The Visible Hand at CUE Art Foundation
Over the past few months we have witnessed both of those notions shift – on the one hand, America has taken a few new civics lessons to help understand the more invisible parts of government. On the other, never has there been so much opacity applied to dialogue – between the dial and the president, between family members, between friends. This creates polarization: What is visible, what is invisible in our world? What is visible and invisible has taken on a deeper resonance in largely abstracted ways. Yet this very notion has always had so many contingencies anyway – ranging from political transparency, making the unseen seen, making audible the silent, and more recently, watching in horror looming train wreck of our democracy. With this in mind, The Visible Hand (CUE Art Foundation from January 7-February 14) offered another dimension of this polarization to consider.
Curated by David Borgonjon, The Visible Hand features an intimate and carefully curated selection of five works by five different artists. 1 The exhibit’s name comes from Alfred D. Chandler’s book for business management and 2 traces in different ways the relationships that artists have with institutions: how they are institutions, have complex relationships to institutions, how they work within institutions, and as a consequence, their work morphs because of these varied associations. Despite claims that the aims of the show was to illustrate artists functioning as managers, what came off the strongest was how artists function in relationship to institutions. The narrative of the outside/inside/alongside institutions is subtle in the individual pieces, but is made explicit with Borognon’s catalogue entry– a series of clever aphorisms, “The artist ____the institution”. Borgonjon outlines the five ways he perceives artist relate to institutions: through separation, antagonist, support, embedding, and embodying.
On a table in the gallery, large format cards are spread across a table. They are color-coded and direct players through a series of hypothetical decisions they’d make about their art or design projects. Designed to give artists and other cultural workers real world scenarios for their art making process, Ten Leaps: The Card Game (2016) is part of BFAMAPhD’s Ten Leaps: A Lexicon for Art Education (2015–ongoing). The Lexicon “provides a comprehensive resource for artists and educators to apply sustainable, democratic, and socially just practices to contemporary cultural production, and to debate the difficulty of doing so.” The series of loose directives evoke McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle (C2C) approach to design which tracks the life cycle of products from materials to disposal. Ten Leaps applies these ideas to art making where materials, labor, copyright, narration, encounter, and many more fall at critical junctures between a project’s conception and its completion. The accompanying workbook and card game are auxiliary to the lexicon and help support another of BFAMAPhD’s goals: alternative economies. For The Visible Hand, this idea extends to the alternative relationships artists have with institutions in order to promote ethically informed projects and advance structural change within those institutions. Ultimately, the Lexicon offers a roadmap to circumnavigate the types of institutional structures that ––amongst other things– have given the world $100,000 art degrees.
Chloë Bass’, The Book of Everyday Instruction, Chapter Six: What is shared, what is offered (Four Phases of Love) (2016) occupied the back wall of the gallery. Part of her larger work on intimacy based on one-to-one encounters, Chapter Six consists of four large photographs hung as a square, each with an uncanny formal quality; that is each maps a spatial relationship between perfectly rounded scoops of spice, including turmeric, paprika, coriander, and cloves, laid carefully on a white dinner plate. Respectively, they feature: one ball of spice, two balls together, two balls apart, and finally, one ball separated from three others. Spices here are refer to Bass’ thoughts on archetypal relationships that may occur, perhaps even within a single relationship: “no body loves me,” “the impossible fairytale,” “we tried to love each other but it didn’t work out,” ”I love someone but it didn’t work out.” On an adjacent ledge are jars of the four different spices used and are labeled progressively: each step yields depth. The aroma of the spices infused the gallery space and amplified the analogy to artists’ relationships with institutions. As part of the public programming, Bass used these spice diagrams as part of a “couples counseling” workshop with the participant-audience. In this case, the “couple” was the pairing of artist and institution, and participants were asked to interrogate that relationship based on the four phases of love, first from their own perspective and then imagining the perspective of the institution they’re working with.
Along one wall are three video monitors with Maureen Connor’s Personnel (1999–ongoing). Accompanied by the playful “If You Only Knew” song over each video, Personnel documents three of her past installations, where she embedded herself in the human resource departments of the Queens Museum of Art (New York) the Tapies Foundation (Barcelona) and the Wyspa Art Institute (Gdańsk). She reworks institutional perceptions through clever interventions, which result in provisional reformations – most notably when she identified the lack of storage space and constructed makeshift shelving units that were then worn by employees in a somewhat dadaesque display of absurdity; or, when she needed to galvanize the staff of a remote art gallery in Canada, she filmed the staff wearing three different outfits on three different days: pajamas, evening wear, and normal work clothes. Connor then spliced the images into three sections to see each employee wearing the formal wear on the top, the work clothes in the middle, and the pajamas on the bottom. As such, the employees could see their other selves in the context of work environment. Connor’s wry humor punctuates each iteration of her practice, and it is with this work that one of the show’s themes becomes explicit – how an artist can morph, albeit temporarily, the institution from the inside out.
Jen Liu’s painted worlds of assembly lines and manufacturing overlords presented a more traditional mode criticality to represent managerialism. The Pink Detachment paintings each show white hands manipulating disembodied feminine figures in a dystopic manufactured landscape. The visible hands of power stand above disembodied workers. Liu’s paintings are visually compelling with lush pinks and graphics, though they seem a bit at odds to the more participatory works on display.
Taken individually, the works in The Visible Hand demonstrate how artists perform their relationships with institutions in compelling and thoughtful ways. Connor’s insights into the “humans” in human resources departments, BFAMFAPhD’s textbook for a more sustainable art practice, and Chloe Bass’s poetic pairings each suggest careful negotiations with institutions. While the artists in The Visible Hand have varied relationships to the institution – Maureen Connor’s inside managerial interventions, the alongside institutions such as BFAMFAPhD’s Ten Leaps, and the relationship with that Chloe Bass expresses in her pairings – they do not necessarily connect to the curatorial essay or the premise of the title, which sets the tone for the show. What was on display inside CUE gallery walls speaks to something different, yet equally as important.
Rachel Valinsky’s catalogue essay and curator David Borgonjon’s aphorisms describe the aims of the exhibition in an accompanying catalogue. Valinsky’s essay starts by challenging the notion of an outside/inside institution, a dichotomy well rehearsed by theorists of the avant-garde. She outlines the fraught and often confusing ways artists have worked with institutions, and clearly in the current economic climate they are now situated as institutions themselves, the neoliberal subject as entrepreneur who adapts to the changing demands of the market, reinventing themselves as necessary. The latest iteration of this artist-self is one who can administer, consult, and manage. These artist’s practices end up intersecting, responding, and reflecting the suffocating milleu in which we live and breathe and to which most cultural workers are adapting in unprecedented ways. She describes how artists work alongside institutions, forming and deforming institutional structures along the way. This is a promising statement, and I couldn’t agree more with the premise. It is Valinsky’s claim that the artists in the show reflect their relationship to management that seems weak in relation to the show itself, and as a consequence the title becomes suspect. At the end of the essay Valinsky claims the exhibition “traces an arc that also reveals the many possible roles of the artist today.” This happened, but the exhibition seems less about the artist’s relationship to management than it does to the artist’s shifting role in relation to institutions, the “artist as institution” included. These are related notions, no doubt, but corporate management and institutions are not necessarily the same and the work doesn’t go so far as to blur those categories either.
Taken as a whole, The Visible Hand is at odds with itself, with the curator’s hand again made visible as a middle manager between the artists work and its inscription into the institution.