Theaster Gates wants to give you the shirt off his back. Rather, he wants you to buy it, upcycled as art.
For his latest exhibition at Regen Projects, the Chicago artist was inspired by a verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” In response, Gates has created an aestheticized version of high-end retail, stocked with fabric pieces constructed mostly from his own clothing.
These objects, as well as others made from new denim, moving blankets and photographs printed on fabric, are draped on metal and wood armatures. They evoke display racks at expensive boutiques that use a cleaned-up, industrial aesthetic to emphasize the authenticity and workman-like simplicity of their wares. Ironically, luxury now speaks in the language of work.
Gates comments most directly on these retail conventions in “Repository,” a wooden display case inset into the gallery’s back wall. Its uniform grid of cubes captures the minimalist-industrial aesthetic. You can imagine it filled with fancy sneakers or purses or jeans. But it displays nothing, focusing our attention on the form itself.
“Rack of Aprons” is a thick stack of industrial shop aprons, made from blue moving mats. They are draped over a rectangular steel armature like so many horse blankets, suggesting protection from dirty or dangerous labor. But they also resemble neatly folded stacks of clothing one might rifle through to find the right size.
Elsewhere, Gates is preoccupied with the ascot, a species of men’s neckwear that often signifies luxury and leisure. In three wall works, he drapes hundreds of them, made from his own clothing, in droopy stacks over bronze dowels protruding from the wall. These are fascinating as catalog cards for Gates’ wardrobe. Each piece is titled “Memoriam,” lending them a mournful quality, as if the ascot were a small, aristocratic souvenir of the corpus that once was.
The gallery is filled with an a cappella song, written and sung by Gates, that resembles a hymn but is largely unintelligible. It emanates from speakers embedded in a case painted with a cross. Allusions to religious practice also appear in cross-shaped pieces of blue denim stacked on the floor like prayer mats.
The desire to rid oneself of worldly possessions is often a spiritual pursuit, an attempt at self-improvement. Gates has captured pretty perfectly the contradictions of a luxury culture that fetishizes labor to make consumption feel less exploitative. But like that culture, he ends up commodifying the trappings of labor along with its output by turning his wardrobe into an even more expensive and exclusive product: art.