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I love that the server isn't smiling. I love it because it defies the expectation that 'service with a smile' is owed to people.
The photograph is of a restaurant server, dressed in a white collared shirt and a black vest. On her shoulders, she's holding a wooden platform, piled high with dishes. A twin image of the same person lays doubled to the right, only this time, instead of dishes, her face is framed by an American flag. I can't stop thinking about how the platform on the server's shoulders resembles a cross between a cattle yoke and a guillotine.
I first learned about the Blanton's exhibition on the invisible labor of artists in America walking past the museum on a hot summer day. The aforementioned photo was plastered on a vinyl poster and tied to a chain-link fence, the words "Day Jobs" printed at the top.
Behind the courtesy fence, which was erected to hide the construction happening outside the museum, noise of heavy machinery rose like the plumes of dust workers were exposed to daily. With all the references to frontline workers, gig workers, and essential workers during the pandemic, the image of a restaurant worker balancing both dirty dishes and an American flag spoke to who really carries the weight of America—BIPOC and undocumented workers.
The photograph reminded me of how rarely I see a working-class person depicted as an agent in art. In her gaze, I saw subversion. In her body, I saw the toll that service work had taken.
A few months after I first glimpsed the poster, I followed the chain-link fencing and the signs stating, "We apologize for the inconvenience"—around the 200,000-square-foot construction site to visit the exhibition. When I entered the museum, I saw workers checking people in at a makeshift desk and taking tickets at a podium. The building's exterior remodel has been underway since March 2021.
When I lost my job as a bookseller during the pandemic, I applied for a gallery assistant job (aka a guard) at the Blanton and was asked if I was capable of standing long hours and enduring construction noise. "Yes," I lied. The perk of the job, I told myself, was being surrounded by art all day. I didn't get the job.
The day jobs I've had in my life have ranged from dishwasher to administrative assistant, not unlike several of the 38 emerging and established artists included in the Day Jobs exhibition. Their work is divided into categories: Art World; Service Industry; Industrial Design; Media and Advertising; Fashion and Design; Caregivers; and Finance, Tech, and Law.
The show opens with a statement:
Many artists take on day jobs due to the high cost of living and modest government support for the arts in this country. Success is often measured by their ability to quit a day job and focus full-time on creating art. Yet these positions aren't always obstacles to artists' careers.
Before I went to see the exhibition, I asked a few random people in my life what they thought of when they heard the term "day job." The consensus was that a day job was a way to pay the bills. After working as a barista and using 30 pounds of pressure to tamp down on espresso and make latte art every day for 15 years, I agree. The same job that allowed me time to write, the same job that messed up my wrist enough to make writing painful.
This might be why the first piece that stuck out to me in the section called Art World, which gathered the work of MOMA security guards, library assistants, and exhibition assistants, was Howardena Pindell's "Autobiography: Japan (Mountain Reflection)."
In a 2011 interview, Pindell said, "I wasn't making very much money at the Modern, one hundred dollars a week in 1967. I could only paint at night without natural light." Out of scraps, she created a textured blanket of office discards, thickened with acrylic paint. Manila files became hole punch circles in yellow, orange, and blue against gray paper pulp—a playful communion between materials returned to their organic state and small moon shapes that made the surface look like another planet up close. Pindell had taken what was at her disposal and given it life.
I chatted with Clarissa Chacón, who works as a gallery assistant. She explained that Pindell was doing very realist-style work before she started to create layered surfaces and multidimensional shapes. I could see how doing repetitive administration work would inspire new ways of seeing materials. I've learned from my desk job that the imagination fights to break through. Otherwise, it starts to wither under the monotony of repetitive tasks: collate, staple, file, spreadsheet, email, spreadsheet.
