Summer Session

Summer Session – Jobs Suck and Art Rules: Today I Made Nothing at Elizabeth Dee

Continuing our labor-themed Summer Session, today we bring you ’s review of Today I Made Nothing at Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York City. This article was originally published on August 23, 2010. 

Virginia Overton. Untitled (Chairs with Lights), 2009; chairs, light fixture, ratchet strap; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.

I’m so over jobs right now. Sure, we need them, we’re thankful for the paycheck and it’s fun to hang out with coworkers (sometimes), but let’s face it, jobs blow.  While the total freedom associated with making art seems antithetical to the 9-to-5 slog, there are definite correlations between art and work, and they are given form in the impeccably timed Today I Made Nothing at Elizabeth Dee Gallery.

There are two types of workplace rebellion on view here. In one, the artist is an outsider, fighting for equal rights and clashing against the system. Works like Alejandro Cesarco’s Why Work?, Duncan Campbell’s Factories Act 1961, and Jonathan Monk’s The Sound of Music (A Record With the Sound Of Its Own Making) each use techniques and ideas from the 1960s and ’70s such as appropriation and institutional critique. Vaguely recalling the efforts of the late-’60s collectives such as the Art Workers Coalition, these works feel a bit dated, but they lend the show a historical scope.

Joseph Strau. Title Forthcoming, 2010; mixed-media installation with floor lamp and two paintings; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.

Another group of artists is more successfully subversive. Mika Tajima, Renée Green, Joseph Strau and Virginia Overton each use the visual vocabulary of today’s corporate world as if they are involved in a diabolical inside job. Overton’s Untitled (Chairs With Lights) reconfigures mordant institutional design to create what is ostensibly a badass floor lamp/sculpture.  Joseph Strau’s Title Forthcoming presents two dainty abstractions with a lamp in front of them, as if Franz West were the display manager at IKEA. Mika Tajima’s A Facility Based on Change, an impenetrable work cubicle, updates the underlying claustrophobia in minimal sculpture for the middle-management set. Renée Green’s banners take on the look of corporate brainstorming lists in what she calls Space Poems. They’re funny, off-putting, and deceptively smart. In a room full of works attempting to challenge the boundaries of what art is, these might take the cake.

Renée Green. United Space of Conditioned Becoming: Space Poem #1, From My Institution Corporation Factory Blackberry Cellphone Mouth to Yours, 2007; double-sided color banner; 42 x 32 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.

It’s a sign of progress that, in a show about working, women have the strongest presence. However, other forms of advancement prove more difficult to measure. In the ’60s, artists protested museums at a level unheard of today. As rebellious as this show appears to be, many of the artists on view are up-and-coming museum stars in their own right. Museums have begun to absorb rebellion as part of their aesthetic, and they increasingly embrace and reward all forms of institutional critique and artist manipulation. By welcoming more acts of critique into their halls, they glean the benefit of appearing like nurturing patrons, but they also anesthetize any sense of real rebellion. We still have a long way to go, but Today I Made Nothing is an excellent place to start the conversation.