With “Assembly Hall” at the Walker Art Center, Theaster Gates Creates a Space to Contemplate Culture

With “Assembly Hall” at the Walker Art Center, Theaster Gates Creates a Space to Contemplate Culture

“By saying I’m a potter, I’m actually a fucking philosopher.”

On Thursday morning at the Walker Art Center, artist Theaster Gates was expounding upon his theory of the object. Inspired by his background as a ceramicist, it informs his entire life’s work — which now includes his first major U.S. museum exhibition, Assembly Hall.

Gates is known for using distinctive collections to animate spaces such as abandoned houses in Chicago — although, as he put it at the Walker, he feels less like a world-builder than a curator of worlds that come to him. Minneapolis Sculpture Garden visitors also know him from the silo-like Black Vessel for a Saint (2017).

Assembly Hall is a foursquare group of tall rooms in the Target Gallery. Each houses selected items from a separate collection, although the dialogue among the rooms becomes clear as you move through them.

If you experience the rooms in the order Gates led us on Thursday, you’ll start in a darkened gallery dedicated to art history slides from the University of Chicago: physical glass slides, playing-card-sized windows into not just the history of art but of how we teach art. In a lightbox display of slides along one wall and through large-scale projections of slides surrounding the viewer, Gates highlights the fact that to enter the western canon in the glass-slide era, artists of color were by and large only welcomed through the “primitive” door.

Next comes a warm space gorgeously appointed with furniture, periodicals, and art from the Johnson Publishing Company Archives & Collections. Gates preserved the contents of the longtime Chicago office of the publishers of Ebony and Jet, here presented in a setting that’s at once comfy and majestic. The artist made a point of highlighting the groovy clear-acrylic feet on the long sofas and the custom red leather-textured typewriter, as vintage pop soul jams filled the air.

It’s another stark contrast to move into the third space, in which several vitrines hold items from the Edward J. Williams Collection of “Negrobilia”: toys, posters, and other commercial wares featuring racist stereotypes of black people. Gates explained that Williams, a black banker, collected these items just to get them off antique-store shelves, but came to realize that he’d built a historic collection of hate. Gates said he sees the space as akin to a war museum, containing “evidence of psychological warfare.”

Finally, tracks from the artist’s “samurai trap” playlist sound in a bright gallery dedicated to Gates’s own pottery. Here, he talked about training in Japan and learning to see bowls and plates as receptacles of history: how every piece reflects the culture and practical needs of its own time and place. It’s a space that invites rest and reflection, particularly on Thursday nights when tea will be served.

“Mindfulness” is an overused and often empty trope, but being mindful has never been more important. That feels like the nature of the invitation extended here: to be mindful of history, of hate and of healing. Most the objects on display in Assembly Hall could easily have ended up in a dumpster, whether through unconscionable neglect or through a perhaps optimistic hope that bad times can be forgotten.

Gates, however, has chosen to preserve this past and, here, put it on display in a sequence of galleries you’ll want to pass through a few times at varying paces, then perhaps take a seat and sit with your own reflections.

The artist acknowledged that his practice, grounded in historical and geographic context, is different than those of his many peers in the surrounding galleries. “I ain’t Bruce Nauman,” he said with a smile. “But I do like neon.”

Jay Gabler