Chacón kept a small notebook in her hand that she could easily slip into her pants pocket. She wore the standard uniform: a long sleeve, royal blue shirt, black pants, black shoes that can withstand long hours of standing, a hidden earpiece, and a walkie-talkie. When she flipped through the notebook's pages, I saw that she'd written notes and drawn profiles of museum visitors. She'd taken a few drawing classes years ago, but started to draw regularly once she was surrounded by other museum workers, who she says "pretty much all make art." Chacón pointed out that for visitors, the museum represents leisure time, but for museum workers, it's different. They have to find other spaces to unwind.
When I asked what she thought of Day Jobs, Chacón said that it was one of her favorite exhibitions in the two years she's worked at the Blanton. She said the curators really thought about showing how artists evolve, pointing out a display case for a museum worker's sketchbook.
I wondered how Chacón felt about the exhibition's featured artists who have high-paying jobs, like those in finance, law, and tech. After all, there are day jobs, and then there are careers.
I moved through the exhibition's other sections. In Media and Advertising, I spotted the work of Chuck Ramirez, who worked for H-E-B, doing the Texas mega chain store's branding.
In the Caregiving section, I saw work by former ICU nurse Nate Lewis, who didn't start drawing until he was 25 years old, two years into his nursing profession. Using hand-sculpted inkjet print, ink graphite, and frottage he included some of his patients' electrocardiograms in his early collages. Vivian Maier, who worked as a nanny for over 40 years, started taking photographs on the streets of New York and Chicago in the early 50s. She never had her work in a gallery while she was alive. In fact, two years before she died, all her work was liquidated because she couldn't afford to pay the fees on the five storage units she rented to keep her film and prints. The men who bought her work profited through their "discovery" of a great "unknown" street photographer.
In the Service Industry section, I finally learned the name of the photographer whose photograph had stopped me in my tracks on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard: Violette Bule, a Houston-based artist born in Valencia, Venezuela. The photo, a chromogenic print, called "Dream America," was taken in 2015. The structure resting atop the restaurant workers' shoulders is a reference to another photo, called "Bricklayer," a 1928 print by German photographer August Sanders, who did a series of photos about laborers. The restaurant worker carries plates and cups on her shoulders the way a bricklayer carries bricks.
The placard quotes Bule, "When you are an immigrant, you become a todero, which means that you do any kind of work to survive." Bule's experience as a restaurant worker is what makes the photograph so compelling. The restaurant worker's eyes are closed when the weight of the dishes rest on her shoulders and open when carrying the flag. She looks tired; it's an honest expression that service industry workers aren't supposed to show.
In "Dream America," I was struck by the contrast between the spaghetti noodles that spilled out over plates and bowls and the starched white of the server's shirt. There's a special art to keeping a shirt clean amid pasta sauce. And because spaghetti is so gluey, getting it scrapped off of plates is another feat for the dishwasher. I happen to know this because, at one of my many café jobs, I used to spray off dirty plates with a pre-rinse sprayer before doing a load of dishes. If I sprayed out a bowl the wrong way, water would splash back into my face and soak my shirt.
Bule's next piece "Homage to Johnny," 2015, made me smile. Affixed to the middle of a three-panel steel grate, the eye is drawn to a mess of forks, held in place by magnets.
"This is fucking chaos," I thought to myself, remembering how washing silverware was the worst—forks would get intertwined, and spoons would wind up threaded through cup handles. If a customer held up a dirty fork, that meant the entire establishment was stained. I clocked that the quality of the forks was a tier above plastic, but a tier below thick forks that get cloth napkin treatment.
Johnny was Bule's coworker at a New York Bakery. He spoke Nahuatl, and was paid $5 an hour, less than workers who spoke English or Spanish. He took out the trash and polished the silverware in the basement of the bakery. I assumed this wasn't the sort of polishing that real silverware undergoes, but the sort that removes the soapy residue after a cycle in the dishwasher. According to the placard, Bule was fired from the bakery and never got to tell Johnny about the work she dedicated to him.
