Show Your Work
Curated by Sara Shaoul and Gabriela Vainsencher
601Artspace, 88 Eldridge Street, NYC
Sept. 24 - Dec 4, 2022
View installation images of the exhibition
Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Read about the exhibition in the New York Times
Curators Sara Shaoul and Gabriela Vainsecher discuss the exhibtion, and artist Susan Hamburger shares her process.
The way we work has radically changed in the last two years. We are looking less at the impact of individual labor, and more at how systems can support or abandon us. Artists are all too familiar with this reality. The art world is not a meritocracy, and hard work guarantees nothing. This exhibition is a series of commentaries that question how art, labor, virtue and meaning intersect. The artworks force us to consider what kinds of labor did or did not occur in their making and how that makes us feel, exposing our cultural biases and belief systems around success and working hard.
Any dialogue about art and labor in America draws on specific historical fallacies, from the (white, European) pioneer farmers who “earned” their land claims through physical investment, to the myth of the American Dream that propels the deserving into the middle class or beyond. American notions of success have been measured by metrics of labor, with slavery and other egregious racial and structural inequities conveniently ignored so that hard work could be positioned as the great equalizer.
But while wealth may be the goal of this quintessentially American form of striving, the leisure it could provide is suspect. In the U.S., the flaneur is a bum and there is no acceptable narrative for not working, ever. Yet, in the topsy-turvy reality of the art world, we all know working hard can amount to nothing. The artists in this exhibition explore the notion of “work” from different vantage points; from art brought to life through labor-intensive virtuosic efforts to art that succeeds exactly because the artist did less, not more, work. We titled this exhibition “Show your work”, after the ubiquitous request of math teachers everywhere. The artists in this show challenge us in different ways to consider the role of “work” in their artwork.
It is impossible to measure the labor that goes into one Sophie Calle artwork, as each project is the cumulative result of years of life and studio practice. The accumulated experience of simply existing as herself is material she mines and shapes into “The Breasts” and “The Plastic Surgery,” with a combination of intimate tenderness and a harsh, methodical eye. These two works in particular underscore the point that existing as a woman whose physicality is constantly under scrutiny is a lifelong layer of emotional labor. Similarly, T.J. Dedeaux-Norris's “Untitled (Say Her Name)” is inextricable from the artist’s identity and centers around an act of undoing a societal wrong on a personal level. In this video-recorded performance, Dedeaux appears onscreen with their mouth tightly shut. It becomes quickly apparent that their lips are not just closed, they are glued together, and we are here to witness the artist prying them apart using just their facial muscles. It is a work that is painful to watch, a metaphorical embodiment of the kind of work women of color must do to regain their silenced voices and erased identities.
Rivane Neuenschewender has a history of removing herself from the making of her artwork to powerful effect. She took this to extremes in one of her most well-known works, “First Love,” in which she hired a forensic sketch artist to draw participant’s memories of their first romance. In her “Conversations” images, one of which is featured in this exhibition, she removes not the artist exactly, but any conscious effort on the artist’s part. These photographs, of unconscious arrangements of objects and food that spontaneously occur during dinner conversations at a restaurant, become involuntary sculptural installations that disappear when the table is cleared. In Peter Liechti’s film “Signer's Suitcase – On the Way with the Artist” quintessential trickster-artist Roman Signer slept in a tent and projected his amplified snores across the Icelandic tundra. There is a strange delight in recreating this ultimate gesture of non-work, originally performed for no one. The installation now requires even less work from the artist than the original version, as recorded snores emanate from an empty tent.
Arkadiy Ryabin’s “Forces of Labor/Artist’s Scent” is a rack of new white men’s t-shirts, hung on a sculptural clothing rack. They are inexplicably pitted out, their armpits stained with a palette of yellows, ochres, and browns of the kind male bodies are imagined to produce at a time of great physical effort. A closer look (or whif) reveals the shirts to be meticulously stained with tea, an ancient fabric dye. This work is both an homage to male exertion and a sendup of the fetishization of the kind of (smelly) effort usually only allowed to men. The ceremonial helmets at the Metropolitan Museum’s famed Arms and Armor galleries that inspired Susan Hamburger’s sculptures were forged in ancient armories and worn by warriors on the battlefield - two arenas also dominated for centuries by men. Hamburger’s sculptures, on the other hand, are a celebration of the kind of labor-intensive, craft-centric sculpture which has been historically relegated to women. Hamburger reimagines these obscenely heavy metal helmets, intended to communicate wealth, power and military prowess, in subversively ethereal white paper clay. Her fragile creations would not only immediately break on a battlefield, they would probably melt in the rain first.
Walead Beshty’s two “Copper Surrogates” are part of a series of minimalist sculptures which are both physical and deeply conceptual works. As per the artist’s instructions, the works are always handled without gloves, so that they bear the marks of the labor of the art handlers who touched them.The artwork is not merely the sculpture made in the studio; it’s what happened to the sculpture in the process of arriving at the gallery. It is the sum of the thing and everything that it went through to arrive at its final destination. The solitary genius-worship of the art world has conditioned us to look for the artist’s mark, his signature, his brushstroke, and to ignore the studio assistant who is supposed to be an invisible extension of the artist’s intention. “The Copper Surrogates” do the exact opposite- they hide the artist’s work and bear the permanent marks of the men and women who bring the work into our view. Alighiero Boetti’s “Mappa” series of weavings are copied directly from actual maps and flags, and woven by skilled Afghan weavers, not the artist. As Boetti has noted: “I made nothing, selected nothing in the sense that the world is made the way it is and I have not drawn it; the flags are those that exist anyway, I did not draw them; all in all, I have made absolutely nothing.” The contents of the map (a dynamic reality rendered temporarily static) are further interpreted by the weavers, and the final result is informed by their worldview, politics, and experiences. On the map exhibited, Afghanistan is rendered in white, its flag and its sovereignty in flux. Far from the invisible fabricator doing the artist bidding, Boetti’s weavers are his collaborators, their labor creating meaning within his conceptual framework.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles was the conceptual touchstone for us in developing this exhibition. She invented “maintenance art”, a conceptual framework which activates the invisible supportive labor upon which modern life is built (in particular childcare and sanitation) as artmaking. As the artist in residence of the NYC Dept. of Sanitation, Laderman Ukeles famously shook hands with and personally thanked every single sanitation worker in the city. We are featuring three prints from her vast “One Year’s Worktime II”(1984-2016) series, which presented a full year of Dept. of Sanitation work shifts as clock faces, rendering tangible and visible the repetitive necessity of maintenance to society at large. In their vastly different ways, all the artists in this exhibition ask us to consider labors - invisible, accumulated, unconscious, inauthentic, delegated, or emotional - to expand our notion of what artmaking can be.
- Sara Shaoul and Gabriela Vainsencher
Image: Susan Hamburger, Helmets I, IV, and V, 2022. Paperclay, papier mâché, celluclay, cardboard and paper.
88 Eldridge St. New York, NY 10002
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