Cycles, Cogs & Jobs Well Done

A moment in Liz Magic Laser's video piece. All photographs by Paul D'Agostino.

Intelligent, insightful, brow-furrowingly curious and terribly, tellingly timely, Art:Work, a group exhibition curated by Jessica Gallucci at Reverse Gallery, is also an indirectly predictive, refreshingly relevant analogical dismantling of the show’s titular terms. It is also, at turns, alarming and hilarious.

What you encounter upon entering the gallery is a suite of relatively straightforward takes on what now constitutes ‘work’ for so many: a job that entails a great deal of muscularly deleterious, ocularly ruinous time in front of a computer screen—or rather, ‘a fucking computer screen,’ since most of those who spend a bit too much time peering at or into one are wont to qualify it as such. These pieces, somewhat chunkily representational paintings and sculptures by Sarah Alice Moran, do a very fine job, so to speak, of portraying the kinds of workaday miseries that are likely to be awfully familiar to many viewers: screens within screens, phones next to phones, hands ‘resting’ tiredly while fingers tap dutifully, papery clutter and piles of stuff, and strained eyeballs that feel like they’re ready to pop right out of their cranial sockets, which here they’ve quite literally done.

Works by Sarah Alice Moran.

It’s all accurate and amusing enough, at a glance, but what makes these works even more accurately amusing is that they also convey how these various technologies of office ‘productivity’ eventually begin to feel, in both tangible and intangible ways, no matter how much slimmer, sleeker, lighter, quicker or more allegedly ‘efficient’ they become: crummy, clunky, goofy, heavy, thick, annoying, boring, crappy (adjectives attributable to the objects in question, of course, not Moran’s artworks). They don’t really clean up your desk, after all. They don’t make your office any bigger. To say that they definitely don’t make your life any better, ultimately, is arguable—if you’re as Mesozoic as I am, you might agree that they basically don’t—but they quite definitively don’t make desk jobs any more pleasant, satisfying or truly productive, nor really any less toilsome at all at the end of the day. They still leave your body crumpled, your face drawn, your eyes hyperactively deadened, your neck and shoulders destroyed. They also basically force you to go to a gym—or rather, ‘a fucking gym’—to feel a bit less like a corpse, or to a bar—funny how I’ve no compulsion at all to qualify ‘bar’ like ‘gym’—to feel a bit more like one. That said, the reality of going to work to then need to work out does lead one to envision some nearish future in which robots have taken over mundane desk jobs, too, while the humans who used to have those jobs pound treadmills, ride stationary bikes and climb fake staircases to generate the electricity to power email-sending, spreadsheet-crafting machines. Or whatever. The point is, people will probably still hate their jobs, and happy hour will still be a very enjoyable time of the day. Another point: Moran’s works, however non-techy their means and modes of execution, are wonderfully effective at encouraging viewers to think about day jobs through and through, from barely latent dinosaur-isms to perhaps lamely predictive truisms.

A moment in one of the videos by Linden and Stuve.

It’s behind the black curtain, though—i.e. in the video screening area in the back half of the gallery—where Art:Work becomes much more than a takedown of the common day job. Here, via an exceptional set of video pieces by Narcissister, Philip Vanderhyden, Liz Magic Laser, Jeremy Hutchison and Wonderpuss Octopus (artist-filmmaker duo PJ Linden and Sarah Stuve), ideas about what constitutes artistic practice, artwork, art as work, and work as art, and about the now funny, now shocking consequences that might result when one ‘professional’ sphere penetrates the other, are brilliantly, polyvalently complicated such that the exhibition title’s implicit half analogy—’art is to work’—opens itself up to many potential terms of completion. The series of videos by Linden and Stuve, for instance, would address all such notions with great germaneness even if the artists weren’t actually commissioned by an ‘advice website’ of sorts to create them—which makes their all-but-blatantly parodical content and posturing all the more stunningly humorous. Even more stunning, and rather significantly less humorous, is the gushing, perhaps gushingly ignorant reaction to Narcissister’s dance performance on America’s Got Talent, a clip so loaded with entertainment-industry bizarreness and art-world-meets-real-world commentary that it made at least this viewer wonder if an entire show, perhaps a follow-up to this one, might be built around precisely that.

If so, Liz Magic Laser’s video here would most likely fit that bill. Her Armory Show Focus Group seems, at least initially, to make light of how art fairs deal ‘with’, or rather ‘in’, artists, and to indulge in the inherent humor of bringing together a select group of art critics, historians, curators and collectors to address the same with seriousness of purpose, but the occasional laughs the piece might elicit become graver in tone as the discussion deepens, and as concepts of artistic agency, autonomy and authorship begin to collide with those of corporate branding. It’s hard to not chuckle a little bit. It’s also hard to not get at least a bit upset. That said, it’s also hard to not watch every moment of all the featured videos, whose meta-mixery of imagery and modes of looping seem quite summarily indexed by Vanderhyden’s every-churning monitors. On that note, if the last thing you happen to catch before passing back through the curtain is the sequence in Hutchison’s piece in which a lone, ostensibly not disgruntled manual laborer is shown contentedly spinning and halting, with mesmerizing ease and rhythm, the formidable wheel of some factory machine of certain heft, then some of Art:Works underlying metaphors pertaining to cycles and cogs might remain thusly envisionable in your mind for quite some time. He’s almost smiling, in a way. In a way, you almost smile with him. For certain, you too will want to know what it feels like to operate that outmoded mechanism.

On your way out of the gallery, by the way, take a moment to greet the people at the front desk. They might be looking at computers—reflective of certain artworks in their vicinity—when you approach them, but since gallery folks usually aren’t robots, at least not yet, they might be happy to answer questions and chat, for several of the video pieces have background stories that are well worth inquiring about. Also, if one of the people you’re talking to happens to be the exhibit’s curator, tell her that Art:Work is a job well done.

A moment in Hutchison's video.

Reverse is located in Williamsburg at 28 Frost Street, and Art:Work is up through November 21st. More information at reversespace.org.

Paul D’Agostino is @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

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