WATERVILLE, Maine — In 2017, when Theaster Gates had a solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., he brought with him as much of Chicago as he could. In the gallery, Gates placed a hunk of gymnasium floor cobbled from the ruins of razed schools; one side of the peaked slate roof of the city’s demolished St. Laurence Church, sifted from its debris; and a watchtower-like structure filled with back issues of the defunct Ebony magazine, a flagship of the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing, which for 70 years had chronicled black life in America with a celebratory and sympathetic approach.
Gates has always packed along the particulars of place anywhere he goes. It’s a gentle subversion of his own design: By committing to the particulars of an impoverished neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Gates creates a cultural Trojan horse, which he uses to infiltrate the halls of official culture with marginalized histories otherwise doomed to fade away to nothing. But Johnson Publishing, which also published Jet magazine, holds for him something particularly dear: a record of the full range of American black experience — its triumphs, its trials, its cultural highs and often brutal lows — made for a black audience, a culture in conversation with itself.
That’s what makes Gates’s project at the Colby Museum of Art so deeply, well, Gatesian: Inside the museum’s lobby, big heavy banks of shelving in deep brown walnut order the space with their broad expanse. They’re filled with heavy wooden frames that hold a specific slice of the Johnson Publishing archives: 3,000 photographs and page mockups from Ebony and Jet through the years, specifically of women. White gloves sit in a box nearby, a tacit invitation to the public to pull the frames out and position them on the cabinet top for viewing. Be careful, the whole affair seems to say. This is important.
It’s the first public airing-out in America of a foundational gift for Gates. In 2015, when Jet was shut down for good and Johnson went bankrupt, he arranged for its archive to be transferred to his Stony Island Arts Bank, a broken-down Chicago bank building Gates had refurbished as a community and cultural hub. It gave Stony Island’s best intentions the sudden heft of cultural history, rooted deeply in its hometown.