The Space Between: Artist Theaster Gates bridges the gap between culture and community

Theaster Gates, courtesy of the artist
“Boss!” Theaster Gates shouts in a pointedly servile tone. “I’m gonna shine some shoes.” The audience at Little Black Pearl on January 10 squirms a bit. “Boss!” he repeats, scanning the room for shoes to shine. The athletic Gates assumes the role of an overly-solicitous bootblack circa mid-twentieth century, when African-American men with brushes, rags, and wooden boxes were a common presence at train stations and in busy lobbies. Gates hones in on a pair belonging to a young black man in the front row who is, literally, well-heeled. He kneels over the leather shoes and begins to buff. He sings as he shines. “Sweet Jesus, tell him where I am.” The artist’s body is now low to the floor. Necks crane in the audience, who sit in a horseshoe around the spare performance space. A low, melodic drone begins as three singers, two guitarists, a bassist, and percussionist add layers of rising and falling sound. Gates starts counting: “One, two, three,” to the musicians, as if they were calling and responding in church. This music, Gates explains, is church music, meant to move through the spirit. The voices of the ensemble swell from near silence to fortissimo as Gates continues to work on the shoes. When finished, the piece is met not by applause, but by the quiet of deep breathing in the audience and the remaining musical vibrations that hang in the air.

“The shoe shine is a metaphor for my labor in the art world, labor that can sometimes feel fruitless. It’s also about dignity, humility, and poverty. I wanted to talk about those themes without explicitly saying them,” Theaster–everyone calls him Theaster–reflects after the performance. “I want to embrace all those cultural centers that have been dear to me.” Shoe Shine King, a shoe shine shop on the city’s Far West Side, is a place that Theaster holds close to his heart. People from various flavors in the city’s cultural stew come to the small shop for a shoe shine or repair. Like Theaster himself, Shine King bridges–and engages–parts of the city’s cultural makeup that might not otherwise come together. The high meets the low there. Drug-dealers stand next to the most affluent, culturally-connected West Side black elite. “People go to Shine King to reconnect. It’s a place with cultural importance equal to the MCA or Little Black Pearl.”

It’s no wonder Theaster identifies with Shine King, since he himself has his feet in many worlds. He is a potter, woodworker, performer, teacher, urban planner, and University of Chicago arts coordinator. His performance earlier this month at Little Black Pearl is part of a three-week-long whirlwind of citywide events, done in conjunction with Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, called “Theaster Gates: Temple Exercises.” For the MCA program, Gates built a “temple” in the museum that melds Eastern and Western influences. In “Temple Exercises,” Theaster explores and encourages a dialogue between African-American and Japanese tradition. Theaster’s ability to traverse such broad terrain allows him to creatively match institutions with artists. Arts organizations turn to Theaster to bring pairings that might not otherwise come naturally.

One organization that has helped foster Theaster’s work is Little Black Pearl, a nonprofit arts promotion and education center on 47th Street and Greenwood Avenue. Monica Haslip, founder and director of Little Black Pearl, has known Theaster since she began Little Black Pearl ten years ago, first running it out of her basement on Drexel Avenue. The initial mission of Little Black Pearl was to teach young people about art entrepreneurship, and Haslip ran programs in several Chicago Public Schools. Over time, the mission grew and so did the need for space. In 2005, the organization moved to its 47th Street home, which takes up much of a city block. There is now a retail store, coffee shop, large performance space, and ceramics studio.

The expanded vision, according to Haslip, is to encourage and broaden the role of art in community development. Little Black Pearl works closely with Quad Communities Development Corporation, a local organization formed in 2003 that is devoted to fostering culturally rich, economically vibrant, and diverse neighborhoods in the areas around Hyde Park. With QCDC’s help, Little Black Pearl has brought art to a number of redevelopment projects on the South Side. The partnership of the two organizations has allowed music, dance, performance, and visual arts to have not only a cultural impact but an economic one as well. That’s where Theaster fits in. “I live between worlds, acting as a bridge. I look beyond the physical needs of a community. I want to find the meaty, social-structural needs of a neighborhood. I can ask what a community needs as developer, and I can answer as an artist,” he explains. Much of his local neighborhood work is in conjunction with an evolving network of organizations committed to wedding arts and community development.

