In the span of a few days earlier this month, Theaster Gates was walking through his new gallery show just hours before it opened, explaining to visiting friends and journalists the thinking behind, for instance, one of its centerpieces, his reclaimed neon sign from a Rothschild Liquors store to which he has added the neon legend, “Mama’s Milk.”
“It’s less of a critique and more of a kind of acceptance of urban space,” the artist said. “The presence of the liquor store predated crack,” he said, and its offerings have been, in a sense, “the lifeblood, the milk, of immigrant communities and then black and brown communities over the last 75 years” -- emblematic of “the need to have our sins washed in one way or another.”
And then Gates was at the Chicago Transit Authority’s newly rehabbed transportation hub at 95th and State Streets, standing alongside Mayor Rahm Emanuel as they introduced Gates’ art works made for the $280 million station reimagining. They are “america america,” two massive fabrications of decommissioned firehose and red paint that hang on a wall and, more radically, “An Extended Song of Our People (AESOP),” a deejay booth that, in Gates’ vision, will give daily commutes through the station a soundtrack of, perhaps, house music in the evening, maybe some jazz, like Sonny Rollins, in the morning.
“It’s an interesting kind of art intervention within the station so that it's not just business as usual and standard ceramics and standard tile and concrete,” he said. Instead of that, he realized “there could be this moment where we celebrate (the former Hyde Park record store) Dr. Wax and the history of albums on the South Side and then just kind of have really good music while riders are waiting on their trains.”
These two stops, the gallery and the CTA station, represented some of the many hats Gates wears. In one of them, he’s a community builder, reclaiming unwanted materials, rehabbing spaces, turning an abandoned old South Side financial institution into a vibrant, art-and-music-filled community hub, the Stony Island Arts Bank. In another, he’s a social critic, holding forth on the different ways his native Chicago treats its white and brown people. And in yet another, he’s a fine artist of increasing international reputation; just before coming back to Chicago to put up “Every Square Needs a Circle” at Gray Warehouse, (2044 W. Carroll Ave.), he was busy mounting “Amalgam,” his first solo museum exhibition in France, up through May 12 at Paris’ Palais de Tokyo.