Gates trained as both a sculptor and an urban planner, and his practice contends with the notion of Black space as a formal exercise, defined by collective desire, artistic agency, and the tactics of a pragmatist. Gates’s ‘Civil Tapestry’ series, tar paintings and roofing works, all engage with found or discarded material from his neighbourhood in Chicago. He specifically seeks out materials that have a historic and iconic significance in order to repurpose them through his own artistic lens and within the context of modernist art historical tropes.
In his ‘Civil Tapestry’ works, lengths of decommissioned fire hose are carefully arranged, stitched, and bound to create large-scale ‘paintings’ which feature bands of softly undulating coloured hose. Tactile and sensuous objects in themselves, the hoses have special iconic significance in relation to the Civil Rights struggles, in particular with regard to the hosing of peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.
Other works like his tar paintings feature swathes of black tar or other roofing materials, which Gates employs to create monochromatic paintings. In referencing Modernist abstract painters while employing the innate formalism of tar (and roofing) as a material practice, Gates extends the canon of art history beyond its familiar parameters. In using everyday materials associated with construction – particularly the safety, security and stability of home dwellings – Gates elevates their value whilst at the same time opening up to creative experimentation.
Gates’s relationship with clay has been a focal point of his practice since studying pottery in Tokoname, Japan in the late 1990s. For Gates, clay is a metaphor for his ability to take on greater challenges in the world; as he has said, ‘I think that studying clay helped me understand that ugly things, muddy things, or things that are unformed are just waiting for the right set of hands.’
Recent vessels extend Gates’s celebration of clay and craft, linking conceptual practices to physical making. It is a place where he is able to return to simple forms – to receptacles that he can place within the context of contemporary art – and to a rediscovery of the potency of craft. Serving as an archive of hand gestures, Gates’s pots allow him the freedom to move across time periods and cultural influences in his search for nuanced forms.
The Black Monks, formerly The Black Monks of Mississippi, have been a constant presence in Gates’s artistic practice. The group was conceived as an experiment around the specificity of Black sound and a means of giving life to the everyday objects that Gates collects. Their music is rooted in Black music of the South, including the blues, gospel and wailing, as well as to ascetic practices, related most closely to Eastern monastic traditions. The Black Monks often function as ‘amateur historians, skilled guides, and bootleg preachers’ as they expound the word of art alongside the word of God.
In June 2018, Gates unveiled his multi-part project spanning four European institutions, entitled ‘Black Madonna’. The exhibitions examined both the Black Madonna’s significance in the history of religion as well as its aesthetic and metaphorical tenor. The project comprised a series of exhibitions and performances, which drew from a range of sources, from influential depictions of the Madonna in European churches and museums to the extensive print archive of the Johnson Publishing Corporation, the Chicago-based publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines.
In early 2019, Gates opened a major solo exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris which toured to Tate Liverpool in December 2019. Titled ‘Amalgam’, this large-scale project explored social histories of migration and interracial relations using a specific episode in American history – that of Malaga Island in Maine in 1912 – to address larger questions of Black subjugation. A new sculptural language was born out of Gates’s research, whereby historic objects and archival materials were combined with sculptures made by the artist in clay, cement, brick, wood and tar.
Perhaps Gates’s most ambitious projects are his social practice entities in Chicago, including Dorchester Art and Housing Collaborative (DAHC), Chicago Arts and Industry Commons, The Stony Island Arts Bank, Rebuild Foundation, and Black Artist Retreat (B.A.R.). Many of these projects use abandoned buildings in Chicago as sites of community transformation and gathering in a bid to reverse the trends of social and economic fragmentation in the city.