Material and Abstraction: Theaster Gates, Sam Gilliam, and Rodney McMillian
More than an artist, Theaster Gates also works as curator, urban planner, and project facilitator. From sculpture to painting, installation to public projects, Gates’s works are hubs in which to question labor and commodity while also bringing to the fore people and things that are often unseen and unheard. Gates’s art often takes the formal qualities of abstract art or references art movements which he then uses as a vehicle to address larger issues of race, class, and gender in American society with the wider principle of art rooted in social action and responsibility. At first glance, the sculptures in the exhibition look like abstract sculptures entrenched in minimalism. However, in the material and process of creation, these sculptures reveal themselves as objects that reflect on labor and race; an exploration of materiality is not just exploration in of itself as previous minimalists and abstract artists would have done but one that spirals out to examine its context within society.
For example, Convex Concave takes custom-made bricks that Gates had previously used for Black Vessel for a Saint at the Walker Art Center and repurposes it into a painting-like sculpture that references minimalist artist like Sol LeWitt, the labor of making bricks, and the original context of the bricks for the installation at the Walker.
In Untitled (Flooring) and Stand-Ins for a Period of Wreckage 25, Gates has elevated humble materials that appear scarred into minimalist totems. Not just an investigation into minimalism and materials, running through these works are questions of industry and in the case of Stand-Ins questions of what remains of edifices that have been demolished.
Sam Gilliam entered the art world as an abstract expressionist in the color field mode. Born in 1933 in Tupelo, Mississippi, Gilliam eventually found his way to Washington, D.C. where he became part of the loosely grouped Washington Color School that included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Anne Truitt, and Alma Thomas. He gained fame for becoming the first painter to create the idea of unsupported canvases. Gilliam moved throughout his career from these draped canvas to collage inspired by jazz to cut canvas covered in heavily encrusted impasto.
In the works in the exhibition, the viewer can see a synthesis of Gilliam’s career including shaped supports and fields of color that build up into interacting structures. In their composition, one can even see a continued influence of jazz musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Throughout each phase of his career and as exemplified in these works is a focus on color, form, and structure that transcends the idea that in the zenith of abstraction the hand of the artist disappears. Here, in their raw and shaped edges and layer of colors, the hand of Gilliam is clear and present.
Rodney McMillian is multidisciplinary artist working in sculpture, painting, performance, and video. Born in South Carolina, McMillian has lived in southern California since 2000 where he teaches at UCLA. The artist shapes his work around the socio-political history of the United States even through abstraction. At first glance, Lollipop and Flag appears to be a continuation of abstract expressionism in its layered flow of paint. For these works, like abstract expressionists of yore, McMillian pours and drips paints. Nevertheless, on closer inspection, the works appears to suggest a map or landscape and thus, the history of struggle and power inherent to mapmaking and landscape painting. Who makes maps and for whom? What does a flag represent? Who owns the land and at what cost? What happens in that land? Furthermore, in using household paint, thrift store clothing, and other industrial materials, McMillian mines issues of economy, accessibility, and even temporality as the materials are inherently unstable and non-archival. The monumentality of the works makes the viewer more aware of their own body and in Flag, the “post-consumer item” of the suit and sheets further emphasizes the human body, particularly of black bodies, while layering additional meanings of loss and of home.
The three artists in the exhibition, Theaster Gates, Sam Gilliam, and Rodney McMillian, synthesize materiality with the language of abstraction to mine them for all its meaning. Art history becomes recontextualized within socio-political history and visual language becomes a vernacular in which to speak to our current and historical presence. As McMillian notes, “History is present tense. It’s present for me.”