Impressions of Black Vessel
Theaster Gates’ solo show at Gagosian Gallery W24th Street.
A common chord strikes through four separate spaces, held together by a material.
The first space feels almost off to the side, it’s the only room with a view to the outside and the only deadend, forcing you to enter and exit through the same opening.
As you enter across from a glass roll gate, you’re flanked by two walls, each containing three clay brick fired experiments, Brick Reliquaries (2020) — collaborations between maker and matter. Each starts as a composition of anticipation, set up inside the kiln, then by over-firing the bricks, Gates pushes the clay to self-combust thereby releasing its inner voice. The released energy alters the compositions, fusing elements and creating new metallic surfaces. The tactility of these cracked surfaces have an ancient aura about them. Looking closely in on them, they start to transform into maps somewhere between geological conditions and celestial constellations. Speaking to the connection between the deepest part of Earth and the far reaches of space, drawing us into a conversation about depths, dreams, and the transformative possibilities of heat.
On the last wall, between the Brick Reliquaries, hangs a massive painting, with a small free standing sculpture on the floor off-centered in front of it. The sculpture seems stuck in the floor, so only the top of a sphere is now visible — is this globe rising or sinking?
The painting is constructed from large sheets of membrane adhered by tar to the frame. The seams of the sheets are concealed under horizontal strips, evoking the sense of truck trailers — enormous vessels constantly on the move, transforming themselves and the places they arrive with their cargo.
On top of this maroon background are a few salvaged pieces of black roofing membranes adhered at the bottom. Are these pieces intruding on the object or do they grow from it? If enough time passes, will they eventually engulf the entire surface?
The large painting is a foretelling of what’s to come.
Through a narrow corridor, you enter at the corner a big room with six large paintings and one brick sculpture on an oversized low timber platform, floating in the center. The entire room is evenly lit, creating a strange flatness to the space, whereby the six paintings seem to hover just off the walls.
The minimalist compositions continue the language established in the first painting, a formal background of membranes in either a horizontal or vertical seam orientation onto which salvaged, highly tactile black roof parts are attached. These act as figures on a plane or mountains in a landscape. The irregular edges of slow pulling tar, conjure being ripped with great force from roofs, transformed by the situation they now find themselves in. The horizontal of the roof floating down to become an extruded window on the wall.
The paintings are imposing, each square or rectangle about 7 to 10’ long and 5” deep. The surfaces wrapped around their edges, so the pieces read as solid blocks on the wall, or roof elements stacked for transportation, ready to go to site. Their sheer massiveness confronts us, as if they absorb time, and forces us to slow down in their presence. They ask us to consider if painting can also be sculpture? And whether we need to make a distinction between the two at all. Why are we called to name things, and in which way does our naming of things bestove value onto them? These are also oil paintings, but yet so new to us — so different from the oil paintings in the collections of The Met or the MoMA. They ask us to consider how we assign value to different materials and to the handling of these materials — the mastering of them. What’s the difference between the painter and the roofer?
One painting breaks from this composition, a field of bright blue meets a field of red behind four pieces of black membrane forming an uneven T through the center of the painting. Underneath the entire composition runs a fat horizontal line, only visible as a disturbance to the field, a push from underneath that shows up as a presence on the surface. Reminding us that these are skins. There’s a space inside the paintings, connecting them to the empty vessel sitting in the middle of the room, like a wireframe waiting for a skin to be draped over it. A suspended situation, almost a fortelling. The sculpture as storyteller in the center of the space, addressing the paintings and bringing us back to our own skin.
Moving through a narrow and tall opening diagonally from where you entered, the next room is as long as the painting room was wide, but much narrower. It’s filled with large clay Vessels (2019–2020), dispersed on the floor or on trimmed timber plinths. Mostly within a dark gray and bronze tonality, a few white-glazed vessels stick out, while one bright blue holds the center of the space. Here are chimneys, spheres, and balloons that look like they are trying to escape the ground — one wonders if they came through the ground? Here’s droplets and organic forms that have been frozen in mid transformation while taking shape. They defy scale, at times feeling like upsized inhabitants of a microcosm, only to shift the next moment and seem like downsized entities from the cosmos beyond; being in this narrow space, you are constantly aware of your body in relation to theirs. As you move through it, the entire room stands in the perpetual transformation of time and scale.
Exiting opposite, to the largest room which has a small step back at the entrance, revealing the 5” deep edge of the new brick skin that lines the entire room, from floor to the transom at the top, the last brick is flipped up as to crowning the wall. Have you just stepped inside a membrane, a Black Vessel (2020)? The wrapping of the room pulls your attention inward, and you realize you’re in the gut of it.
Two main constructions occupy the space: an inside-out tower and halfway built wall. The tower, New Egypt (2017), is a series of large open wooden bookshelves, wrapped around a stone fragment. The rough shelves contain the entire printed volume (1945–2015) of Ebony, the pioneering Black culture magazine, rebound in green, red, black, gray. All facing inward, closing in on themselves. A singular lightbulb hangs from the ceiling, illuminating the raw wood structure from within. The only place to take the whole thing in is from the threshold; once inside, you’re too close to see it. Here from the threshold, you feel the verticality of the structure, pulls you upward and suspends off the horizontal.
Opposite in the room is Walking Prayer (2018–2020): two sections of Carnegie cast-iron bookshelf units are placed in line with each other. One is filled with 2600 black bound books bearing gold titles, the other left empty exposing the structure.
All the books are historical, published volumes on the Black experience, and they have been rebound, creating a space between the book’s new skin and its existing interior. The new titles while referring to the existing books are not true to original names, though Gates has aligned a few. When the titles are taken together and read as you would a page, they manifest a physical poem built in space. You are moving along the lines of books, not in search of any particular title any longer but to follow the text. As your body moves along the rows of books, you start to embody the poem. Reading across the line of books, I come to realize that we are all vessels in our lives — each of us holds a unique collection of books within which together, assembles a unique story that only we have read. What does this story tell of you? The power of a poem is its ability to contain multitudes, to contain contradictions, and to change over time. As each of us can only read a finite amount of books in our lifetimes, it seems imperative to consider the provenance and breadth of perspectives we each consume to inform our understanding over time. What poem could be created from the books you have read?
And then the single chord from a Hammond B3 organ sounds again, Chorus (2020). It has done this every 7 minutes since you entered the gallery, four rooms back. It starts as a faint noticing too far away to judge if it’s inside these walls or streetnoise mixing in. Then it gets louder as you move through the rooms, until you round Walking Prayer and stand in front of it, the back panel removed to reveal its inner workings — showing you the mechanics of its voice. As a cleansing sound, vibrating off the bricks, revealing the silence of the space. And with this chord still in your ears, you exit through the backdoor, and step out of the vessel into the space of the city.