The art of entries and exits

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The work of Civil War Era potter Dave Drake (above) is at the center of MAM’s exhibition “To Speculate Darkly.” – Photo: Courtesy

What struck me most about Theaster Gates’ remarkable installation “To Speculate Darkly,” at the Milwaukee Art Museum through Aug. 1, was the beautiful orchestration of the entry and the exit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that does a better job of this.

The Chipstone Foundation and MAM received a Joyce Foundation grant of $50,000 to invite Gates, who was also included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, to create a new work specifically for the museum’s basement exhibition space. What he did is outstanding.

Before we pass through the dramatic entry into the show, we are greeted by a sign that warns the exhibition might be “unsuitable” for children. I couldn’t find anything unsuitable, so I asked the guard afterward, “Why is this unsuitable?” He said because you can find the word “bitch” and the word “nigger” in the show.

But those words should certainly not be shunned in the context of an exhibition that seeks to add a page of history that wasn’t written in the big book. The show is also about the transgressive power of words. I think the disclaimer on the show should have read: “Caution, black man down here in the basement. How would you feel if you were left out of history, both the art and cultural kind, bitch?”

The show is centered on the work of an enslaved South Carolina potter named Dave (Drake), who produced and signed functional clay pots between 1834 and 1862. About 100 stoneware vessels, made for his “master” Lewis Miles, survive.

Slaves were legally not allowed to read or put words in writing. But Dave Drake signed his works and often wrote short poems on them, digging a sharp tool into the wet clay to leave not only his mark but traces of his heart.

Gates’ constructs a narrow hallway from which we enter the show. Its ceiling is lined with retired glass slides from the University of Chicago (where Gates is director of arts program development) that visually tell the standard art history class story of ceramic production from ancient Greece onward. The Western canon includes no black artists.

Peering down that hallway, we see a three-foot tall pedestal with a huge, simple clay vessel on it, sealed in a plexi vitrine. This is Dave’s pot. It is the authentic historic object that occupies the center of the exhibition. It is displayed traditionally, as a rare and important thing.

From here, Gate’s uses a contemporary vocabulary of installation tactics to explore the discomfort of how this black man’s hand-wrought pot, used for storing pork, enters the lexicon of history. He employs a wall sized video projection of gospel singers in a room where a grid of flat porcelain sinks (produced during a residency at the Kohler’s Arts and Industry program) forms a cool, minimalist “high art” presence. The drains in these “clay” sinks are actually speakers emitting the gospel songs. What has been washed away seeps out. The songs were written using the lyrical phrases that Dave the Potter etched into his pots. The performance brings Dave’s missives back to the living realm.

The exhibition also speaks of how value is generated in the art market. Dave’s pots are actually worth a lot now, but even that monetary recognition doesn’t necessarily help us know these objects. If anything, it further distances them from their rich history.

The museum provides a few succinct paragraphs on a handout to anchor us in the ideas of the exhibition, which include: questions about display, the authoritarian voice of the museum, how an installation affects our perception, how omission functions as an unseen and often unnamed force, the physical beauty and weight and mute displacement of Dave’s pot, the powerful legacy of oft-ignored African-American cultural contributions, and the messiness of our current globally all-inclusive art-making mélange. All of this is touched upon and yet the installation still hums gently.

Then we exit. There is a heavy velvet curtain in the same room as the video that forms a wall. We don’t know what’s behind it. Is there another room of the exhibit? One hesitantly pulls open the curtain and realizes that it is indeed an exit.

On the other side of the curtain is a freak show, a horrifically scary room of intimidating, pasty-faced, frozen authorial faces ensconced in Liberace gold, ornate frames. We have walked through the curtain and back into the Canon of Art History, back into the museum’s permanent collection. Here are the slave owners, their portraits secured in an all-too-familiar story and, for once, we clearly see the perversity of this.

A catalog with musical scores from the gospel songs and an essay by Ethan Lasser, Chipstone curator, as well as an invented interview with Dave the Potter, were produced in conjunction with the show.

Note: A panel discussion, “Race, Community and the Museum in the 21st Century, will be from 6:15 to 8 p.m. on July 15. It is free with MAM admission.

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