. Everything is “faultlessly executed and beautifully appointed”. If I have a criticism of Gates, “it is that he is too elegant, his sensibility too refined for his own good”. Given the subject matter, it all seems rather too tasteful, or, if you were being unkind, just “a touch bland”.

I disagree, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. Gates endows his art with a remarkable “visual poetry”. One highlight consists of “a forest of wooden plinths”, each topped by an African mask bearing “expressions of calm and anguish”. Better still is a video work that presents various scenes of “black melding into white”: a kissing mixed-race couple; a black dancer removing his white shirt; and a group of mixed-race children grinning through a “wall of innocence”. Gates’s message becomes all the more powerful when we consider that Liverpool’s docks, visible through the gallery’s windows, once controlled most of the British slave trade. This is a powerful and quietly disturbing show.