Friday, May 14, 2010

Theaster Gates at Milwaukee Art Museum inspires debate on Art City

Below is a slightly expanded version of a comment I made on the Art City blog today. The original post, by Rafael Salas, is a review of the small Theaster Gates exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum. You might want to read that and the comments that precede mine before reading this.

I saw the Gates exhibit yesterday. The show is an eclectic mix of widely diverse elements that lacks coherence. The disparate media are bound by the themes of racial identity and inequity, but it takes a determined visitor to discover this. I agree with the comment by MDavidson that parts of it ring hollow. Further, Salas said that "Gates does not shy away from expressing his anger" but I didn't feel any emotion. Like so much academic-oriented art these days, it uses a formulaic, conceptual representation of anger that has been distilled of any real emotional punch.

Having said that, the show does have merit. I’m glad to see it in the museum and I love the collaborative aspect described by Salas, which included free admissions to the museum for collaborators who might not otherwise have attended. Anything that increases the audience for serious art (and this is certainly serious, whatever its flaws) is good. If museums never showed anything but the greatest works of art there wouldn’t be much to go around—or argue about.

Mary Louise Schumacher, who writes Art City, mentioned that the Whitney Biennial has an installation by Theaster Gates. I saw the Biennial in March. The Gates installation there is more formally coherent than the one at MAM. Sadly, it is also easily overlooked. After a saturation tour of a very strong biennial in the main galleries I only discovered the Gates installation after browsing in the museum gift shop and wondering what all of that “stuff” was doing outside in the courtyard. Very few people ventured out. It is visible from outside and above, but is well below ground level and one must down over a parapet to see it. I watched as people wandered by. Most did not look down and if they did they didn’t pay much attention to the work. And that’s not surprising. It doesn’t look like much from above or from inside the shop. One must get close up, wander through its “alleyways” and peer inside his crudely formed wooden structures to experience the work.

Some of the same strategies that MDavidson critiqued so well in his comment apply here. I’ll add one: salvaged materials were “repurposed” for the installation. Collaboration is a key element here, too, and one of Gates’s strengths, I think. The image below is an example of a Gates installation (from the Whitney Museum website) but not the actual biennial piece.

To read more about the biennial installation click on Whitney Biennial.

To read more about the installation in Milwaukee click on MAM.

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