Culture: High & Low With Carolina A. Miranda
Q&A

Artist Theaster Gates on W.E.B. DuBois and what Donald Trump doesn't get about Chicago

Artist Theaster Gates likes to refer to himself as a potter. But the one-time urban planning student is perhaps best known for a long-running work of social practice on the South Side of Chicago. 

There he has transformed a series of neglected buildings into centers of culture. These range from a space that screens films with African American themes to a once-abandoned but still graceful neoclassical bank (sold to him for $1 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel) that now maintains a vast library of historic black publications accessed by scholars and even musicians, including Corinne Bailey Rae and Meshell Ndegeocello.

This gives him a nuanced perspective on the issues of crime, education and neighborhoods that many, including the new president, don’t see. 

“I think that what Trump is indicating is that he’s unwilling to look at the preconditions that created this thing — from segregation to the lack of equity and job opportunities to schooling and healthcare,” Gates says when asked about Trump’s tweet on Tuesday promising to “send in the Feds” if the “horrible ‘carnage’” of Chicago’s shootings and killings doesn’t stop. “My nephew in Chicago can get arrested for five years for marijuana and a white man in Aspen, Colo., can make millions selling it.”

The art Gates creates often starts with materials he harvests from the Chicago spaces he’s reclaimed — be they assemblages made out of decommissioned firehouse equipment or abstracted collages rendered from old gym flooring. And they have been shown in institutions around the world, including the Fondazione Prada in Milan, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Now Gates has returned to Los Angeles with a new exhibition, “But to Be a Poor Race,” inspired by a cache of Jet magazines from his Stony Island Arts Bank and a series of curious charts created by sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, who mapped black life in the United States.

The original DuBois charts, made in collaboration with his students at Atlanta University in 1900, examined everything from urban migration to taxable property owned by African Americans in Georgia.

These early infographics, intended for an exhibition about African American life at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, were more than simple data sets. DuBois interpreted his figures as fantastical paintings, featuring whorls of bold color presented in visually engaging ways. (Imagine Kandinsky as a statistician.)

Using the DuBois designs, Gates has created a series of new paintings and installation objects for the show at Regen Projects in Hollywood. It is his first solo exhibition at Regen, which now represents Gates exclusively in the United States.

In this lightly edited conversation, Gates took time to chat via telephone about why he finds DuBois’ data maps so intriguing, how L.A. played a vital role in his career as an artist, and more  about President Trump’s dark view of Chicago.

How did you first come across DuBois’ statistical charts?

Around 2012, there was a really important series of seminars happening on W.E.B. DuBois at a number of East Coast schools. I was asked to make a work responding to DuBois. I decided I would take portions of one of his speeches, and I would improvise my own speech so that I was, in a way, channeling DuBois. In doing that research, I came across these statistical drawings and they were so unbelievable.

What struck you about them?

I realized that he was teaching [his students] art as he was teaching them statistical mapping. He was talking about how people were moving to cities and owning land and implements, mapping black asset ownership, and he could do this empirical work with such flair. DuBois was maybe one of the earliest black contemporary artists.

In your paintings, you replicate DuBois’ fields of color, but you don’t reveal their context. Why strip the data away?

This is where my conversation with abstraction begins. By taking the information away, I get to create an abstraction that makes people think about data: “A black man with a show about data? That must be about killings.”

In this situation, people are given an opportunity to imagine their own content — they can layer themselves upon my abstractions.

It’s a commitment to painting, too. It’s the way that [Mark] Rothko or Romare Bearden, how they would have talked about abstraction: “The world is too complicated or too ugly — I don’t have to represent the war. I don’t have to represent that verbatim.” My job is to show people a possibility. If we have a willingness to look at this statistical drawing, we might ask, what could change? What else is possible? 

What makes these pieces significant in this political climate?

The show was intentionally not wearing politics on its sleeve. It’s simply responding to the energy of this moment. For me, on the South Side and the West Side of Chicago, whether it’s the last political moment or this one, it’s hard to say that the poorest in America benefited or lost anything from either. Really, the anxiety is in the middle.

What I realized is that this is a demonstration, this is an opportunity that one has to keep going to work — you gotta keep working. The show says, “I am going to continue to go to work. I’m going to continue to make art. I’m going to continue to sing. I’m going to keep working as a protest.”

A number of sculptures in the exhibition employ old copies of Jet magazine. How did all of those magazines end up in your hands?

