“Some things continue in our present, and other things stay back,” the artist, 50, says recalling his upbringing on Chicago’s West Side as he walks through his New York show, which just opened at White Cube’s Madison Avenue space. “‘Hold Me’ is the attempt at capturing the things that we just don’t care enough about to keep assigning them value in our present. They remain memories, and shadow-like memories, more and more distant, until you can’t smell your mom anymore.”
The material and conceptual substance of many of these works on view, however, were directly inspired by his father. The five two-dimensional wall-reliefs, all made in 2023, were fabricated in a way similar to how Gates watched his dad construct rooftops throughout his boyhood. “The more that I made, the more that I wanted to feel the burden of those labor practices that I learned at home,” the artist explains. “Because they’re the closest thing that I have to generational conversation between my past and my present, my dad and myself.”
Broader cultural influences loom large throughout the show as well. For one, the artist invokes Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. The songs of the musician duo, whose eponymous 1972-album released the year before Gates and was born, were played constantly in his family’s home throughout his youth. At White Cube, their classic, chart-topping soul music is conjured once again through Sweet Sanctuary, Your Embrace, 2023, a piano embalmed in rubber torch-down roofing, sitting on a marble base. Likewise, the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) building on Chicago’s South Madison Avenue informed the new works on view. Designed by Black architect John Warren Moutoussamy, the headquarters were the first major publishers established in the city by a Black business owner, John H. Johnson, renowned for launching the likes of Jet and Ebony.
On the exhibition’s second floor is something of an office-scape tableau consisting of three installations from 2023 that evoke the corporate environs of JPC. Each backdropped by fabric panels replicating the original decor, the pieces assemble various ephemera recovered from JPC’s archives. Encyclopedia Blacktannia centers boxes of vintage Jet and Ebony magazines on a wooden palette; 11th Floor with Triangle and Mask features a plaque once displayed near Johnson’s 11th floor penthouse alongside a bronze cast of a mask in the JPC art collection and an original, triangular sculpture by Gates. Credit Union Office foregrounds a lint-removing brush sculpted to resemble a Mammy figurine, taken from the collection of Chicago couple Edward and Ana Williams, who have acquired more than 4,000 objects depicting negative Black stereotypes in an effort to remove them from the commercial public sphere.
“Initially, I thought this exhibition would be more about mental health,” says Gates. “But I wanted to try to get at the darker side of making. It’s a pleasure and a challenge when the way that we learn to work is tied up with generational history, tied up with a bed of emotions.”
“Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me” is on view through March 2, 2024 at White Cube New York at 1002 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10075.