WATERVILLE, Maine — In 2017, when Theaster Gates had a solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., he brought with him as much of Chicago as he could. In the gallery, Gates placed a hunk of gymnasium floor cobbled from the ruins of razed schools; one side of the peaked slate roof of the city’s demolished St. Laurence Church, sifted from its debris; and a watchtower-like structure filled with back issues of the defunct Ebony magazine, a flagship of the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing, which for 70 years had chronicled black life in America with a celebratory and sympathetic approach.
Gates has always packed along the particulars of place anywhere he goes. It’s a gentle subversion of his own design: By committing to the particulars of an impoverished neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Gates creates a cultural Trojan horse, which he uses to infiltrate the halls of official culture with marginalized histories otherwise doomed to fade away to nothing. But Johnson Publishing, which also published Jet magazine, holds for him something particularly dear: a record of the full range of American black experience — its triumphs, its trials, its cultural highs and often brutal lows — made for a black audience, a culture in conversation with itself.
That’s what makes Gates’s project at the Colby Museum of Art so deeply, well, Gatesian: Inside the museum’s lobby, big heavy banks of shelving in deep brown walnut order the space with their broad expanse. They’re filled with heavy wooden frames that hold a specific slice of the Johnson Publishing archives: 3,000 photographs and page mockups from Ebony and Jet through the years, specifically of women. White gloves sit in a box nearby, a tacit invitation to the public to pull the frames out and position them on the cabinet top for viewing. Be careful, the whole affair seems to say. This is important.
It’s the first public airing-out in America of a foundational gift for Gates. In 2015, when Jet was shut down for good and Johnson went bankrupt, he arranged for its archive to be transferred to his Stony Island Arts Bank, a broken-down Chicago bank building Gates had refurbished as a community and cultural hub. It gave Stony Island’s best intentions the sudden heft of cultural history, rooted deeply in its hometown.
While the images matter — they run the gamut, from the glamour of high fashion to pictures of civil rights leaders, or Black Panther collaborator Angela Davis — so does the form that carries them. There’s something monumental about it: The cabinets emanate significance and authority, a purpose-built archive of Very Important Things that had always been there, and always would be.
But Gates is also questioning the idea of significance itself, right down to who has the authority to assign it. For at least a century in this country, a key authority has always been museums themselves, as gatekeepers of a culture, separating, in their own way, important from not. A recent audit of museum holdings in America reveals much about how that significance has been assigned: In March, Williams College published a study that found that collections at major American museums (like Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts or New York’s Metropolitan Museum) are 85 percent male and 87 percent white.
Those numbers alone make Gates’s project here, called Facsimile Cabinet of Women Origin Stories, feel like a subversive rebuke of a generationally broken institutional system. But that would belie its reverent, warm-hearted presence. “Cabinet” is about assigning value in a context that might otherwise look past it, not chastising the monolith for its longstanding failings. Gates once told me that “cynicism is not aesthetically interesting to me.” His work is about elevation, not recrimation, an aesthetic based on reclaimed humanity and hope, and there’s little he does that doesn’t support it.
Gates came to Colby in 2017 on a residency, during which, on a summer picnic expedition by boat, he became aware of Malaga Island, where a thriving mixed-race community had been evicted by the state government in 1911. Gates took the community as a miniature happenstance utopia in a country riven by difference, and made from its history “Amalgam,” a major exhibition now on view at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. It falls in line with Gates’s questioning of authority — an historic community lost either to indifference or cultural bias, resurrected and re-examined through a new lens.
In Gates’s world, polar opposites often collide, and maybe no piece illustrates that more than “True Value,” his installation for the Prada Foundation in Milan in 2016. When a man named Ken, the longtime owner of a True Value hardware store on Chicago’s South Side, retired after 40 years, many of them hard, Gates bought the entire contents of the shop and reassembled them, piece by piece, in the Foundation’s extravagant Rem Koolhaus-
It didn’t take much to see what he was doing: Why is Ken’s work, serving his community and literally helping them build through dangerous times — shootings and muggings and police indifference — not as revered a cultural effort as a painting or a sculpture? Gates makes the argument that sustaining community, creating safe places, through the hardest of times is as generative an act as any piece of art making. Like Johnson Publishing, who braved virulent racism to celebrate black life in the country’s darkest moments, a little reverence seems justified. Gates, finally, gave it a place to call home.
THEASTER GATES: FACSIMILE CABINET OF WOMEN ORIGIN STORIES
At the Colby Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill Drive, Waterville, Maine, through Sept. 8. 207- 859-5600, www.colby.edu/museum.