Linda Johnson Rice, the CEO of Johnson Publishing [which published Jet], she came to my home. She saw that I had a lot of books and said, “I have some books — my father’s books. Why don’t you come down to our building and check ‘em out?” So I went to Johnson Publishing on Michigan Avenue and the seventh floor was their library with 26,000 books in it.

I said, “Yeah, I would love these books.” She said, “You can have them.” I had just acquired a bank and the bank’s principal mission would be to activate and give a life to these books that hadn’t really been seen by the public.

She also gave me the bound periodicals that consisted of the entire cannon of Johnson Publishing: Jet, as well as Black World and Negro Digest, Ebony, Ebony Jr. and Tan, a magazine for lighter-skinned women. They produced over 26 publications. Negro Digest is like a black intellectual journal. John Johnson [the founder of Johnson Publishing] was commissioning the only black PhDs from Harvard and Yale. The young Richard Wright was making essays for Jet and Ebony in 1951 or ’52.

Why are these publications so important to you?

I thought John Johnson was one of the most significant early black entrepreneurs, especially around publishing and the black image. He was doing something that advanced black people in a way that made good business sense. He was the man. As [the company] was trying to figure out their next life, I wanted to say that Johnson Publishing matters. I was trying to demonstrate that these archives had a life.

For me, this was a way of engaging the archive, of taking it out of the sphere of entrepreneurship and putting it back in the sphere of cultural action. Now we have artists like Corinne Bailey Rae and Meshell Ndegeocello and they are making new music out of their research in the library. 

For this show, you’ve taken these copies of Jet and written poems on their spine: “Not only pentatonic / Black Harmonics / Gallowed / Clay Body / Dark and Lovely / Fabulaxer.” I’d love to know how you ended up with “pentatonic” and “Fabulaxer” in a single poem.

My poem is a kind of a black index to the content inside each bound volume. Each has 12 to 20 weekly editions of Jet magazine. I would simply peruse through each bound volume, kind of waiting for information to pop out at me. In a way I’m making concrete poetry, but my field is 2½ to 3 inches — that’s all the space I got.

And Fabulaxer was a black woman’s perm relaxer. People talk about the fact that I like found things. But it’s not “found” things that I’m preoccupied with. It’s that as people become more middle class, they become less interested in using words like “Fabulaxer.” I’m exhuming language. I’m trying to make it high language so that we’re not afraid to use these words.

You began your art career with pottery. I understand that you were inspired by important Southern California ceramicists such as Peter Voulkos and Paul Soldner. Why were they significant to you?

I came across their work because of my undergraduate ceramics teacher Ingrid Lilligren, my only formal art teacher. She took the entire class to Los Angeles — it was ‘93 or ‘94 — and I stayed at the Brewery [the artist studio complex east of downtown]. And that was the thing that made me want to study art. Up until then I was an urban planning student.

[Ingrid] studied under Soldner and she knew all of those ceramics guys — like Akio Takamori, God rest his soul. It was there that I learned about the world of ceramics — and that led me to Africa, to India and, ultimately, I studied in Japan.

I met Soldner once. And I saw Voulkos throwing from a stage. I was really impressed by these kind of conceptual uses of craft. I don’t call it “ceramics.” I talk about the material. I’m a clay artist.

The show at Regen features clay works by you that resemble masks. What inspired these?

For the last maybe two years. I’ve been asking myself questions about the power inherent in fetish objects and how can I access that power. I’m interested and occupied with black power. Not Black Panther power — but black spiritual and religious power. And the masks, they represent demonstrations of that power. 

Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump talked about Chicago as a symbol of urban malady.  What’s your view of his view?

One thing is true: That the white American world has wanted to believe that the black male is savage and nonhuman since the beginning of the founding of this country. The language has changed, the phrases — whether it’s the “war on drugs” or “war on crime” or whether they’re using the language of antiterrorism. So one has to recognize that the mechanism is not a new one at all.

I think that the problem is that in the absence of a certain kind of black leadership, we fight each other instead of fighting the system. And I want to implicate myself in this: I cannot afford to just be an artist in this moment. I have to use my art and my brain to try to imagine solutions not only for the museum, but for the city — for black people. I can’t afford to lock myself in the studio.

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“Theaster Gates: But to Be a Poor Race”

Where: Regen Projects, 6750 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood

When: Through Feb. 25

Info: regenprojects.com

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carolina.miranda@latimes.com

@cmonstah

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