Theaster Gates' "Temple Exercises" at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art included programming inside the museum and across the city.

Arts & Entertainment

Talking Social Sculpture and Theaster Gates With The Nasher’s Jeremy Strick

Gates, who lives in Chicago, is the first American and black artist to win the museum's $100,000 prize.

As you surely are aware, the artist Theaster Gates will be the third laureate and recipient of the $100,000 Nasher Prize. Gates, the first American and black artist to receive this award, is perhaps most well-known for his Dorchester Projects in Chicago, which saw him purchasing and rehabilitating dilapidated homes into cultural community centers. However, his practice takes on many forms, including paintings, ceramics, sculptures, dinners, and musical performances. It is important for Dallas to consider Gates’ work in the next year, as he can serve as a great example for artists who are questioning how to make effective, socially engaged art that is still rooted in objects and materiality.

“Soul Manufacturing Corporation,” a multi-disciplinary project on making itself by Theaster Gates featured potter Kouichi Ohaha, yoga instructors and other workers for skillshare-style performances.

Locally, Giovanni Valderas, himself a winner of the Nasher Micro Grant Award, is the artist most similar to Gates’ practice—particularly his ongoing series of text-based real estate signs made using traditional piñata techniques.

This year’s prize is chaired by Derek and Christen Wilson, who helped spearhead Piero Golia’s “Chalet Dallas,” and their experience with social practice and relational aesthetics sets high hopes for an exciting programming schedule for Theaster Gates and his works next April. I recently spoke with Jeremy Strick, Director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, about the state of the Nasher Prize, contemporary sculpture, and whether Gates should even be considered a social sculptor. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

D Magazine: How does it feel overall, with the prize going into its third year?

Jeremy Strick: It feels really good because it feels like it is doing what we had hoped. It’s getting more attention; everywhere I go people seem more aware of what it is, they are interested in it. People are excited to find out who the next laureate is. It has proven a really effective way to talk about sculpture and get people thinking about it. When we do a prize that talks about Doris Salcedo, Pierre Huyghe, Theaster Gates, and each one of those artists and their development starts to create a language for people to think about sculpture and about art. And I don’t think it’s the same conversation, the same awareness they would have without those artists and have those succession of artists

D: Has it been intentional at all? It feels like all three artists are artists who have in some way moved what people conceive of as sculpture and contemporary sculpture forward.

STRICK: I think that’s right. I think it has in some ways been intentional. I think that the jury has been in its first three years as concerned to set the prize up and to create a context for the prize as they were to honor and celebrate great achievements of individual artists. This last time they had a list of about 100 nominees, and there were a whole lot of great artists on that list. They kept whittling it down to get to about 20 artists, and each one of them is amazing. So then the question becomes, it’s not really about who is the best artist, it is what are we saying about sculpture with this selection? How was that different from last year? How does that really set the parameters and set the stage for future awardees? How are we staking a claim for the importance of sculpture?

D: Was there any discussion about picking an American artist for the prize?

STRICK: Not one of our jurors were born in this country. Several reside here and work here. This year it barely came up, but there were a couple points when a juror said it would be interesting, it would be a nice thing to choose an American. I think the feeling behind that was really empathy, with all that is happening in this country, it would be a good thing to make a positive statement and to select an American making a really positive impact through sculpture. But I would say that was very much a minor note in the discussion.

D: I feel like Nasher as an institution has been very supportive and instrumental in advancing social sculpture as a form from the Nasher Xchange with Rick Lowe, to Piero Golia, to the relational aesthetics in the current show with Tom Sachs. Were you particularly excited to see that jury had selected a social sculpture?

STRICK: I was in one sense, but I think it’s interesting because I am not quite sure Theaster would describe himself in those terms. Although I think his art is clearly, obviously, informed by and engaging with the ideas of social sculpture, I think he thinks of himself as an object maker, that the social impact emerges from an engagement with objects. If you think of the Prize and the sequence of laureates as it progresses as a mapping out of territory, I think Theaster occupies a different position on the map than Doris or Pierre, although there are strong relationships. I think that is really important and so I was very happy to see that kind of practice embraced and incorporated into the core of Nasher Prize laureates.

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