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Theaster Gates MCA exhibit his first major solo effort

Theaster Gates, ‘13th Ballad’

♦ May 19-Oct. 6

♦ Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago

♦ Suggested admission, $12; Tuesdays free for Illinois residents

♦ (312) 280-2660;

Several years ago, Theaster Gates was becoming a hot name on the Chicago art scene, but he had yet to gain much of a profile outside the city.

But all that changed last summer in Kassel, Germany, when the 39-year-old artist emerged as one of the stars of “dOCUMENTA (13),” the latest edition of one of the most influential international art exhibitions in the world.

“If you would have mentioned his name before ‘dOCUMENTA,’15 percent of the people you talked to would know who he was, so this has been a meteoric rise in the last year. And that was the show that did it,” said Michael Darling, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Fresh on the heels of his big success in Germany, Gates returns to the MCA for what Darling describes as the artist’s first “major” solo museum exhibition anywhere. (He was showcased there in a smaller, introductory offering in 2009.)

The ideally timed show, which opens Saturday (May 18) and runs through Oct. 6, was actually already on the books before ‘dOCUMENTA, ’ and, indeed, was planned as a follow-up. His presentation in Germany was called “12 Ballads for Huguenot House,” and this successor exhibition is titled, “13th Ballad.”

The centerpiece of this new exhibition will be a contemplative, chapel- or shrine-like space that draws on the soaring architecture of the museum’s central atrium. It will feature a large double-cross mounted on one wall and pews arranged on the floor.

Three performances (June 30, Aug. 11 and Sept. 22) will take place in the space, with Gates working with University of Chicago scholar David Levin and composer Michael Drayton to create new music inspired by Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera, “Les Huguenots,” and the delta blues of Muddy Waters.

Elsewhere, furniture and other objects created in conjunction with the German exhibition will be on view as well as additional works that tie into this show’s overlapping themes, including the history of the Huguenots – Protestants forced to flee France in the 16th and 17th century.

Gates holds degrees in ceramics, urban planning and religious studies, and his collaborative artistic practice has radiated in all three directions, intertwining with other areas of investigation including urban transformation, economic disparity and racial inequity.

“He’s finally taken all these interesting strands of his background,” Darling said, “and tied them together in a way that they start to kind of feed on each other and build up to something that is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Recent projects include an exhibition last year at London’s White Cube gallery in which he turned salvaged fire hoses from Birmingham, Ala., into powerful symbols of the Civil Rights movement, and another at the Milwaukee Art Museum that reassessed the work of Southern slave potter David Drake in the context of labor and craft in today’s world.

Providing the foundation for everything Gates has done is “Dorchester Projects,” in which the artist has used repurposed materials in innovative ways to transform a group of abandoned structures on Chicago’s South Side into a cultural engine of revitalization.

When “dOCUMENTA” organizers invited him to take part in last year’s exhibition, he proposed applying what he has learned as part of that on-going project to the overhaul of a similarly blighted house in Kassel.

“He didn’t just settle for a gallery space or a wall here or a wall there. He wanted a whole stand-alone building, and his ideas were so persuasive that they went along with it,” Darling said.

But because of the ambitious scale and cost of what Gates was hoping to do, ‘dOCUMENTA’ needed a partner and turned to the MCA for help.

“It was essentially sight unseen,” Darling said. “but we signed on and funded half that project and knew that something fantastic would make its way back to Chicago. It was purely based on our faith in knowing that he was doing great work and wanting to be behind it.”

Kyle MacMillan is a Sun-Times contributing writer.

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