Staff Shows

08/15/2012 4:00 AM |

Courtesy Phillips de Pury

When French philosopher Jacques Rancière studied primary source materials from industrial workers in 19th-century France, he found they had surprisingly busy intellectual lives. Despite days spent performing manual labor, many workers had an active desire to participate in politics, culture, and philosophy, writing poetry, newspaper articles, and journals in their free time. One hundred years later, could we still make the same observations about workers?

Three handlers at Jack Shainman seem to think so, and have organized the exhibition HiJack! around the notion that inside many ordinary workers live eager artists. To my mind, though, it depends on the field. When I worked in a large wire fabrication plant for six years, my co-workers just wanted to lead uninspired Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. But the two years I spent art handling in New York were different. Most handlers I knew were artists and active participants in the art world, and therefore had a stake in the art they hung.

Each summer, New York galleries acknowledge this, hosting shows composed and organized by their employees. The results are rarely inspiring worker-uprisings, but at least they tell us something about the company and the community its employees have built.

Take Phillips de Pury, the contemporary-art auction house that is currently hosting a sprawling group exhibition by 31 of its employees titled, simply, Staff Show. It takes up two-thirds of the exhibition space on the third floor—16 galleries in total—showcasing the junior auction house’s sheer size. It’s also a model of democratic curating; staffers ranging from New York Managing Director Sean Cleary to Art Handler Joey Weiss are included in the show. The quality of the work is as diverse as their salaries.

Operations Manager Shaunna Harry organized the exhibition with the participating artists—arguably a few too many cooks stirring this brew. A haphazard arrangement of objects has the weakest artists showcased in the foyer, and the strongest in distant galleries. Robert Sciaci’s “Carnival,” a series of cheap-looking painted canvases coated in resin, filled the entire back wall of the main entrance and seemed particularly ill-advised. No one expects a summer show like this to be filled with consistent work, but the lesser art doesn’t need to assault viewers at the start. Thomas Spoerndle’s accomplished geometric abstractions paired with metallic wall paintings could have just as easily taken that space, though that would have meant removing them from their prized window location across from the Highline. It would have been worth it.

Over at Jack Shainman, HiJack! is pretty much the opposite. Curated by art handlers Luke Turner, Daniel Finch and Victor De Matha, the show includes 12 artists, most of them other handlers who have worked at the gallery. It’s a soft takeover on the staff’s part: Jack Shainman is away for the month, so they took the opportunity to organize their own show. Their uprising of sorts fits the theme of the exhibition, which is inspired in part by the work of Rancière.

The show itself is full of think-y pieces that speak to issues of labor. I’m not sure about Bessma Khalaf’s 12 hours of methodically dripping wax to fill the frame of a camera—that’s a road well-trodden by 70s performance artists—but the other work is solid. Aside from the strong black-activist work for which the gallery is known, the handlers smartly displayed the architectural plans and a sample block of glass from the planned subway art project by Odili Donald Odita, which will replace the windows at the 20th Avenue station in Bensonhurst. It’s not exactly an artwork, but I like that the renderings reference work that will be done by the artist and different city employees.

That’s an equalizing quality shared by my favorite part of the show: a communal table at the front of the gallery with a full library. The handlers eat their lunches there each day during the show and screen movies. When I arrived, they were even talking about organizing an event before the show closed. Their spirit and enthusiasm had a grassroots feel that Rancière would have loved.