“Flat Bush” (left) and “Sun Screen” by Theaster Gates (2017)
“Flat Bush” (left) and “Sun Screen” by Theaster Gates (2017)

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Theaster Gates is a magpie. Like a historian or a librarian, he collects things from old buildings—artifacts, archives, even parts of thosebuildings, such as the former St. Laurence Parish church, which stood in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood for more than a century before it was demolished in 2014. For his solo show for the National Gallery of Art, Gates repurposed the remains of the church as new sculpture. As an artist, Gates lets the materials drive the work he produces. He puts the cart before the horse.

“Slate Corridor for Possibility of Speaking in Tongues and Depositing Ghetto Reliquary” (2017), a 48-foot-wide by 20-foot-tall portion of the roof—most of it reclaimed slate, parts of it recast in bronze—dominates one of the walls in the exhibit. Catch a glint of reflected sun from the tower’s sky- light ceiling in the bronzed upper-right corner of the roof, and you might think it was something custom built for the East Building’s tower gallery. You’d be almost right. Gates’ show, The Minor Arts, is in part a meditation on the space, featuring a mini-tower and other quotations from the museum. The show is also a snapshot of an artist whose work buzz- es with the restless energy of a social worker driven by a mission.

The Minor Arts is a microcosm for the problems that Gates has taken up as his calling. Too much of his native Chicago is disappearing, and Gates is trying to grasp with both hands his South Side neighborhood and hold onto it for the people who claim it as theirs. He filters his preservation and revitalization efforts through an artistic practice that is as large as the problem he’s trying to sort out—from found object–making to performance art to African-American pottery. Place and practice come together in Gates’ work, with an eye toward home and history. 

“New Egypt Sanctuary of the Holy Word and Image” (2017), a wooden tower structure filled with hardbound volumes of Ebony, is a stand-in for the show itself—a tower within a tower filled with stories about the black experience. (Gates acquired the Ebony archive and other materials from the Johnson Publishing Company, the longtime Chicago-based publisher that sold the magazine in 2016.) “Something About Modernism and Death” (2017) is an even more direct allusion to the National Gallery, specifically Max Ernst’s “Capricorn,” a 1948 bronze minotaur in the building’s atrium. From a formal perspective, their low centers of gravity are the keenest connection between them. Both Gates and Ernst’s bronze sculptures bear strong African folk influences, although the significance of Ernst’s authentically colonialist gesture is easier to place.

In 2014, The New Yorker dubbed Theaster Gates the “real-estate artist,” a catchy tag for his work repurposing old buildings around Chicago’s South Side.Inspired by another artist, Rick Lowe, who in 1993 bought up a row of abandoned shotgun houses in Houston and turned them into an evolving space for community and contemporary art called Project Row Houses, Gates decided to do something similar in Chicago. Dorchester Projects, Arts Incubator, and Stony Island Arts Bank are a few of the disowned spaces he’s returned to productive (and artistic) use for the neighborhood. Gates has become a familiar fixture at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where the artist, who is also a Hirshhorn board member, conducted a lecture and performance last September, the first in a planned quarterly performance series called “Processions.”

The Minor Arts yields a different aspect of his practice: turning disused civic assets into fine-art ones. Sarah Newman, the curator for Gates’ show, has helped to assemble a balanced and taut presentation of Gates’ sculptures, which often work like paintings. On a wall adjacent to the massive roof piece hangs “A Game of My Own” (2017), which features slices of floorboards from a Chicago high-school gym, remixed and reordered like a collage, an abstract geometric painting. All his works pull some lost Chicago treasure into the museum. It is tempting to think that Gates is colonizing his own neighborhood, extracting its amenities and salvaging its resources for the rarefied pleasure of the rarefied art world. 

Other works in The Minor Arts throw water on that theory, though. One is “The Ax” (2017), an unremarkable instrument that hangs in an antecedent gallery near the entrance of the tower room. (Unremarkable, but an unmistakable nod to another early 20th-century European master, Marcel Duchamp.) This antechamber hallway is one of the more awkward spaces in the East Building, but Newman conjures from it a counterpoint to Gates’ primary room. A sound installation of Gates chopping wood can be heard here; “Flat Bush” and “Sun Screen,” nearly identical black paintings made using roofing tar, hang side by side, but the former one’s all chopped up.

It’s as if Gates regrets his own work: not merely the painting he hacked to pieces but the entire enterprise. The ax, the Ernst homage, the shrine-like library: The clues suggest that Gates has misgivings about the art world and all its trappings and his place in it. Torn between the projects that commit him to Chicago and those that are enabled by Chicago, he has split the difference, very literally, by taking an ax and tearing into an abstract-expressionist painting that bears the mark of his father’s profession as a roofer. 

The Minor Arts is a major lift for the National Gallery, whose tower series has so far been divided between living artists (Gates, Marshall, Barbara Kruger, and Mel Bochner) and departed ones (Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who now share a dedicated tower elsewhere in the East Building, plus Nam June Paik and Philip Guston). This show should settle any question for good. The tower is a vital space for living artists to work through pressing questions, even if the answers they arrive at are splintered contradictions.

At the National Gallery of Art to Sept. 4. 6th St. and Constitution Ave. NW. Free. (202) 737-4215. nga.gov.