‘My hope was to strip the material back to its most basic form then call forth the potency of ritual, utility and philosophy and end up at new bodies of work and new ways of thinking about other forms.’
White Cube Mason’s Yard is pleased to present ‘Oh, The Wind Oh, The Wind’, an exhibition of new works by Theaster Gates. Forming part of a multi-venue presentation in London dedicated to Gates’ involvement with clay, it coincides with ‘A Clay Sermon’ at Whitechapel Gallery and a two-year-long research project and intervention with the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection. The full clay project will culminate with a presentation at the Serpentine Pavilion, London, in June 2022.
Treating the medium of clay as an expanded field for enquiry, the exhibition consolidates many of the artist’s thematic preoccupations from the past two decades, and reflects upon Gates’ own identity in relation to this ancient and earthly material. As he says: ‘Clay made me and is forever the root of my artistic interest, but I don't feel limited by any origin story to work solely within the confines of my origins. Blackness, clay, immateriality, and space are all launch pads that encourage advanced practice, reflection, trial, and iteration. I am practising acts of creation.’
The exhibition as a whole takes its title from Gates’ new film Oh, The Wind (2021), presented in the lower-ground floor gallery. Evoking the Black sermon and Baptist hymnody as a way of connecting Black religious music traditions to the history of ceramics, it was filmed in an abandoned conveyance structure for a brick manufacturing company – a site of intense ceramic production for over 50-years and now part of the Archie Bray Foundation. Standing in the building’s cloistered space, the artist sings an improvised hymn, musing on wind and fire, to an invisible congregation. Poetically reinvesting the abandoned building with a powerful, living presence, the film connects the theme of nature in Chinese poetry and Buddhist thought with the Black sermon.
In the ground-floor gallery, a series of 13 single-drawer wooden filing cabinets line the walls, and house a collection of hand-thrown ceramics made during the artist’s recent residency at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana. Reminiscing the way Gates collects and stores ceramics and objects in his home and studio, the pots are both nestled within the cabinet drawers and displayed atop it, the variation in their styles, colours and glazes creating a visual cadence. Thrown by the artist as well as other makers at the foundation, the vessels are the product of a ‘durational performance’; a synthesis of ritual, culture and time. Whether cup, tea bowl or sake bottle, each vessel is an object of deep significance and exists somewhere between the functional, the symbolic and the spiritual:
‘More than anything, I want to be moved by forms and invest deeply in older ways of making and the forms that ensue. I want to recall the truths within forms; eat from them. The bowl, jar, teapot, vase and cup offer me a form of lexicon that allows the bust, head, ceremonial offering and modes of abstraction to flow more easily. I have forms to push against and to agree with and venerate.’
Three figurative sculptures form part of the new series ‘Mississippi is my Africa: Reflections on Mud People in the Delta’, in which Gates considers Black archetypes in the tradition of African reliquary. Made from wood-fired stoneware, but left unglazed and covered with wood-ash from the kiln, these are hand-carved amalgams of traditional sculpture and Southern folk-drawings that feature the idiomatic figures of Nanah, Papaw and Queen Mother, My Madonna (all 2021). In the centre of the gallery is a stoneware jar from 1857 by David Drake or ‘Dave the Potter’, a figure of reference and reverence for the artist. An African-American slave, Drake worked on a plantation in South Carolina, writing poems and signing his name to the stoneware vessels at a time when literacy among enslaved people was illegal.
Gates’ ‘Brick Paintings’ − wall-based ceramic panels in high-fire stoneware − combine the industrial with the handmade. Employing the same material used in modular building units, Gates pushes the medium of clay towards the realm of painting in treating its surface like a canvas. Making manifest the interaction between maker and medium, Gates scores, compresses and punctures the wet unit. Every panel is glazed with oxides, stains, engobes or manganese dioxide – the latter a volatile and highly reactive glaze that features in the work of British ceramicist Hans Coper, another of Gates’ role models – to create a diverse range of tactile surfaces. ‘I think even when I was learning clay, it wasn’t about clay. It felt like clay was a philosophy. The more you learn about the material, the more you understand its philosophy,’ the artist has said.
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