There are times when I’m making new works and have a few of them going at the same time and I think to myself, “I want this one to be tight and to offer nothing to a public but the ways of roofing.” I want to begin a dialogue with the idea that art offers us all rules and if those rules are obeyed, we might achieve something within the rules that is greater than the rule itself. I know that the roofing trowel is necessary to bring a slight percentage of melted tar from the underside of the rubber “torch down” to create the seam that ultimately unites one roll of roofing paper and the next; but at what point does the use of the trowel for spreading tar become an artistic mark, and when does this waterproof rubber material torch down stop being the material that keeps water out and become a canvas instead? Is it not the relationship between what a roof needs and what a painting needs that defines where I imagine marks come from? With this in mind, the seams that are present in my tar works are first interesting because they accomplish the rule, and second because the seams might also constitute something beyond an understanding of how a material adheres to itself. If I marry the function of seam-making with the possibilities of the trowel, I could find myself not only able to keep water from penetrating the house (a way of sticking to the rules of roofing), but I might also find myself with a set of lines and observations from the roof that are a delight.
I relish in the administration and improvisation of roofs and culture. I believe that great roofing happens because the kettle is preheated at the right time, the materials are lined up, the rigging details are all in place, and because the right team of seers, pourers, moppers, knife guys, and finish crew are all in place, ready to execute as the roof needs. A great roof is, in part, a by-product of good administration. And maybe this is a sort of a crux for me. Policy, planning, law, finance, and institution-building are the necessary tools and materials of the pre- and post-production aspects of a particular scale of sculpture, a kind of sculpture that enables new forms of mark-making. While a commitment to aesthetics and matters of reflexivity, theater, concept, as well as the possibility for rigor are still embedded in the work, the processes—and, by necessity, the outcomes—might look altogether different depending upon the tools in your toolbox.
One day while following the rules of torch down to make a formal roofing work, I decided that I would get the mop out and “paint” with tar. I dipped the mop heavily into the tar bucket, laid it on the flat surface of my plywood substrate, and made a first mark. This was followed by other marks that were equally heavy and pulled from a history of mopping roofs; the mop or brush needed to remain in motion, never stopping because that would create unbalanced pools of tar in one place. The decisions as to what parts of the surface would receive tar, where the material might have the most impact, how much the tar should overshadow the trowel work that constitutes the lean, black paintings, and how these marks make sense alongside other aspects of my practice were questions that kept hitting me fast as I moved the mop, as if it were a dance companion, side to side. These are questions that I ask when I’m making roof works, questions that I’m always asking. Another question I ask myself is what painterly precedents I evoke as a result of leaving one field of making for another, moving from a rubber torch down process that follows the rules of roofing (aligned on the side of conceptual/formalist making and thinking) to hot-tar mopping (aligned with the gestural, the intuitive, and the last sixty years of “advanced” art: Action Painting, Gutai, Post-Expressionism, etc.).
At the end of that day, I remember thinking that these were impossible problems that I did not want to answer. I realized that I would eventually conceive a world where I might just make roofs, not roofing works, and fix leaks instead of make marks, all with the understanding that the closer I could get to managing the leaky roof, the more fulfillment I might have. Would not the warm dripless night mean more than our ability to stare at a canvas made with tar? I thought I should pack up my ambition as a mark-maker and make a mark on the world. I thought clay, tar, and canvas were teaching me, in more and more complex ways, how to leave other kinds of marks to form new kinds of marks that also matter alongside the museum and the art history book. Beyond the gilded pages of art periodicals and alongside the annals of social history, abstract and symbolic, there should be a unitary force that offers the artist a chance to be and feel whole.
There are days when my burden to make is so insatiable and peculiar that it scares me. I long to be in the studio on those days. My desire resides in the encumbrance of the built world around me, the realization that it is dynamic and responsive and, sometimes, in need. More than anything, I find myself wanting to tackle all the questions of this moment, not just the artistic ones, but those that are ethical, political, and slightly investigatory. I am open to pursuing the questions in all ways possible. In fact, I still feel lazy.
The Stony Island Arts Bank is one response to the impulse to create and explore some of these questions. The structure requires new marks. It is a for-profit entity, with relatively high risk, that has required investments of sweat and owner equity into a structure that, to the world, had nothing to offer back because of its location and a belief that black people are not worth investing in and will probably not have the ability to invest in return. In addition, we created an organization called REBuild, structured as a not-for-profit that exists to create programs in the arts, that are at the highest levels of rigor, smack dab in the middle of the “hood.” The “demolished” has to make room for the regenerated, but the discarded still has the opportunity to make room for the possibility of redemption. It is impossible to talk about structures or even an artistic life without talking about the role of redemption and the necessity of the improbable in certain kinds of artistic practices.
A way of understanding what might be a reasonable discordance between commercial value and capital value, social value, activist value, and leftist political value, as well as the ability to invest deeply in those interests, will essentially allow for insider-outsider politics to maintain a tension such that a more complicated conversation might happen. The potential challenge or conflict then centers around inherent power implications, which means I have to consider what it is to be a black tenured professor at a large university, since a portion of my power is directly tied to an “urban institution.” If it were possible to imagine a university or city government or any number of social structures as raw material, then this might allow for a slightly different way of engaging the world—not a world filled with antagonism, though this might be true, but a set of materials that, in order for their affect and impact to be achieved, need more time for understanding or a more skillful hand moving materials around.
When I first saw the terra cotta columns, structural steel, and plaster covering the soggy remains of a once-thriving financial faux neo-classical behemoth, the STONY ISLAND STATE SAVINGS BANK, I knew that the complexity of the bank’s financing, its organizational personality, the poetics of the space, and what it might say about art over time—particularly, given my attempts to make space for other artists onsite and to create networks with those adjacent to the building—were all at stake and up for public debate.
These stakes are not ones that can be fully resolved on the easel or at the wheel, but they are my stakes, fully, and they mark the complexities of engagement. Mortar, roofing seams, and social policy are the kinds of complexities that keep me lucid and able to conjure a future for my own sanity. How do I keep investing in both institutions and artistic practice? I believe they are both driving at some kind of future, where engagement involves evolving or retreating. I am okay with assuming a portion of the burden of this ole world. It is very much like the soaking process during a firing: the need to hold the kiln at a steady temperature while the crystals grow and reduction processes mature, ultimately making the glaze and clay body richer than it would be with speed and oxidation. So whether its accepting that more marks are necessary than the mark of the seam, or that more time is necessary in order to allow for the emergence of the richest surface on a sculpture changed by heat, I am willing to first learn the rules, then force them toward the artistic hand.
THEASTER GATES is an artist. He lives and works in Chicago.