"The hardware store is the atlas. Like so many encyclopedic forms, it reminds us of a singular vocabulary, a homeland, a material sanctuary that unfortunately has its end when the form of exchange is no longer convenient."
Gray is pleased to present Theaster Gates: How to Sell Hardware.
How to Sell Hardware tells the story of Theaster Gates’s ongoing engagement with a family-owned True Value hardware store formerly located on Chicago’s South Side. Once a lively central space for local commerce, the True Value store shared in the growth and prosperity of a thriving community during the 1970s and 80s before similarly mirroring the neighborhood’s downturns as business slowed in the 1990s.
“I love the hardware store – Ken’s hardware store, as it was – because it constituted the way things used to happen in cities. My love of the hardware store didn’t immediately translate into something that could be identified as a work of art. I started thinking if there was a way that I could use the hardware store to articulate something. The hardware store would be indicative of the changing urban storefront, a kind of take on Black space by acknowledging Ken’s Brownness. It was an opportunity for me to dig deep into my own investment in energy and agency.”
Gates, whose practice is deeply invested in the material preservation of neglected social and cultural histories, acquired the store and all of its merchandise in 2014 and has continued to engage with it ever since. Just as the artist has reactivated other visual archives—including those of the magazines Jet and Ebony, acquired from the Johnson Publishing Company, and the glass lantern slide collection from the University of Chicago’s Department of Art History—Gates immerses himself in the tangible history of the hardware store. Through Gates’s material and conceptual interpositions, How to Sell Hardware memorializes the history of a changing urban landscape.
“I love the hardware store – Ken’s hardware store as it was – because it constituted the way things used to happen in cities… My love of the hardware store didn’t immediately translate into something that could be identified as a work of art... Over the years, as projects would come up, opportunities would come up, I started thinking was there a way that I could use the hardware store to articulate something… The hardware store would be indicative of the changing of the kind of urban storefront, kind of take on Black space by acknowledging Ken’s Brownness. It was an opportunity for me to dig deep into my own investment and energy and agency.”
On entering the exhibition, two works, History of Conveyance and Foot Scrubber, provide a physical and conceptual frame for the exhibition. In History of Conveyance, a retracted accordion conveyor sits dormant within a large antiquities vitrine and alongside a 1912 edition of Roy F. Soule's book How to Sell Hardware.
Soule's guidebook for hardware merchants and store owners bespeaks a less centralized and less meritocratic economic era, while the book's (and present exhibition's) title, How to Sell Hardware, also plays on Gates's principal concerns in this exhibition – the elision of art and everyday objects, and the determination of such objects' "true" aesthetic, market, and sociopolitical value.
The final component of the History of Conveyance, the actual museum vitrine, along with the artwork's title, further charges the encased objects with meaning by placing them in critical and subversive conversation with historical and contemporary modes of the production and preservation of culture and knowledge.
History of Conveyance is almost austere in composition. However, alone and in concert, the sculpture’s three constitutive objects epigrammatically express the conceptual, material, and formal complexities in which Gates is interested and for which he is so well-known.
"This exhibition examines my instigation and insistence that the world is not separated between high objects and low objects, but rather, that the artist has the capacity to determine the designation of each."
Situated across the exhibition space from History of Conveyance and made up of twelve aligned rotary abrasives sourced from the hardware archive, Foot Scrubber provides a prelude to Gates’s immersive installation. In this work, Gates introduces viewers to the notion of the artist’s capacity to convert unexpected and practical everyday materials into art objects.
Foot Scrubber finds dialogue with the pioneering forms and materials of Donald Judd, especially echoing Judd’s characteristic structured and balanced rhythm through the repetition of materials, color, and texture and the interplay between positive and negative space. Gates not only imbues these industrial materials with aesthetic merit and value, but also acknowledges and elevates the care, labor, and thoughtfulness that went into the design, production, and uses of such ordinary objects.
“What can the hardware store teach me about being myself? About being a whole human and a lover of things, because there are a lot of things to love. How might the hardware store want to continue its life, not as a kind of monument to hardware stores, but the monumentality would be in its ability to continue to hold up the world.”
- Theaster Gates
Amassing and repurposing what physical inventory remained from the store, Gates invites viewers to look both at and beyond the hardware objects. In his installation titled Retaining Wall, Gates encases volumes of densely packed material within stacked metal containers to form a monumental wall that bisects the gallery.
Gates’s weighty memorial nods to the history of modern architecture while exposing the aesthetic potential of utilitarian items to be fundamentally didactic, carrying with them the legacy of the everyday worker and shopkeeper even after the objects themselves become obsolete. The artist modeled the encasement after landscaping gabions, retention devices which are placed on land as it shifts to help with erosion. For the artist, Retaining Wall is not a tomb but a monument to art-objects in flux, on dynamic terrain, as they slip between registers of utility and aesthetics. With multiple functioning light bulbs within the steel enclosure, the life of the objects begins anew.
Beyond Retaining Wall, Gates installs Hardware Store Painting, a towering metal pegboard wall on which hangs a suite of paintings created from the repositioned store merchandise.
The paintings eschew the familiar taxonomy of hardware items hanging by scale and use, instead arranged by color and gradient to form compositions that evoke the color and shaped canvases of hard-edge abstractionists like Ellsworth Kelly and Leon Polk Smith. In their new arrangements, the paintings maintain a topographical feel of depth, insisting on their physical dimensions and presence as much as their art historical lineage.
"I continue to grapple with the questions of economy within Black space and the apologetic prerequisite that very few care enough about Black space to try to save it. While my attempts are at best, often laughable, I nonetheless grapple, in Black space with my truth and its truth. A muscle worked is better than a lazy muscle. How to Sell Hardware works my muscle and offers me ways into new material and spatial configurations.”
- Theaster Gates
ABOUT THEASTER GATES
Theaster Gates (b. 1973) currently lives and works in Chicago. Gates creates works that engage with space theory and land development, sculpture and performance. Drawing on his interest and training in urban planning and preservation, Gates redeems spaces that have been left behind. Known for his recirculation of art world capital, Gates’s practice focuses on the possibility of the “life within things.” His work contends with the notion of Black space as a formal exercise – one defined by collective desire, artistic agency, and the tactics of a pragmatist.
Gates has received numerous awards, including the Crystal Award (2020), Nasher Prize (2018), the KurtSchwitters Prize (2017), the American Academy of Arts & Sciences Award (2016), and the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for Social Progress (2015). His work can be found in public collections worldwide, including the Menil Collection, Houston; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Canada, Ontario; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Tate Gallery, London; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Gates is a professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Visual Arts and the Harris School of Public Policy.
Theaster Gates: How to Sell Hardware is on view from May 28 through July 31, 2021. Click here to plan your visit.