Theaster Gates Takes on the US Constitution

Theaster Gates Freedom of Assembly White Cube

Theaster Gates, 'Freedom of Assembly', White Cube, Bermondsey, London, 29 April - 5 July 2015, © Theaster Gates. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell).

For Freedom of Assembly, Theaster Gates’s second show with White Cube, the artist has uprooted a small corner of his hometown of Chicago in order to riff on the First Amendment and the freedom of assembly. If that weren’t enough, along the way he takes on conceptual art, social politics and, as he put it simply at the opening, “the things that are on my mind.” Gates as transformed materials salvaged from abandoned buildings, including the contents of a local hardware store gone bust, into paintings and sculptures that suggest iconic works by modern masters.

Gates isn’t just an artist, he’s an entrepreneur and an urban regenerator, whose pioneering efforts to reboot his South Side neighborhood have included renovating boarded up houses into a creative complex that includes a movie theatre dedicated to black cinema and a listening library stocked with old vinyl from a record store that closed down. His enterprising spirit is evident everywhere in the show.

Painted metal joists climb one wall in a double row recalling the repeating industrial forms of Donald Judd, while drilled board rises from floor to ceiling echoing the stacked pyramids of Brancusi’s Endless Column. Unlike Judd’s fresh from the fabricator’s perfection however, Gates’s creations are rusted and chipped, ripe with a sense of place and past use. Elsewhere former school gymnasium floors have been turned into hard-edged abstract paintings, their strips of wood recalling Frank Stella’s stripes. “I’m using materials from my world to conjure the history of painting while at the same time dealing with the closure of 56 schools in Chicago,” Gates said.

Perhaps the most striking though are huge paintings made with roof tar and pigment, where churning black and silvery masses suggest Reinhardt’s black paintings and Rothko’s expressive expanses of moody color. These works “hot from the studio” have been paired with the artist’s first love: ceramics. In the same gallery there are two congregations, an assembly of knee-high misshapen figures titled Knockoffs and beautiful roughly glazed large vessels, positioned on wooden crates-come-plinths.

If the traditional forms and beauty of many of these works come as a surprise given Gates’s past offerings like a communal house packed with art and performance at the last Documenta and a fire truck suspended from the ceiling for his first London outing— the artist himself was astonished. “I’m having a painting and sculpture show,” he said with knowing disbelief. “That feels really radical to me!”