Just before I arrived at a Jeff Koons sculpture, which I recognized because of its gaudy new car-like shine, I looked at the collages of Jay Lynn Gomez, a nanny who grew up east of Los Angeles, the daughter of undocumented parents from Mexico. While working as a live-in nanny in Beverly Hills, she used magazine spreads discarded by her employers to paint Latinx workers into the scene. In "The Custodian is Present," a woman in a blue work shirt holds a broom and stands across from performance artist Marina Abramović, who poses stock still.
In another collage, "Benjamin and Adela in the Jeff Koons exhibition," 2014, a museum security guard is painted in front of a Jeff Koons sculpture, while another custodial worker pushes a dust mop across the floor. Gomez paints featureless people—their anonymity reflects both a protection of their identity and also the way they are unseen under white supremacy. Her work foregrounds people who are just as present as the artists and artwork itself. Curiously, when I asked the Blanton for stock photos of the exhibit, photos of visitors were present, but not a single gallery assistant was visible in the frame. Then again, I'm not sure I would want to be.
Gomez's work was displayed next to Koons' sculpture, but I was too lost in thought about who gets erased out of public spaces to give a shit about Louis XIV's silver stainless steel head. The fact that the sculpture was encased in glass says something about who gets to make art; what materials they can afford to use; and how much donor, grant, and corporate support they are given in order to thrive.
And that's why it's difficult for Day Jobs to make the argument that having a day job is the light switch that inspires these artists' practices. That could be so, but that speaks more to the resilience of the imagination than it does to the benefits of working in say, a bakery. I know filmmakers who drive for Uber Eats; I know poets, who tutor wealthy children; I know artists who work at art stores to get discounts on supplies. Every single one would quit their day jobs if a nice chunk of money came their way in order to do what they love. Then again, most people would probably quit their day jobs if they could.
The Picture Man in Cabbagetown
Alexandra Marvar writes on the self-trained photographer and social worker, Oraien Catledge, who captured the defiant resilience of a Southern mill village.
I understand that Day Jobs, according to the text on the wall, "seeks to demystify artistic production and overturn the romanticized concept of the artist sequestered in their studio, waiting for inspiration to strike." But that assumes an artist has a studio.
The curatorial statement says: "Day Jobs encourages us to acknowledge the precarious and generative ways that economic and creative pursuits are intertwined." Economic pursuits is just a nice way of saying that artists exist inside of capitalism, while a list of donor names follows an acknowledgment of "generous funding" from the National Endowment of the Arts. The exhibition's presenting partner was the Austin-based company Indeed.
If the Blanton, located on the University of Texas at Austin campus, can raise nearly $35 million in donations to revamp its patio and entrance but its workers—many of whom are artists themselves—are barely paid a living wage, there's a real disconnect on what it means to nurture an artistic community. According to Indeed, $15 is the starting wage for a part-time gallery assistant, weekends and holidays are required. And it's capped at 19 hours, so no benefits.
The U.S. is more comfortable with the image of a starving artist rather than one in a studio waiting for paint to speak. Artists have to work day jobs because the job of an artist isn't seen as legitimate work—at least, not until it can be sufficiently monetized, and other key players can take a cut.
A few days after my visit, I got a brochure in the mail about the unveiling of the Blanton's new grounds on Saturday, May 13, 2023. The new patio outside the entrance is to include an installation of 12 "petal-shaped" structures, designed by a Norwegian design firm Snøhetta; new landscaping with native plants; and a mural by Carmen Herrera—a public arts project costing upward of $35 million. Membership holders could get a sneak peek during an exclusive Garden Party event on the newly dubbed "Moody Patio" on May 3.
Artists like Bule and Lopez understand what unrecognized labor makes possible—clean forks, mowed lawns, raised kids, and a public art space built by construction workers, brick by brick over more than two years. I imagined there was some sort of barrier set up for the May garden event, but I doubt there were any signs apologizing for the inconvenience.
Day Jobs is currently on view at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, through July 23, 2023.
Tuesday-Friday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
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