The starving artist is a common trope, and for a reason. Besides those fortunate enough to have inherited wealth or come upon it by other means, or who have managed to establish lucrative careers, artists have to work for their daily bread. Too often, that leaves little time for the “luxury” of artistic pursuit. But what of those artists whose daily work has simultaneously fed them and provided fodder for their art? The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center‘s current exhibits, “Day Job: Georgia” and “100,000 Cubicle Hours,” showcase artists who have drawn inspiration from their workaday world.
Co-curators Nina Katchadourian and Stuart Horodner, the Contemporary’s artistic director, pose this question: ”The day job can stand in the way of ‘freedom,’ but is complete freedom necessarily the best climate for productivity?” It’s especially pertinent in light of current economic conditions and the life choices engendered by personal financial concerns, not to mention the toll taken on the arts and arts funding in general.
If work other than art-making costs hours of personal time, the best-case scenario would include an artistic response that draws inspiration from the skills of the day job, or that taps into its frustrations and corrals them as creative energy. In this way, the limitations are the creative juice. Matthew Barney makes this point in his ongoing series “Drawing Restraint,” based on the idea that growth occurs through constraint — that artistic development requires the confines of limitations, that creativity is fostered in pushing against restrictions. If that’s true, complete freedom would never provide the necessary foil.
“Day Job: Georgia” comprises 15 Georgia artists whose artwork has been influenced by their daily employment. These works show that what happens “on the clock” can seep into the artistic consciousness. Most interesting are the remarkable variation in the day jobs and the way different aspects of them surface in diverse expressions. With some, the transference of technical skills is evident; with others, materials have been repurposed. With others still, the influence is highly theoretical. The most successful works are those that express a creative departure from the demands of the day job that arises from thoughtful resourcefulness.
Andy Moon Wilson, a full-time textile designer by day, has created a series of 24 small-scale drawings that presumably echo the patterns he uses in his work. Here they appear as colorful, mandala-like images that showcase his precise attention to detail. Likewise, the lush patterns of former wallpaper designer Zuzka Vaclavik inform her subtle, pastel-hued paintings.
Decorative design is also a theme in Christopher Chambers’ collages. A remodeler of domestic interiors, he seems concerned with the disposable nature of materials in a world of ever-changing tastes. Chambers’ images, which appear to have originated in slick magazine ads, are cut and reconfigured to remark upon the superficiality of commercial domestic culture.
Using humor as a safety valve from the pressures and boredom of work, Ashley Anderson’s installation “Cups,” paper Coca-Cola cups decorated with cartoonish images, provides both levity and a reminder of the amount of downtime that comes with many jobs. Anderson, a food server at Fellini’s Pizza, has “documented” his workdays in more than 200 cups. Besides the relief of sheer entertainment, this speaks volumes about the determination of many artists to find an outlet, even on any available ephemera. One can’t help but think of Picasso and his cohorts drawing on café napkins and tablecloths.
An exhibition standout is Romy Aura Maloon’s installation “What Rough Beast, Its Hour Comes Around at Last.” An event coordinator for a high-end catering company, she appears interested in the details of staging and the exercise of artifice. Utilizing marketing materials and cast-off items from buffet displays, Meloon has crafted a large-scale jigsaw-cut sculpture of a lion and its prey, an antelope, linked by a golden chain. Red, blood-like glitter demarcates the edges, a surfacing technique that covers the work’s “imperfections” to highly dramatic effect — one of the many aesthetic masking skills Maloon learned on the job. Through its simplicity and elegant design, the piece re-imagines the kitsch hunting-trophy sculptures of South Africa in a way that is both playful and slightly disturbing.
Another installation that combines materials in haunting juxtaposition, working mother Sarah Emerson’s “No More Dreaming Like a Girl” is a focal point of the show, both in scale and execution. Emerson’s artwork here draws from her relationship with her daughter and collaborator, Harlow. A large and foreboding black-and-white mural of ravens descending in flight from a tree is paired with Harlow’s sweet, crayon-scrawled images of bumblebees, anthropomorphic soup bowls and friendly animals. In front of these images, an actual child’s school desk emits the sounds of a Disney soundtrack on a loop. In its totality, the piece offers a stark reminder of the loss of innocence and the perceived lessening of creative freedom that adulthood, and the working world, bring.
The work of the four artists in “100,000 Cubicle Hours” is confined to one small gallery. Beginning with the idea that the average person spends about 100,000 hours working during a lifetime, this exhibit portrays the “gray space” of the typical office environment, in which individual personality is subjugated to the grim realities of banal tasks.
Unlike in “Day Job: Georgia,” we are not offered the off-duty retooling of the minutiae of the day into more creative endeavors. Other than the suggestion by Matt Sigmon in his piece “Don’t Copy. Don’t Copy That Floppy” to photocopy our own derrieres in his photobooth-style installation (as many doubtlessly have done to relieve the boredom of office work), we are left to contemplate the level of hell to which our own day job may (or may not) take us.
In Nikita Gale’s installation “53.1 Seconds (Efficiency),” the shallow pleasantries of water-cooler chitchat are writ large. The work consists of the inscription “Hey, How’s It Going?” over a stark white cooler lined on both sides by white cups printed with the most predictable and least revealing of responses. Gale’s work points to a lack of true interpersonal connectivity in the workplace as the restrictions of efficiency engender an impersonal environment.
On the opposite wall, Takuro Masuda’s video art, created by Excel software, offers little respite in its recurring color patterns, which mimic the visual fatigue of habitual monitor-gazing.
Overall, the works at the Contemporary offer an interesting insight into the daily lives, motivations and inspirations of the chosen artists. The takeaway message seems to be that, regardless of how uninspiring a day job may seem, creativity may flourish in spite of, or in direct opposition to, the limitations of the work. A job is what you make of it. If the artist is responsible for his or her own survival, the ability to remain intellectually curious and resourceful seems to pay off. “Don’t quit your day job” may be the best advice yet. Clock in to see this exhibition before March 24.
Panel discussion: “Creative Lives & Careers: On Ambition.” Artists Craig Drennen and Nikita Gale, gallerist Jennifer Schwartz and Artistic Director Stuart Horodner will discuss ambition as evinced by Atlanta artists, galleries and collectors at 11 a.m. Saturday, January 21.