Theaster Gates: Freedom of Assembly at White Cube Gallery

Freedom of Assembly is Theaster Gates’ second solo exhibition with London’s White Cube Gallery. Having won the Artes Mundi prize in January, Gates is currently receiving praise for his installation at this year’s Venice Biennale. Freedom of Assembly comes at a high point in the artist’s career, showing a new tendency to reflect and reconfigure, though by way of a comparatively conventional sculpture and painting show with several telling absences.

Ground Rules (Scrimmage), 2015; wood flooring; 100 3/16 x 147 2/16 in. Courtesy of White Cube. Photo: Ben Westoby.

Theaster Gates. Ground Rules (Scrimmage), 2015; wood flooring; 100 3/16 x 147 2/16 in. Courtesy of White Cube. Photo: Ben Westoby.

Gates makes excellent use of language to push otherwise familiar formal constructions toward a heavier kind of political poetry, and the title of the exhibition works on political, personal, and formal levels. In the most obvious sense, the exhibition speaks to the right of citizens to come together as a body, an element of political freedom enshrined in many declarations of human rights, including the First Amendment of the American Constitution. Freedom of Assembly also addresses a defining element of Gates’ practice: his freedom to compose new meanings using materials that, like ready-mades, bring embedded meanings and histories of their own. The title further references the artist’s creative freedom, after six years of aggressive accomplishment, to experiment with his own traditions as he consolidates his place as an artist.

The thirty-six works spread among White Cube’s three galleries could function as separate exhibitions. In South Gallery I, the artist presents materials harvested from a recently closed hardware store on Chicago’s south side, reassembled into explicit formal homages to artists of the contemporary canon. Atlas (2015) is a series of ascending forklift arms that make a clear reference to Donald Judd. Shrug (2015) is a micro-installation of bricks stacked on a well-made pallet that looks like a Carl Andre sculpture ready for transport. On the opposite wall, Tiki Teak (2014), a shingled roof missing a rectangular notch, is very Gordon Matta-Clark. Freedom of Assembly (2015) is a wood-and-pegboard re-creation of Brancusi’s Endless Column (1918) that penetrates the gallery’s ceiling to continue upward, perhaps infinitely. While tasteful and excellently composed, few exceed their references. Cabinet Work (2015), a line of ten mostly emptied display cases, is the least specific in its reference (Mark Dion), yet best sustains imagination and interpretation.

Atlas, 2015; metal; 16 arms, each: 49 3/4 x 7 x 4 in. Courtesy of White Cube. Photo: Ben Westoby.

Theaster Gates. Atlas, 2015; metal; 16 arms, each: 49 3/4 x 7 x 4 in. Courtesy of White Cube. Photo: Ben Westoby.

The presence of such obvious citations exposes a problem at the heart of Gates’ practice as a maker of art objects whose production functions subversively as the financial engine for his more ambitious community projects in Chicago and elsewhere. Much has been written about Gates’ mobilization of the art market as a kind of fundraiser for privatized social programs, but less has been said about the power of this scheme to pardon any failings in the works themselves.

A generous interpretation of the works in South Gallery 1 would locate Gates’ power as an artist in inserting the narratives embedded in hardware-store materials into the history of art itself. However, given that each sculpture occurs within the space of White Cube, whose name itself is a complicit nod to the validating power of an institutional space to make art by claiming itself as a container for art, Gates’ concern to promote the art status of the materials he uses through formal homage is misplaced. As a result, the sculptures look too much like packaged formal solutions to the problem of art-historical inscription, too much like replacements for a lack of formal inventiveness independent from historical scaffolding.

The two works in White Cube’s 9x9x9 Gallery, Ground Rules (Scrimmage) (2015) and Ground Rules (Free Throw Possibility) (2015), are the exhibition’s best. These stunning painting-sized works were made from the reclaimed gymnasium flooring of a Chicago public school. Shuffled and reassembled, the new surface bears all the scuffs and scrapes of a well-used gym, while the red and black paint of its basketball court appear now as abstractions that stutter across the picture plane. While it is unlikely that these materials came from one of the fifty underperforming public schools closed in 2012 by Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the associations with this critical moment in the city’s history are plain and powerful. Together with the remains of the hardware store in Gallery I, the material associations in Freedom of Assembly assert the fragile spatiality of society, serving as a reminder that all spaces are subject to economic and political forces.

Diagonal bitumen, 2014; wood, rubber and tar; 96 ¾ x 120 ¼ x 5 1/8 in. Courtesy of White Cube. Photo: Ben Westoby.

Theaster Gates. Diagonal Bitumen, 2014; wood, rubber, and tar; 96 ¾ x 120 ¼ x 5 1/8 in. Courtesy of White Cube. Photo: Ben Westoby.

The works in White Cube’s South Gallery II exemplify Gate’s inclination to mine his personal history for studio experimentation, though this is a less rewarding project. Appropriating the material legacy of his father’s roof-tarring profession, Gates produced thirteen large and unremarkable canvasses of various roofing substrates smeared with thick black tar. In the past, Gates has mobilized this material for its political potential (in his last exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, he partially tarred a Civil Rights-era fire truck); however, the teeth of dissent seem all but pulled from this group of paintings. Likewise, the sculptures Covered Vessel (2015) and Glazed Vessel (2015) are chunky clay pots wrapped with tar-soaked roofing materials, sitting atop reclaimed and expertly rough-cut wooden pedestals. They are beautiful objects, though here too Gates appears to have left any larger ambitions in the other galleries.

Freedom of Assembly is an unusually straightforward exhibition for Theaster Gates, relying too heavily on the merits of his sculptures independent from the larger projects in Chicago and elsewhere for which Gates is better known and appreciated. Though his sculptures are the material basis (and fundraising element) for this expanded practice, they can’t sustain interest on sculptural terms, on formal terms, apart from that wider practice.

Theaster Gates: Freedom of Assembly is on view at White Cube Gallery through July 5, 2015.