For Theaster Gates, the gallery operates not as a place for pleasurable viewing but as a performative space of social practice focused on cultural recuperation and empowerment. Soulful, incisive, and enlightening, “Black Vessel,” Gates’s first solo exhibition in New York, insisted on deep immersion in African American experience and its alternative narratives of history, commodity, work, and urban life. The vessel, the conceptual container for Gates’s concerns, took several forms throughout the show.
In the first gallery, Brick Reliquaries hung on the wall at eye level. Made by over-firing bricks with a high manganese content to 2300 degrees Fahrenheit, these small reliefs transform a simple building material into tactile, sensual sculptural vessels filled with spiritual capital.
At first glance, the next gallery resembled a museum salon, with large abstract paintings displayed around a central wooden platform that echoed a slave auction block. Closer examination revealed that each “painting” was created with basic industrial materials, including roofing tarpaper, rubber, enamel, nails, and wood. Rough yet eloquent, these thick, crusty, pliant surfaces trace the effort and language of labor, giving voice to the poetics of the material, while titles like Left Hand of Progress, Flag Sketch, and Black Slag imbue the rugged Minimalist aesthetic with meaning.
In a long, corridor-like space, high-fired stoneware vessels placed on the floor, on platforms, and on pedestals of cut wood invited comparisons across Western, Eastern, and African techniques and traditions, destabilizing the so-called “primitive” Modernism of Brancusi, Giacometti, and Picasso. Walking among these primary forms was humbling and meditative, as formal, functional, and historical affinities quickly gave way to the intimate immediacy of intermingling bodies, sculptural and corporeal.
In the vast back gallery, Gates expanded his concept of vessel to an architectural scale, lining the walls with Roman bricks made from reconstituted remainders blackened with manganese dioxide and stain. Within this dark interior lit only by vitrine windows, he installed two works, both part of his long-term project of retrieving, revitalizing, and archiving African American cultural endeavors. New Egypt Sanctuary of the Holy Word and Image functions as a sculptural repository for a complete set of Ebony, the magazine published by the Johnson Publishing House that chronicled and celebrated Black American middle-class life for decades (1945–2016). Opening on one side into a small alcove reading space, this tall, tower-like wooden structure doubles as a functioning library, with shelf upon shelf of the periodical bound in red, green, black, and gray (the colors of the Black Power movement).
Walking Prayer developed this project further. An original cast iron, Carnegie library shelving unit stretched across the space, filled with several hundred published books on the Black experience, rebound in black, their spines embossed in gold with words and phrases taken from the Bible and texts by Black writers. Browsing these books as one might do in a library soon became performative, with the declaiming (or speaking or singing) of the words serving as one long spoken word or slam poem. A single chord from a Hammond B3 organ, amplified by a large Leslie speaker, repeated every six minutes, its sound echoing with the musical cadences of Black church gospel and jazz. This swelling, reverberating sound loop set the tone for Gates’s emotive and spiritual sanctuary. Instead of art business as usual, “Black Vessel” took us to church, reawakening and shaping sacred space and social being through a rich and provocative process of reclamation and renewal.