Airport, please! heading to London for two favorite experiences: Theaster Gates at the Serpentine Gallery

by leslierankowfinearts

Serpentine Pavilion
Regents Park, London

Two of the LRFA  blog’s favorite habits in the city of London have coalesced prompting a flight to my second favorite city. Walking through Regent’s Park past the Queen’s Rose Garden to see the just opened Black Chapel, the commission the compelling artist, Theaster Gates, realized for the Serpentine Pavilion.

Designed by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, the Serpentine Pavilion 2022 Black Chapel draws inspiration from many of the architectural typologies that ground the artist’s practice.The structure, realised with the support of Adjaye Associates, references the bottle kilns of Stoke-on-Trent, the beehive kilns of the Western United States, San Pietro and the Roman tempiettos, and traditional African structures, such as the Musgum mud huts of Cameroon, and the Kasubi Tombs of Kampala, Uganda. The Pavilion’s circularity and volume echo the sacred forms of Hungarian round churches and the ring shouts, voodoo circles and roda de capoeira witnessed in the sacred practices of the African diaspora.

Black Chapel is a site for contemplation and convening, set within the grounds of Serpentine in Kensington Gardens. The structure’s central oculus emanates a single source of light to create a sanctuary for reflection, refuge and conviviality. The project mirrors the artist’s ongoing engagement with ‘the vessel’ in his studio practice, and with space-making through his celebrated urban regeneration projects.

Drawn to the meditative environment of the Rothko Chapel – which holds fourteen paintings by American artist Mark Rothko in Houston, Texas – Gates has produced a series of new tar paintings specially for Black Chapel. Creating a space that reflects the artist’s hand and sensibilities, seven paintings hang from the interior. In these works, Gates honours his father’s craft as a roofer by using roofing strategies including torch down, a method which requires an open flame to heat material and affix it to a surface.

Theaster Gates: The Question of Clay

Gates’s Serpentine Pavilion 2022 Black Chapel is part of The Question of Clay, a multi-institution project by Theaster Gates taking place in 2021-22 across the Whitechapel Gallery, Serpentine and V&A. The project seeks to investigate the making, labour and production of clay as well as its collecting history, through exhibitions, performance and live interventions with the aim of generating new knowledge, meaning and connections about the material.

Black Vessel
Theaster Gates
Gagosian Gallery

Theaster Gates

A mix of black culture and legacy and the artist’s own practice, he is represented  by the prestigious global Gagosian Gallery. Gates’s first solo exhibition Black Vessel took place in New York at Gagosian, 555 West 24th Street from October 10, 2020- January 23, 2021

I always find myself returning to the vessel. It is part of the intellectual life force of my practice and it precedes all other forms of making.
—Theaster Gates

Gates’s oeuvre is among the most conceptually and materially rich in contemporary art, anchored equally in the canons of art history, the racial ideology of the Black diaspora, and the artist’s own personal history. Through an art practice predicated on cultural reclamation and social empowerment, Gates exchanges and recharges objects and ideas, proposing the artwork as a communicating vessel or sacred reliquary of recollected histories, critical vitality, and shared experience. Traversing a broad range of formal approaches such as painting, sculpture, sound, and performance, as well as the processes of salvaging, archiving, and place making, he delivers penetrating social commentary on labor, material, spiritual capital, and commodity within a close examination of the urban condition.

Grief and Grievance
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

The Brick Reliquaries (2020) are Gates’s latest sculptural experiments. By firing bricks with a strong manganese content to an excessive 2300°F, the known properties of the materials are transformed into the mysteries of heat-based sculpture. In some instances, the material loses its specificity when pushed to such limits; in others, the carbide shelves inside the kiln fuse with the bricks and other sculptural elements that rest on them, becoming host to material transformation.

From February through July, this exhibit coincided with an outstanding exhibit at the the New Museum  “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,”  originally conceived by Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019) for the New Museum, and presented with curatorial support from advisors Naomi Beckwith, Massimiliano Gioni, Glenn Ligon, and Mark Nash. “Grief and Grievance” was intended to be an intergenerational exhibition, bringing together thirty-seven artists working in a variety of mediums who have addressed the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of racist violence experienced by Black communities across America. The exhibition  further considers the intertwined phenomena of Black grief and a politically orchestrated white grievance, as each structures and defines contemporary American social and political life. “Grief and Grievance” includes works encompassing video, painting, sculpture, installation, photography, sound, and performance made in the last decade, along with several key historical works and a series of new commissions created in response to the concept of the exhibition.

Grieve and Grievance
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART: Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America

In 2018, the New Museum invited Okwui Enwezor to organize “Grief and Grievance.” Around that time, Enwezor was also developing a series of public talks for the Alain LeRoy Locke Lectures at Harvard University focused on the intersection of Black mourning and white nationalism in American life as articulated in the work of contemporary Black American artists. The argument put forth in this series–which he unfortunately was unable to deliver–informed the ideas Enwezor would use as the basis for “Grief and Grievance.” Between the fall of 2018 and March 2019, Enwezor tirelessly worked on “Grief and Grievance,” drafting his thesis for the exhibition, compiling lists of artists and artworks, selecting the catalogue contributors, and speaking with many of the invited artists. In January 2019, Enwezor asked the artist Glenn Ligon to serve as an advisor to the exhibition. Given the advanced state of planning and the importance of the exhibition, following Enwezor’s death on March 15, 2019, and with the support of his estate and of many of his friends and collaborators, the New Museum established an advisory team, comprised of longtime collaborators and friends of Enwezor including Glenn Ligon; Mark Nash, Professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz, and co-curator of many of Enwezor’s projects, including The Short Century and Documenta 11; and Naomi Beckwith, the Manilow Senior Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, whom Enwezor had chosen as one of the jurors of his 2015 Venice Biennale. With the assistance of Massimiliano Gioni, Edlis Neeson Artistic Director at the New Museum, this curatorial advisory group worked together to realize and interpret Enwezor’s vision for “Grief and Grievance.” The curatorial advisors and the New Museum also see this exhibition as a tribute to Enwezor’s work and legacy.

Okwui Enwezor

Since he began work on the project, Enwezor had expressed a desire to open the exhibition in proximity to the American presidential election, as a powerful response to a crisis in American democracy and as a clear indictment of Donald Trump’s  politics. Although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the opening of the exhibition, the works included in the exhibition speak powerfully to America’s past, present, and future.