Theaster’s relationship with Little Black Pearl is a unique one, according to Haslip. “As we were expanding our vision, Theaster seemed to be on a parallel track. His work is provocative and holds a strong place in the community. He is influenced by the contemporary art world and has the ability to broaden a smaller community’s thinking about different kinds of art.” This kind of thinking was integral to the expanding work of Little Black Pearl.

Theaster began as a ceramicist, but his work quickly expanded after his 2007 exhibit, “Plate Convergences,” at the Hyde Park Art Center. Theaster created fifty different clay plates for the exhibit that were both sculptural display and functional dinner plates for a staged and videotaped sit-down dinner. The dinner event served a mix of soul food and sushi, and encouraged guests from many different backgrounds to engage in conversation. “Plate Convergences” helped me make the transition between pure object making to situational practices, experiential, that a large public could experience,” Theaster explains. It was after this exhibit that Theaster began to move into his current projects. Continuing this work to unite East and West, Theaster moved into an exploration of the institutions that have truly impacted his life, and started to bring them together.

“He creates art that one can come to with an individual perspective. That is his greatest asset,” says Haslip. Theaster’s work has always encouraged many different perspectives to come together. “He brings tangibility to the avant-garde world of art,” says Haslip. And it is his current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art that has brought the avant-garde so at home under the roof of the MCA to Little Black Pearl and communities on the South and West Sides.

Over the years, Little Black Pearl and the MCA have begun to work together through youth performance. Their mission has been to bring the world of high art to Chicago neighborhoods and to highlight the importance of each respective community to the other. The growing relationship between these two art institutions is an important factor in the mission that Little Black Pearl and Theaster share: to build and foster a workforce development program for cultural workers.

Surprises filled the January 10 concert, an extension of Theaster’s MCA exhibit, “Temple Exercises.” Theaster performed with the Black Monks of Mississippi, his Chicago-based music ensemble who explore the traditions of Black Baptist music and Easter chant, and a gathering of guest musicians. Among the surprise guests was Andrew Bird, the Chicago-based composer and instrumentalist who has created an avant-garde musical genre of his own. There, too, was LeRoy Bach, who left the band Wilco in 2004 and has had his own varied musical and stage life since. “It was really exciting for me to have these well-known indie rockers play with the Black Monks. It added a quality of monasticism,” Theaster reflects. The evening’s performance began with the throaty chants of three singers–all of whom participate in the Chicago jazz, gospel, and R&B scenes–and Theaster himself. While the music began in the vein of Eastern religious chants, it later moved into the hypnotic intonations of traditional black spirituals. “It was amazing to see this ensemble of disparate musicians take one journey together and explore this kind of music,” Theaster said afterward. It was moving for the audience, too. At the end of the performance, when the audience’s silence finally lifted, the room erupted in applause. Those clapping did not just look toward the stage–they looked to each other as well. They had been through a journey, led across a new bridge built by Theaster Gates.

Temple Exercises. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. Through February 1. Tuesday, 10am-8pm; Wednesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm. (312)280-2660. mcachicago.org
The Black Monks of Mississippi. Museum of Contemporary Art, January 20. Tuesday 6-7pm.
Shoe shining event. Shoe Shine King, 338 N. Central Ave. January 24. Saturday, 10am-noon. (773)378-9734. $5 for a shine
Musical performance with DJ Madrid, Eric Williams, Sadie Woods, and Sean Alvarez. Sonotheque, 1444 W. Chicago Ave. January 26. Monday, 8pm-2am. (312)226-7600. $5. 21+. sonotheque.net