Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon | Whitechapel Gallery

I caught Theaster Gates’ show at Whitechapel Gallery on its last weekend. I’d cycled there without checking the (rainy) weather forecast. Along with blurry glasses and a wet bum, I’d brought along a raft of preconceptions about Gates’ work. The main one being that his activist ceramic works were compelling due to their artistic influences and political meaning, rather than being beautiful objects in themselves.

I was disabused of this dumb opinion in the final room of the show, pictured below, a spectacular collection of large pots, earthenware and stoneware, shining with different glazes, shaped with different forms, some amphora-shaped, some more organic and mysterious.

theaster gates at whitechapel gallery - installation view including ‘drinking cube’ (2020)

Just visible at the back is Drinking Cube, a beautiful assemblage in which a cuboid frame of azobe wood contains an untreated block of limestone; on that stone balances an exquisite saké cup and a stack of ceramic African-style masks.

This cube encompasses the global breadth of Gates’ influences from Japan to Africa to the Wild West: the works in this room, mainly recent, were conceived and fired as part of the artist’s residency at a ceramic arts foundation in Montana.

Whitechapel’s exhibition forms part of a cultural takeover of London institutions by Gates over recent months: he had similarly-themed shows at the V&A (which I didn’t see) and White Cube (which I did). The London project is named “a question of clay”, a material intimately associated with its maker, who leaves visible fingerprints on the irregular surfaces of their works.

As Gates told the Financial Times recently, each maker has their own “velocity of making, managing and flowing with clay”. Which takes me back to that cup, those masks, on their rock and surrounded by dark wood. Freighted with history, making a political point, and in the end, so intrinsically beautiful.

Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon is at Whitechapel Gallery (London). 29 September 2021 - 09 January 2022