The reality of being an artist is often that the work you create does not feed you. Hence, the day jobs, night jobs, gophering, woofing, and freelancing that artists engage in to survive. The biggest fear is that the job will overwhelm them, numbing creativity and stealing the spirit, leaving the artist just another worker drone.
Two exhibitions currently on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (ACAC) attempt an understanding of the artist’s relationship with the workplace. Day Job: Georgia, curated by Nina Katchadourian and Stuart Horodner, includes work by 15 local artists, both emerging and experienced, based on the format used by Katchadourian in an earlier version at The Drawing Center in New York. 100,000 Cubicle Hours presents four young artists curated by Beth Malone and Courtney Hammond of Dashboard Co-op.
Though smaller in scope and scale, 100,000 Cubicle Hours is tightly curated around a premise and gives a clear sense of its purpose through theme-specific work. Day Job, however, lacks cohesion, and the theme quickly unravels. The artworks reveal vastly different reactions from each artist, to varying degrees of success and, in some cases, failure.
In some of the works of Day Job, the influence of the workplace is so negligible the artwork seems out of place. Romy Aura Maloon’s sculptures are beautiful and strange, coupling animal forms with kitsch items like synthetic flowers cascading from a deer skull. Though the artist uses props from her job as an event designer, the correlation between artistic practice and the day job is tenuous. An event designer must incorporate the tastes and demands of clients who throw these events to garner the approval, and financial support, of attendees. Maloon’s art seemed a missed opportunity to address these strange dynamics, a lack echoed by other artworks in the exhibition.
With other pieces, the artists’ personalities seem muted and the influence of the workplace untempered by critical distance. In the drawings by Lane Ketner, middle managers and other workplace types are transformed into grotesque caricatures. The pieces are well-executed but the themes lack originality. Sharon Lapin’s shopping-cart attachments transform an object of her workplace into something specifically useful, but the functionality of those pieces is their most prominent feature; the objects lack visual and critical impact.
The most successful pieces demonstrated the ways in which a day job can not only influence art but be mediated by it. Jody Fausett’s photographs of objects from his landscaping and gardening job speak to both a love of natural wonders, like spider webs, and a discomfort in constructing wasteful organic tableaus for the wealthy. Black with Orange Racing Stripe, 2011, features a violently colored grasshopper atop a small pile of decaying flower clippings. The refuse of landscaping will deteriorate into mulch; the grasshopper suggests nature reclaiming the discarded flowers.
100,000 Cubicle Hours, however, is a refreshing visual pause after the rambling jumble of Day Job: Georgia. Contained in single side gallery with objects coated in white paint sparsely lining the walls, 100,000 Cubicle Hours portrays the artists’ experiences of an office environment and successfully extracts the essence and angst of corporate life.
The works are striking in their simplicity. Nikita Gale’s 53.1 Seconds (Efficiency), 2011, recreates the water cooler corner of an office. Water coolers provide refreshment and respite but also serve as points of confrontation, much like an oasis attracts competing animals. Paper cups line the walls. Written on these cups are tasks and the time they took, broken down into tenths of seconds. In a corporate setting, every work hour is an hour of your time purchased. Corporations push worker efficiency to drive up profit margins and increase productivity, and this piece portrays the tenseness and paranoia the individual feels while working under these conditions.
Takuro Masuda’s Excelerated States, 2011, is the crucial element in this show. Using Excel software, the artist created a video of colored squares that dance across a mounted screen, periodically shifting in pattern and rhythm. The lights and colors agitate both eye and mind recreating the numbing effect of working at a screen all day. The effect is necessarily oppressive; in the small space of the gallery, like a cubicle, the screen is inescapable.
I left the ACAC feeling conflicted by the disparities seen in these shows. With Day Job: Georgia, there were a few artists who explored the idea in a fresh way and utilized the space offered, but several pieces felt like afterthoughts due to disconnect with the themes. 100,000 Cubicle Hours gave a sense of potential, while Day Job: Georgia seemed rife with the holes I’ve come to expect from Atlanta art shows. 100,000 Cubicle Hours is proof that we can and should expect more.
Lilly Lampe is a freelance writer who holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago with a concentration in art history. She is the cofounder of Out There Atlanta, a weekly podcast covering people, places, and events throughout the city and beyond.
Disclosure: Artist Nikita Gale is a member of this publication’s Board of Directors. In pursuit of featuring work that significantly contributes to cultural discourse, as well as our commitment to transparency, our policy is to disclose instead of exclude.
Both exhibitions, Day Job: Georgia and 100,000 Cubicle Hours, continue at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center through March 24, 2012.