456 West 18th Street
New York, NY
Allan McCollum, The Shapes Project: Perfect Couples
What’s on view: Flat, wooden abstract shapes painted a single color and arranged on the wall in a grid. The abstract shapes resemble toys, and are organized by tonal range.
Walead Beshty, Performances Under Working Conditions
What’s on view: Copper plates that have been sized to fit the desks of workers at Petzel and then marked by their fingerprints, coffee cups, and mouses (their labor) over the summer months. In the center of the gallery, black boxes that look like over-sized binders (or regular sized tombstones) rest on a white plinth. There is also a letterpress replica of a workplace notice on minimum wage by the New York State Department, and a stack of takeaway posters filled with government documents detailing information about Federal State and Labor Laws.
Paddy: These shows made me never want to visit Petzel again. Admittedly Walead Beshty’s show was better than I anticipated—after reading the press release, I lamented the pseudo-intellectual content of this important use-residue. Now that I’ve seen the show, I can say that at least a modicum of effort was put into the concept of labor. I’m a little confused, though, about how it all connects. What is the relationship between the traces of one person’s work and their compensation? Why does the legalese of their compensation have to be “gilded” in letterpress? How much sweat counts as labor? Maybe I would have taken this piece a little more seriously if Beshty had paid the gallery assistants and directors for the sweat that made these pieces—they are credited by name in the page-long titles documenting production costs and materials—but then again, who cares? Gallery workers get paid adequately relative to, say, security guards, so who is this piece even talking to outside the art world?
Corinna: If you look hard enough for clues to finding out the cold, hard facts about labor and value—and I don’t subscribe to the brand of art that requires art-goers to investigate into meaning that may or may not be there—they might be found in the titles. Looking at “Reception 1,” buried within the title is the record that the work’s production cost was $42,933.00. Same for the “Reception 2,” “Reception 3,” and “Reception 4” panels. The “Directors 1” panel cost $74, 683.00” in production. Compared with the $8.00/hour minimum wage listing on the wall, this discrepancy seems enough to make anyone want to quit the art world. Beshty didn’t. He just points out, buried in the titles, that there’s an economic gap.
Paddy: So maybe the point here is that regardless of what industry you come from—whether we’re talking commissions and tips or flat rates and salaries—the product can’t be made without all these workers? I dunno. It’s a pretty muddy concept for a piece that’s not very complicated to begin with. And did we really need a bunch of used copper desk plates to figure out that labor is valued differently? My guess is that the director who gets a commission from all this nonsense is gonna say “yes.”
Whatever the case, Allan McCollum is the more serious offender IMO. This is a show that attempts to kill its audience with tedium. At the front of the gallery are stacks of binders documenting McCollum’s process—he’s made a system that allows him to make a unique object for every person in the world—which in the end will be 31,000,000,000 objects. Grids of colored abstract squiggles line the walls. This particular show pairs these blobs, supposedly creating an analogue to human relationships.
Yeah, right. This is an abstract Disneyland, where every object neatly matches its partner and everything looks the same. Every object exists in harmony with every other object. Darker tones are paired with other darker tones, and lighter tones are paired with other lighter tones. The arrangement would read as racially charged if the entire project weren’t so obviously driven by meaningless process-based formalism. The Shapes Project represents the absolute worst of the genre.
Corinna: Those binders look like they’re supposed to add some sort of scientific research or backing to this project. But just to verify, let’s read about what’s inside the binder marked “How the 72 “ab arrays” (the “tops arrays”) are formed”:
Hm. I so hope this is meant to be a conceptual joke on technical language, rather than some quasi-scientific gobbledygook leading to a whole lot of formalism. Who’s going to take this process seriously? Really—is this a joke?