Perhaps it was a good thing that Theaster Gates, one of the most powerful men in contemporary art, didn’t invite media to witness his second annual “Black Artists Retreat,” held over two days in August.
By keeping that meeting private, Gates protected the artists and he pretty much ensured that whatever came out of that meeting would be newsworthy. And it is.
Works inspired by or created during the “Retreat” are showing through Oct. 4 at the Valerie Carberry and Richard Gray galleries on the 38th floor of the John Hancock Center. Gates organized the showing, which includes 27 pieces created by 10 artists. The pieces range in feel and composition from a graphite powder-laden paper sheet intended to be walked upon to an array of police academy bullet targets, framed, of course.
“These are people taking enormous risks,” says Paul Gray, whose family gallery historically worked with talent including Picasso, Matisse and Jaume Plensa (whose giant face sculptures are in Millennium Park.)
It’s not that “Retreat” is a total departure for Gray’s galleries, but it is certainly a change from the norm. “The longer you do what you do, the less risky it seems. It’s great to work with artists who still are apprehensive. And gutsy.”
The artists aren’t newbies either. Many have been at this for a while; most have a Chicago connection and lots have secondary degrees in fine art.
Derrick Adams’ “Deconstruction Worker” series was most recently at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, and Kelly Lloyd is finishing her master’s degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Tony Lewis, also a SAIC graduate, was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
Gates is using his celebrity to bring shine to other artists, and in so doing, bring even more shine to Chicago. After all, it was New York Magazine that wrote last year that the mark of a hot artist would be to be from Chicago, young and black, and it was Gates (and other similarly powerful black artists, including Carrie Mae Weems) who brought these artists together for discussions and talks.
The exhibition catalog from this experience debuts in two weeks for Expo Chicago and will feature writings by Romi Crawford from the School of the Art Institute and Hamza Walker, director of education at the Renaissance Society.
Of “Retreat” specifically, many of the pieces seem to deal with race or identity — interesting given America’s preoccupation and new focus on race in light of the Michael Brown shooting and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and given the recent anti-black hate messages spray-painted on local clubs and bars in Chicago.
Lloyd, for example, painted a wall-sized mural based off of Montana advertisements. To her mural she adds a pamphlet bookshelf to the bottom corner of her work. And in that bookshelf are pamphlets that are artistic installations in and of themselves. One pamphlet reads: “How to work with a racist wedding photographer” while another says “Dear Matt Damon …”
The piece initially speaks to humorous bits of pop culture and elicits laughter. But of course, upon opening the pamphlets, each piece of paper is devoid of words. Empty. There is no further information.
“This is the third mural I’ve painted,” Lloyd says. “I think it’s a recognizable art form even though it’s not necessarily a recognizable art form in spaces like galleries. Montana, in the American imagination, is a near west state, unpopulated, beautiful and big. And then having an advertisement on top of the ideal is really just trying to lacquer on the idealism of processing landscape, processing the world.”
Mitchell Squire, a multi-disciplinary artist, produced 10 framed works of bullet-strewn targets salvaged from the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy. He stapled the targets together and then turned them backward in a series of frames. You can’t see the faces of the targets, but you can clearly see the exit wounds, if you will, of the bullets as they blasted through the back. Squire likely worked on these pieces well before the racially charged police shooting situation in Ferguson, but the impact still seems to ring through the work, entitled “The Young Gladiators.”
The retreat, in both senses of the word, was helpful for the artists, says Valerie Piraino, a Rwanda-born “Retreat” artist whose three graphite-on-paper pieces for this exhibit are each, in part, entitled “Southern Fruit.”
“I’ve been thinking about that all week,” she says. “There’s this terrible misperception in my generation where people feel like social struggle is over. So things like racism and sexism go unnamed, and there’s no way to acknowledge that it happens all the time. BAR allowed for nuanced conversations about what those things look like in 2014 and what they look like in the art world and how that inspires or limits you as an artist. I want to have those conversations all the time.”