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Storage Jar, Lewis Miles pottery, 1858


It’s tucked away on the lower level of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Folded in a corner near 19th-century American painting and decorative arts, it feels like some sort of secret – a rich, earthy-toned hallway with a monumental pot glowing at the end. Passing through, you’ll note that the ceiling is an intricate grid of crisp black-and-white lanternslides, many picturing ancient Greek vases and sculptures. History literally hangs over your head.

This hall and adjoining gallery areas comprise “To Speculate Darkly,” an installation by Chicago artist Theaster Gates. It’s like a small exhibition, albeit with some big questions to ask. This is very much a collaboration with the past, as the work of Dave Drake, a.k.a Dave the Potter, makes a prominent centerpiece from which to draw enigmatic speculations.

Drake was an African American slave who lived in South Carolina in the early 19th century. He is known today for his exceptional stoneware pottery, much done on a heroically monumental scale. Drake signed his work and on some examples, inscribed pithy couplets.

But this isn’t all about Dave, nor is it about pottery. Additional works include Gates’ ink drawings of vases, suggesting Japanese traditions of sumi-e, complete with inscriptions. Other works include transformed Kohler sinks and a video program featuring fragments of spiritual songs.

What does this enigmatic rebus add up to? The art history slides, vessels by Dave Drake, Japanese-influenced drawing, mass produced sinks and snippets of gospel songs?

There are a number of themes that sit below the surface. Issues of authorship and ownership, of status and race, are suggested but with such complex questions, the surface is barely scratched.

History is messy. And, it’s fragmentary, a fact that can be uncomfortable as we’ve grown accustomed to answering any question through the magic of Google et al. Most makers of culture have languished in the obscurity of forgotten time, but for artists whose names survive in the new-formed clay of a pot or in lines of ink on paper, an assertive note is left future generations – I was here, and I made this.

In recent works at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the current Whitney Biennial in New York, Gates operates in similarly conceptual fashion. His art is not a matter of answers as much as it is about questions. “To Speculate Darkly” offers reflections, but without resolution.

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