What does a hardware store want? What do the house numbers, light bulbs, PVC pipes, mop heads, metal bolts, sandpaper sheets, and thousands of other items that constitute its merchandise need? What can they do?
Theaster Gates has long engaged in projects that seem to ask these sorts of questions about objects and spaces, especially as they fall out of use: an abandoned Huguenot house, the archive of the bankrupt Johnson Publishing Company, empty buildings in the Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago, and a university’s glass lantern slide collection. In 2014 he bought the entirety of Halsted Hardware, a family-owned True Value shop that was going out of business. Since then, he has mounted three shows that redisplay selections from its inventory, including one at the Fondazione Prada in Milan. “How to Sell Hardware” at Chicago’s Gray Warehouse (all works 2021) is the largest exhibition of this material to date, and it offers a range of answers to the above queries.
One of two humbler works on view is Foot Scrubber, in which a dozen dark-gray abrasive rotary wheels meant for grinding metal are mounted low on the wall in a horizontal row. A cross between one of Donald Judd’s “specific objects,” a Marcel Duchamp readymade, and a shoe-shine machine, the work is also quite mischievous—definitely not OK for buffing footwear. History of Conveyance is a serious, maybe even pretentious work, an expandable metal conveyor belt on wheels, elegantly displayed in an enormous glass vitrine together with a 1912 edition of the Roy F. Soule book whose title Gates borrowed for this show. Keen to play on found words and objects through museum-style recontextualization, this assemblage clearly fancies itself conceptual art with the soul of an antique.
With Hardware Store Painting, other things express their own desires to merge into art history, and Gates continues to listen. The “canvas,” an enormous steel pegboard that covers the entirety of the gallery’s back wall, is covered in metal hooks from which hang the “paint,” hundreds of stock items once for sale, most still in their packaging. Scrub brushes and curtain rods, extension cords and saw wheels are sorted by hue and suspended to form large geometric shapes—among them a green leaf, a blue bowl, a red-fading-to-yellow triangle—in a riff on an Ellsworth Kelly. Though in terms of color the composition recalls those annoying bookshelves in the homes of people who think of hardcovers as decoration, the goods’ spacing—clustered together, with hundreds of empty hooks between—suggests more attention to context. Whether in a critical or compromised gesture, Gates suggests that this merchandise is worth more assembled into an explicitly ornamental art object than as individual components sold for practical purposes.
Retaining Wall further explores this principle of accumulation and more. The fifty-eight-foot-long row of steel gabions, stacked four cages high and filled with an inestimable tonnage of medium-to-large wares—ductwork, sanding belts, piles of plumbing fixtures—brings on all sorts of end-times associations: cattle cars, prison cells, refugee smuggling, refrigerated morgue trailers, shipping breakdowns. The cages stuffed with dusty, outdated stock signal death; these are heavy-duty storage bins for never. Others reveal clever arrangements of wire spools, wallpaper rolls, and shovel handles. Some enclosures are enlivened by spotlights and even, in one particularly animated example, the breeze of a working box fan. Thoughtfulness, nay preciousness, indicates worth, nowhere more so than in the endpiece module, where Gates has arranged a trio of lawnmowers with almost the same reverence as Jeff Koons did his Hoovers.
So what, ultimately, does Gates find hardware store goods want to be? Like all aspirational sorts—who yearn to increase their aesthetic, symbolic, and monetary value, and who have no compunction against the luxury goods market or nostalgia—they want to be blue-chip contemporary art.