From Cookie Jar to couplets and cocaine – Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon review | Art and design

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Bbeautiful things and broken things, horrible racist figurines and magnificent pottery covered in tar. Bricks and pots and a West African ancestor figure shot at such a high temperature that it cracked and warped and the head fell off. A rickshaw loaded with bowls and plates, an old Ohio brick press, piles of glazed bricks and a pallet of bricks waiting to build a wall or a house. Theaster Gates’ A Clay Sermon at the Whitechapel is filled with artifacts and stories, stories and encounters. It is part of a sprawling trio of exhibitions that also includes an intervention in the ceramic galleries of the V&A and a concurrent exhibition at White Cube Mason’s Yard. Next year, Gates will assume the annual commission of the Serpentine Pavilion, where the project will culminate.

Fascinated by working with clay since childhood, at 17 Gates went to Japan to study ceramics. In an interview with fellow ceramicist and author Edmund de Waal, Gates says his teacher asked him, “Why are you making a Japanese bowl?” Your family is from Mississippi, why don’t you make a Mississippi bowl? Gates slowly redefined his approach to ceramics as “Afro-Mingei,” a fusion and confrontation between the black urban experience and the popular arts and crafts of Japan.

But there’s more to it than that, and A Clay Sermon touches on all kinds of stories and lore, artwork, crafts and utility, plinth and pot, movie and song. Along the way there are shattered vessels and cracks mended with gold leaf and lead, pre-planned cataclysms in the kiln, ceramic chew and plate ‘paints’, deliciously glazed vessels and an absurd sculpture that resembles an inflated rubber glove. There is the gnarled and the delicate, the bodies and the bricks, the millennial things and the sculptures that seem to belong to the future. They are all connected.

Gates also imported works from the V&A collection, which are in display cases at the start of his exhibition in Whitechapel. This prelude takes us from Han Dynasty storage jars to a 12th-century Iranian plate and other historic ceramics, souvenir tobacco jars from the days of slavery, and decorative trinkets and figurines. Smiling black boys eat watermelon and do other cheerful decorative things, those vile caricatures made for white man’s fireplaces and side tables. A white enamel Mammy cookie jar presides over.

Jug with face, manufacturer unknown circa 1850. Photograph: Collection of C Philip and Corbett Toussaint

Some of these sinister gewgaws come from Gates’ own collection, and these objects are interspersed with small-scale ceramic works by Gates himself. The exhibition continues with British, Japanese and American pottery – a bowl by Bernard Leach, objects by Lucie Rie and the wonderful Ruth Duckworth.

Later, Gates includes pottery by David Drake, aka Dave the Potter, enslaved from childhood and spent among landlords in South Carolina in the 19th century until he was granted his freedom at the end of the Civil War. . In an era when it was both illegal to educate slaves, or for them to read or write, Drake often signed his jars – he made thousands – and inscribed them with rhymed couplets. The seemingly basic, domed shapes of these simple storage jars are deceptive – and require both great skill and strength (some can hold up to 40 gallons) to be produced and transported.

Like the best ceramics, utilitarian or not, they have a sense of accuracy. Drake was an exploited black man, who saved his dignity and voice through his work and creative gifts, and whose descendants never received any rewards, despite the huge sums for which his works have now sold.

Another touchstone of Gates’ own work is Greek-American ceramist Peter Voulkos (1924-2002), who rose to prominence as a radical ceramist. His terracotta works are linked to abstract expressionism, zen and, later, pop art. At the Whitechapel Gates combines one of his own works with a large wood-fired stoneware ceramic by Voulkos, his 1994 Pinatubo, borrowed from the V&A. The two stand together, sharing a plinth. Gates has produced several works in homage to Voulkos, as an act of what is called in Japanese Utsushi, or “replication as a spiritual practice”.

Voulkos # 2, 2012, by Theaster Gates (left) and Pinatubo, 1994, by Peter Voulkos (right) at the Whitechapel Gallery.
Voulkos # 2, 2012, by Theaster Gates (left) and Pinatubo, 1994, by Peter Voulkos (right) at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photograph: Guy Bell / Rex / Shutterstock

In order to approach Voulkos’ way of working, which was genuinely innovative as well as a divisive and somewhat alarming figure, Gates drank and took drugs (Voulkos went to rehab for his cocaine habit) and worked in the former studio of Voulkos at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts of Montana. In a movie at Whitechapel Gates, smokes a blunt as he sings and dances on a wild jazz trumpet, playing among his own Voulkos-influenced sculptures in the studio, channeling bad habits as well as artistic influence. Voulkos, acting methodically and avoiding parody, is a difficult undertaking.

Pinatubo is a stack of elements – the shoulders of launched vessels and slab fragments, topped with a funnel-shaped neck, which were fused together by a very high temperature shot. Fragile and appearing almost accidental or warped by a seismic event, Pinatubo (named after a volcano in the Philippines that erupted in 1991) stands next to a much smaller white enameled vessel from Gates.

At the V&A, where Pinatubo usually occupies, Gates installed a much rougher carving, the names “Pete V” and “Dave” etched into the black surface. An unruly presence, she is as rude as a bomb among the display of often overly ornate and frivolous works in the V&A collection.

Standing in the upper gallery lit by the top of the Whitechapel, large glass containers are arranged on plinths and benches of stone and wood. A slanted stone plinth supports a perfectly balanced container half-filled with tar, like a sort of crazy spirit level. A lunar white ceramic extruded in the shape of a hot air balloon, a small hole in its top, seems barely attached to its base. A engorged form like a phallic gourd and a geometric rhombus stand around it. A block of raw sandstone occupies an open cube the size of a room: above it is a small bowl for tea and a stack of masks, an allegory about Chinese workers who came to the south as a result of the abolition. Nearby, an African chair stands beside a jaw-dropping ship on a garish 1970s patterned rug whose brown, black, and cream patterns have been trampled and knocked down by countless penthouse parties at Johnson Publishing headquarters Company. The black-owned company published major African American magazines Ebony and Jet. One after the other under the skylights, the sculptures are as much places and encounters as discreet objects. I feel the interiority of bowls and containers, their open mouths and closed shapes as bodies and minds and reservoirs of memory.

“Sometimes I feel like I have fire in my soul,” sings Gates, bulky in a winter coat as he tracks down abandoned brickyards next to the Archie Bray Foundation. His film Oh, the Wind Oh, the Wind at White Cube, is a complement to his film à la Whitechapel. The same light falls through the slats, the same dust hangs in the air of the crumbling brickyards, Gates crawls through the same mud and the same snow.

Later, we see Gates throwing a pot on a wheel and loudly entering the Peter Voulkos area. At the end is an old clip from a student interview, where a young Theaster announces “I’m dying to make a short film about clay… more artistically”. And now he has, in this magnificent and beautifully complex set of exhibits and sculptures.

Theaster Gates’ A Clay Sermon is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, September 29 to January 9; Oh, the Wind Oh, the Wind is at White Cube Mason’s Yard until October 30; Light intervention # 5 is at the V&A until January 9.


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