Theaster Gates Scales Up in his Latest Exhibition

In “Black Mystic” at Paris's Le Bourget, the Chicago-based artist pushes the boundaries of his art practice, most notably the scale of his work.

Upon entering “Black Mystic,” the latest exhibition by artist Theaster Gates, viewers are instantly confronted with the overwhelming, gargantuan size of the artworks. Three 30-foot pieces, which Gates describes as blending painting and sculpture, line the walls of Gagosian’s Le Bourget gallery, on the outskirts of Paris. Gates says he hoped “to force the art world to accept a different scale,” rather than trying to force his “knowledge of this material into conforming to the art world.”

Theaster Gates Untitled, 2024 Industrial oil-based enamel, rubber torch down, bitumen, and steel 144 7/8 x 389 inches (368 x 988 cm) © Theaster Gates Photo: Thomas Lannes Courtesy Gagosian

Gates’s knowledge of the roofing paper and tar materials used in “Black Mystic” come from his late father, who worked in roofing and who passed away in 2022. Gates’s father has served as a source of inspiration in his previous exhibition “Young Lords and Their Traces” at the New Museum, where Gates showed his first 30-foot painting. “That tar painting was about demonstrating how my dad’s work showed up in my practice and honoring that,” explains Gates. “This exhibition feels like it’s about painting; not about my dad and the labour, more about what I want to do with these skills and material that I know.”

However, one piece appears to commemorate his father’s impact on his practice. 1-800 Roofing appears in the gallery space like a bold highway billboard, advertising a service through a fictitious company’s phone number. Gates explains the inspiration for this piece came from an old gospel song, “Jesus on the Mainline,” which his mother and grandmother sang in their Mississippi church. “So, I was taking this song and thinking about the mainline as a way I might be able to get to my dad,” explains Gates. “That if I called 1-800 Roofing maybe my Daddy would pick up.”

Theaster Gates Untitled, 2024 Industrial oil-based enamel, rubber torch down, bitumen, and steel 110 7/8 x 456 3/4 inches (281.5 x 1160 cm). © Theaster Gates Photo: Thomas Lannes Courtesy Gagosian

Creating this exhibition appears to be part of a healing process for Gates. “Maybe, between these three massive pieces, I could start to conjure these things no longer from a position of grief, but from a position of a kind of alchemist,” says Gates. “That I could just paint, I could free myself from the burden of sadness.” However, he also hopes that this exhibit provides something fresh. “I don’t want every exhibition I do to be about loss, or sadness, or feelings of loss,” explains Gates. “In trying to move on it’s like, okay, well, how can I try to have some fun with the skills I’ve been given and offer something that is quite fresh to drawing or painting?”

When considering the pieces within “Black Mystic,” it’s not only the pure force of the scale which is impressive. So too is the way in which Gates builds layer upon layer of bitumen-infused mats and draws on his skills of silk screen printing and torching, to burn shapes and words onto the works, creating a unique, tactile image. In particular, the use of words is a new terrain for Gates, who had previously never utilized text in his work.

Not only is “Black Mystic” an immensely impressive body of work, but it also provides viewers with a sensory experience: the lingering smell of bitumen emanates from the newly finished works.

Theaster Gates Black Mystic, 2024 (detail) Industrial oil-based enamel, rubber torch down, bitumen, and steel 105 7/8 x 84 5/8 inches (269 x 215 cm) © Theaster Gates Photo: Thomas Lannes Courtesy Gagosian

Black Mystic” is on show from April 13 at Le Bourget in Paris. Read more about Theaster Gates in Mastermind 15, available to purchase here.

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