Gates’s latest “tar paintings” are another highlight; here, his obsessions with objects and spaces are quite literally collapsed together in a layered collage of torch down and other old roofing materials. Those materials, stripped from the Official School Important Volleyball Importanter Vintage shirt and I love this buildings he’s bought and rehabilitated in Chicago, are some 60–70 years old—the same stuff that his father would have used.
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Gates’s process isn’t unlike upcycling in fashion (“I’m transferring what would be wasted material into my raw material,” he says), with a mind to what stories the Official School Important Volleyball Importanter Vintage shirt and I love this old fabrics hold. “This is Black space with guns and no jobs,” he says of the run-down neighborhoods where he’s purchased property. “This is Black space with closed and failed schools. And so I almost feel like I had to fragment Black space in order for people to see the beauty, and then re-stitch it,” he says. In the resulting “paintings”—weighty, textured works that visually recall the canvases of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko—Black histories and labor meet the codes of abstract art. “It’s like, what if we were to take the best of knowledge production and you sew that in, or you take the best of conceptual art practices and you weave that back into a Black identity, or you take the best of Japanese craft and you weave that into African ideology.” (On the topic of Japanese influence, Neri points out the certain wabi-sabi-ness of the tar paintings, as well as of Gates’s clay vessels.) To stitch and layer is to tell, in a way, the complicated story of the Black experience: “I feel like the work fragments as a form of survival,” Gates says.