Theaster Gates finds community in work
CHICAGO – A large wood-fired vase containing a wreath of brightly colored flowers greets you as you enter How to sell equipment, the installation of Theaster Gates at the Gray Warehouse in Chicago. It is a piece produced by Gates, and it is a warm welcome gesture for the spectators who enter the austere space of the gallery. It also serves as a benchmark at the start of the artist’s career as a ceramist: Gates trained as a potter, and for 15 years wood-fired vessels and other ceramic pieces were his primary means of artistic expression. The works in his new installation, made up of the contents of an old hardware store, at first glance seem to have little in common with such a traditional ceramic form. But in a sense, the ship offers a key to the show’s themes. Baking a wood-fired oven is a collective and intensely laborious effort, sometimes involving teams of potters tending to the fire together for days – and How to sell equipment, despite its name, is less concerned with commerce than with the intersection of work and community.
These themes have been central to Gates’ work for many years. “Yukata” (2010), for example, consists of a shoe-shining chair made of reclaimed wood, metal and leather. The chair rises like a throne above the spectators, who are invited to see themselves in the shoeshine position, leaning over the iron feet which elevate the client’s feet. Like hair salons, shoe shining stalls have often functioned as places for community interaction; and, like barbers, many shoe shiners take great pride in their work, a business that is both functional and aesthetic. But their physical position, leaning over the shoe of a high boss, cannot avoid connotations of servitude. It is significant that in the United States, many shoe-shiners – who for many years, regardless of their age, were referred to as “shoe-shine boys” – were African American. “Yukata” expresses her solidarity with a community of black workers whose pride in their work meets their physical and sometimes social subordination.
More recently, Gates has created a series of tar paintings, such as “Top Heavy” (2020), which evoke abstract expressionism but also, through their medium, refer to his father’s work as a roofer in Chicago. These works seduce the gallery owner with visual pleasures and historical references to art, before opening up to ideas of work, community and race.
How to sell equipment is Gates’ second exhibit of artifacts from Chicago’s Halsted True Value Hardware, which he purchased in 2014 after it closed due to his neighborhood’s economic decline and competition from big box retailers. The first, that of 2016 Real value, filled the Fondazione Prada in Milan with an inventory of stores arranged in rows of colors, aestheticizing objects that were once utilitarian. How to sell equipment is both more ambitious and more archival: the exhibit includes what appears to be the entirety of the store’s content, from its stock of nuts and bolts to its displays and fixtures.
The mere listing of the vast content indicates the wide range of activities that took place in the once prosperous region: PVC and metal pipes, rolls of duct tape, boxes of screws, abrasive belts, plumbing fixtures, shovel handles, a large air pump. Spools of wire sit beside rolls of contact paper, the free ends of which float in the breeze of the magazine box fan. The collected objects evoke the sweat, skill and pride of being self-reliant involved in maintaining and improving one’s home, as well as the work of armies of contractors and traders like Gates’ father. Gardening tools show that an intimate relationship with the earth is possible even in an urban setting. A fire extinguisher, foldable conveyor belts for unloading delivery trucks, a telephone and a cash register remind us that this inventory was not static, but part of an active neighborhood economy.
It is a pleasure to recognize familiar objects; realizing that other tools and objects may be less identifiable to many viewers prompts reflections on the perhaps distant relationship to the work that goes into the upkeep of the property: those of us who don’t know using a particular tool probably depend on the work of someone doing it.
In “Retaining Wall” (2021), the most important and imposing work of How to sell equipment, Gates tidies a cornucopia of utility items by arranging them in 25 tall black gabions, the rectangular steel containers – about eight by four feet – often used to hold rocks and other types of filling. Gabions are typically used to reinforce landscaping walls, ports and other civil engineering projects; like the objects they contain in the installation, they smell like work. Gates stacked his gabions together to form a massive wall that runs across Gray Warehouse’s large, high-ceilinged interior diagonally, stretching almost corner to corner. One end is low, only two gabions high, but the wall rises to about 12 feet in height, towering above the onlookers.
The overall effect is quite impressive. Like many things Gates creates, the piece has a historical referent to art: in its color, scale and obstruction of space, “Retaining Wall” echoes Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” (1981 ). It prompts reflection on the nature of art and the public: Serra’s work was public in its original location, New York’s Foley Federal Plaza. Gates’ work is not public in its location, but rather in its origins as a neighborhood retail store and in the initially intended use of its various contents. It also brings to mind the work and materials that go into a monument like Serra’s.
A surprising amount of text appears in Retaining wallfrom product packaging to store signs, to the familiar orange and black signs sold to home and business owners – for example, ‘No smoking’, ‘For sale’ and ‘Keep the weed out of the grass ”. Lots of little dreams were served by the store, and some certainly died with them.
The monumentality of the “Retaining Wall” cannot be ignored. It is, in essence, a memorial, not just of a particular store, but of a neighborhood as it once was: struggling, self-reliant, full of aspirations. The long black gabion wall, high at one end, low at the other, is also reminiscent of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall (1982). But there is also an architectural aspect: the black grid of the gabion frames recalls the Miesian modernism of many of Chicago’s most famous buildings. Is this an expression of local pride in Chicago-born and raised Gates? Given the imposing nature of the work, is this a commentary on how architecture can function as a barrier or fortress of exclusion? That the Illinois Institute of Technology, a few miles from the facility, being both a masterpiece by Mies van der Rohe and a predominantly white institution, located in a predominantly black neighborhood, gives credit to this last interpretation.
Other works on display include five inventory arrangements of material hung from steel display pegs on a large perforated panel covering the back wall of the gallery: “Circle”, “Leaf”, “Bowl”, “Rectangle” and “Triangle” (all in 2021). Like work in the 2016 Real value installation in Milan, the common material elements are arranged in clusters of coordinated colors. Shape and shade create visual order, and there is a hint of monochrome canvases in the shape of Ellsworth Kelly in the works.
Again, Gates connects ideas of work, function, and property with aesthetic and historical concerns in art. “This exhibition examines my insistence that the world is not separated between high objects and low objects,” he said, quoted in the press release, “but rather, that the artist has the ability to determine the designation of each. ” Near the wall opposite these pegboard works is “History of Conveyance” (2021), a large display case containing an accordion conveyor – a sort of foldable conveyor belt used in warehouses – and a copy of the Roy F. Soule of 1913 How to Sell Hardware: Successful Money Making Plans to Run an Up-to-Date Computer Hardware Business, Practical Selling Ideas Used by Successful Hardware Merchants. The book doesn’t just lend its title to the show: it indicates that the company from which the materials for the installation are drawn was, like the projects for which these materials were intended, someone’s enterprising company.
One last book, “Foot Scrubber”, is easy to overlook. Located low to the ground in an inconspicuous corner, it consists of a row of rotating abrasive cylinders. Looks like we could put a shoe underneath for a good polish. It’s hard not to think of “Yukata” here, and her concerns with both the dignity and debasement that can accompany such work. And it is difficult, as you walk out of the gallery into a narrow street still filled with warehouses and workers at work on the loading docks, not to feel the separation between art and life crumbling.
Theaster Gates: How to Sell Gear continues at Gray Warehouse (2044 West Carroll Ave., Chicago, Illinois) through July 31.