Theaster Gaates

Photo: Chris Strong

Theaster Gates in his bedroom

RedEye's indefatigable transportation (among other things) reporter Tracy Swartz reports that the CTA is going to be capping off the rebuilding of the Red Line's south branch with the biggest art project in the department's history, and they've appointed the city's most high profile artist to do it:

In what the CTA is billing the largest public artwork program in its history, the agency has tapped Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates to create artwork for the 95th Street Red Line station, which will undergo renovation next year, the agency announced Friday. The $1.3 million art project would include hiring and training 10 people and an apprenticeship program for students.

It's also one of the most heavily used stations on the entire CTA—in October 2012, it averaged 13,389 rides every weekday with a total of 365,636 for the month, the sixth-busiest stop and second-busiest single-line stop after Chicago and State on the Red Line, which is pretty typical of its ridership.

It also marks a return to the CTA for Gates, as Elly Fishman and Cassie Walker Burke write in their Chicago profile of Gates, an East Garfield Park native who started working with his hands while helping his roofer dad mop rooftop tar. Gates's talents took him to Lane Tech, which gave him a broad view of Chicago and a pathway to Iowa State, where the urban planning student began his art career in a pottery class. After studies at the University of Cape Town and a ceramics residency in Tokoname, Japan, Gates brought it all together with a gig at the CTA:

Gates returned to the States and soon landed a job as the Chicago Transit Authority’s arts planner, charged with arranging murals and art along the train lines. Craving more influence, he quit five years later and returned to Iowa State to pursue a multidisciplinary master’s degree in urban planning, religion, and sculpture. “When he resigned from his CTA position, which was a good job with benefits, a lot of the family was like, ‘Whoa, what is he doing?’ ” says Wonsey.

What's interesting about this is that Gates, in the years since he coordinated murals (like a Venetian glass mosaic at the Chicago Avenue Brown Line stop) has become not just a tremendously ambitious artist, but one who's ambitious about the use of space, for example in his breakthrough MCA exhibit:

For that show, called Temple Exercises, Gates built a large “temple space” out of discarded wooden shelves that had been used as conveyor pallets for Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. (He got them on a tip from the South Side master recycler Ken Dunn.) He and a band he assembled, the Black Monks of Mississippi, performed there and in two other spaces: Little Black Pearl, Kenwood’s art education center, and Shine King, a legendary storefront on Chicago’s West Side.

It was a pivotal moment. Together, the spaces embodied the three public sides of Gates: the emerging contemporary art star, the neighborhood activist, and the boy from the hardscrabble West Side neighborhood. And the exhibition’s healthy attendance reinforced his instinct that great art doesn’t have to happen within a museum’s walls.

Or in 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, which "physically united two run-down homes, one in Chicago and the other in Kassel, Germany," using materials shipped from 6901 South Dorchester to the old Huguenot House hotel in Germany.

12 Ballads for Huguenot House from Moritz Lehr on Vimeo.

It's a striking contrast with the typically quite conservative public art of the CTA, adding some suspense to Gates's future transformation of the Red Line's South Side terminus.