You’ve heard the phrase “Don’t quit your day job.”
Perhaps it’s the visual artist who hears it most. Whether lack of the government funding, fluctuating economic conditions, an unpredictable art market, or a general disconnect between artist and audience is to blame, there’s plenty of misunderstanding surrounding the value of art and nature of art production. And while the “starving artist” trope is part of a larger myth constructed around the artist’s identity, many artists, like many of us, struggle to make ends meet.
More than a decade in development, the exhibition “Day Jobs,” at the Blanton Museum of Art, questions why we aren’t more informed about the entirety of an artist’s labor. Why not consider how an artist’s other professional experiences might benefit our interpretation of their work?
The show was organized by Veronica Roberts, the Blanton’s former curator of modern and contemporary art (now director of Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center), along with Lynne Maphies, a former curatorial assistant.
“Day Jobs” is organized and installed by sectors such as: Art World; Service Industry; Industrial Design; Media and Advertising; Fashion and Design; Caregivers; and Finance, Tech, and Law. Major players are expected. Andy Warhol started as commercial illustrator. Jeff Koons, a commodities trader.
Roberts’ selection, however, doesn’t rely solely on such artists already well-known for extracurricular employment. She includes lesser-known and emerging artists as well, mining some remarkably diverse work. Seeking out deeper conversations and amassing collections of stories, ultimately makes the exhibition less anticipated, weightier, and more worthwhile.
Highlights from such excavations include the wonderfully improvisational work of Manuel (Manny) Rodríguez-Delgado. His jetpack like sculpture. “Piloto” (Pilot), (2022) stands about six-feet on a rolling wooden base. Featuring a battery-operated breathing machine including a fan and air filter, it also presents viewers with a Plexiglas screen behind which is an open notebook filled with a handwritten and invented language along collaged elements including an image of an astronaut. Like an artist-adventurer Delgado has cycled through numerous residencies. He was also a crate-maker and two crates painted with blue text sit next to his sculpture as part of the installation.
Another artist filed under “unexpected” is Lenka Clayton. Born in England but based in Pittsburgh, Clayton founded “An Artist Residency in Motherhood” in 2012. Billed as a “A self-directed, open-source artist residency for artists who are mothers,” the organization was established after the birth of her first child, run from her home, and actively challenged the idea that full-time caregivers can’t function as serious artists. Rethinking her domestic life as an official artist’s residency, Clayton forced her labor, surroundings, and situation to work for her.
Clayton’s work “Dangerous Objects Made Safer 2012-2014” covers kid adverse tools like knives, hammers, and scissors with wool, softening the connotation of danger. Another work called “63 Objects Taken Out of My Son’s Mouth” arranges items such as a bolt, bubblegum, buttons, a cigarette butt, coins, a wooden toy, a metro ticket, seeds, small rocks, and wire caps in neat linear fashion on a clean white surface – displayed like precious specimens in clear museum case. Not only does the installation document her work as mother but it catalogs her son’s oral proclivities from the age of 8 to 15 months with great aplomb.
Established artist, but potentially under the radar, is Howardena Pindell, who held several curatorial positions at The Museum of Modern Art in the1960s and 1970s. (There is a whole section of artists employed by MoMA at one time or another.) As a museum employee by day, she couldn’t find ample time or the daylight to paint. This led to the use of new materials and methods in her art practice. “Punching holes into manila folders, paper, and discarded mat board from the museum’s frame shop, she combined the pieces with paint and thread to create textured canvases.” Pindell’s “Autobiography: Japan (Mountain Reflection)” (1982-83) is hung oriented like a diamond and not a square, her canvas unstretched with uneven edges. Collage-like and abstract, it simultaneously conveys the feel of rough and rocky terrain and soft and nubby blanket.
The connection between Allan McCollum’s job as a meal preparer, for the TWA dining unit at LAX and his “Collection of Two Hundred Plaster Surrogates” (1983-85) is refreshingly intuitive. Looking at the wall, black rectangular “stand-ins” for paintings are hung salon style. Casting them in plaster, hand painting them, using industrial baking sheets to organize them, McCollum confuses ideas about uniqueness and mass production. Similar in look, no two are the same in size or color. The misconception of art as rarified object is highlighted.
From the same “Pictures Generation” as McCollum the work of video-editor Gretchen Bender (1951–2004) is recently enjoying a come-back. “Flash Art” from 1987 is a wall size installation centering on monitor playing music videos by female acts from MTV’s nascent years, the 1980s. Bender frames the monitor with prints of paintings by David Salle, often cited as misogynist in his depictions of the female form. In doing so, Bender contrasts Salle’s subjects’ vulnerability with empowered images of Janet Jackson, Annie Lennox, and Dolly Parton, all known for incorporating artifice into their own performances. Editing for 20th century Fox Television, directing music videos, and creating the opening sequence for “America’s Most Wanted,” Bender’s work life surely informed her takes on mass media, the corporate world, and representations of women.
Relationships developed with colleagues we work alongside are part and parcel of the day job experience. “Homage to Johnny” (2015) hinges on Violette Bule’s work at a New York bakery and honors one of the artist’s co-workers. Mexican born “Johnny” didn’t speak English or Spanish, but his Indigenous language, Nahuatl. For this he was paid less and had difficulty communicating. Bule obtained a pair of sidewalk cellar doors, the kind that lead to dark places —and when open, injury — and covered them with forks. The result is an amalgamation of shiny pronged instruments dense and dynamic; they spill out onto the gallery floor.
Another service industry entry that will resonate with Texas viewers is the late Chuck Ramirez’s ink print “Whatacup” (2002/2014). Self-trained Ramirez started out as a graphic designer and a brand developer for the San Antonio-based chain H-E-B Grocery. With an eye for advertising, he’s known for isolating objects in his photographs – like this orange and white striped Whataburger Cup. They’re printed large – this one six-feet tall – making them something iconic and emblematic of a regional cultural. The artist adds a small text label centered on the cup reading “When I am empty, please dispose of me properly.” The Blanton’s museum label links these words to Ramirez’s HIV status suggesting they read like a “kind of epitaph.”
Lastly Genesis Belanger’s background in the fashion field as a prop stylist illuminates the staging aspects of her two exhibition works, “Stepford Wife/ Sister Wife” (2018) and “Big Sleep” (2019). Installed together to create a tableau, the work features a large brush with women’s manicured fingers as bristles, atop a four-cushioned chaise. The bedding stacked with four mattresses à la “Princess and the Pea” suggests the privileged positioning of the beauty industry as do two “Stepford Wife/Sister Wife’s” manikin torso lamps with pink shades. Made primarily of stoneware and porcelain, the objects seduce in their smooth ladylikeness offered up for consumption.
There are a lot of inaccurate ideas about how artist’s work, and what inspires them. They don’t always work in isolation in a studio. And ideas don’t drop from the heavens along with a dramatically scored ‘aha’ moment.
As Roberts points out, we need to rethink creativity and what it means to be an artist: “They are people who have lived experiences and whose jobs and lives are intertwined with their work.”
“Day Jobs” continues through July 23 at the Blanton Museum, 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. More info at blantonmuseum.org.