This Master’s Statement is respectfully submitted
to Cranbrook Academy of Art as partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of Master of
Head, Sculpture Department
I make work concerning the lived experience of economic hardship. I use everyday materials tinged with financial distress and evocative of unsuitable labor conditions to demonstrate ways in which global, interdependent, capitalist economies invoke subtle trauma on working lower-middle class people. We live in a world that is constantly in the wake of crisis, be it financial, environmental, or medical. In response, I believe art is in need of recourse, with a radical repositioning of stereotypical value signifiers. Everyday humanity, in all of it’s austere simplicity, is invariably undervalued as an authentic culture. It is pertinent to utilize materials that are humanized—materials that, through their foregrounding of vernacular interpretations, have resonance. Objects are often my materials; they have the ability to recollect embodied crisis in their indelible marks, manufacturing origins, private ownership, and life encounters. Stained mechanics rags (fig. 1), melted tupperware lids (fig. 2), Detroit-mined rock salt (fig. 3), and my own plasma (fig. 4) are examples of metonymic materials determined by cultural agreement to point at their poignant realities that I reposition as principal elements in our classed visual language. Accompanied by my midwestern slant—while avoiding the provincial—I aim to intersect complex, yet economically interwoven cultural narratives of urban, suburban, and rural America. By re-contextualizing approachable symbols, I both assert and empathize with the physical impact of labor conditions on working-class people, the ethos and ingenuity of blue collar communities, and a larger social necessity for rebuilding class consciousness—a formidable task but one that I believe, through art, can be done.
Figure 1. Palarchio’s, 2019
Mechanic’s rags, outdoor lounge chair, thread
60 x 24 x 30 in
Making use of plaguing distresses, such as maintaining baseline quality of life, health, and labor conditions, that are shared among working-class people to incite certain commentary through the use of physical objects presents distinct challenges. I stick to a malleable set of parameters that help concept become material and vice versa, a strategy to keep aesthetic flourishes at bay. On the staunch end, I keep the economy of my works in relation to one user. Quantities and physical scales should reflect the careful management of available resources, whereas exceeding a single person's use would indicate the promise of a future, something only those stable enough to plan and save for could ever achieve. There’s no rainy day fund when living check to check. While many artists assume sides in the binary between emphasizing their unique hand-work, as Win McCarthy does in his assemblies (fig. 5), or choosing machine-produced perfection like Yngve Holen’s fabrications (fig. 6) (both artists I like and respect), I prefer to set an alternate course. Forefronting gestures beyond my own, and certainly beyond what is known and widely accepted in the art world, is an absolute must in my practice. I emphasize existing conditions. The laborer’s mark, signs of expended function, exposure to weather, and accidental destruction all express the proletariat's livelihood.
Figure 2. Untitled, 2019
Grass-stained shoes, tupperware lids
14 x 6 x 6 in ea.
Proceeding from the physical impact of labor conditions on working-class people, the ethos and ingenuity of blue collar communities, and the places they inhabit allows for metonym. The tired tradition of artists crafting visual metaphors through inapplicable stand-in materials is repressive. More eloquently than I could, Charles Gaines elaborates on the unsuspected danger of metaphor, saying:
"In my case it grew out of an understanding of the limits of its basic semiotic structure: that metaphor is a trope or figure where two unrelated signs are mapped together based on some similarity or analogy between them. This means to me that the metaphor forms itself based on structural similarities between signs and does not consider the meanings of the signs in this operation. Meaning, therefore, plays no role in how metaphors are formed. Instead the cognitive process the metaphor triggers produces a pleasure in the individual as she comprehends an order or relationship between two unrelated things; this is a consciousness-changing experience where difference is unified resulting in a new thought or idea. Because of the way metaphors are formed, this new thought is not constrained by the cultural, ethical or political forces that shape society at any particular time."
Cultural, ethical, and political forces that shape society are inescapable and better assessed by art practices based in fact. Procuring second-hand materials with such a discerning specificity in mind requires scouring Ebay, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, thrift shops, basements, attics, storerooms, discarded objects from friends and family, and of course, trash day piles. Above all, sourcing material requires getting out and having genuine interactions with people. The cliche artist in studio isolation with time, space, and their art supplies from Blick sits in direct contrast to social-oriented methods. I’m pointing especially at painters, printmakers, and crafty types. In my outlook, solitary practices should be considered deadweight.
Figure 3. Wildgame INNOVATIONS, 2019
Laser print on plain paper from infrared image
48 x 36 in
My interest in class and it’s collective representation comes first and foremost from lived experience. Unbeknown to me as a kid, dodging buckets catching leaking rainwater inside, getting splinters from the unfinished osb floor, and splitting logs to heat the house weren’t typical days for everybody. In due course, I found that my familiarity with precarity was predisposed. However, it was the 2008 financial crisis, resulting in my dad's home foreclosure and mom’s layoffs, that rooted and amplified my understanding of instability. Life in our dysfunctional house was uprooted by Wall Street’s deregulation and subprime mortgages. In turn, my recently divorced parents were both renting and back-to-back evictions had us always searching for our bearings.
Socioeconomics developed into an intellectual interest over time, especially as I familiarized myself with relatable work by artists and cultural critics like Cameron Rowland, Danielle Dean, David Flaugher, Michael E. Smith, Puppies Puppies, Anna Khachiyan, Mark Fisher, Dora Apel, and Steven Shaviro. Fisher is especially influential; his deconstructions of class structures and their inauspicious conditions echo my working-class experience. I’ve always supplemented, informed, and expanded upon hitting the books with my work in manual labor, as a landscaper, carpenter, mechanic, house cleaner, etc. As a result, I’ve struck particular interest and affinity with the current inconsiderations of class and hard-labor in our post-industrial economy.
I often consider my work as surveying the rustbelt, which wouldn’t be complete without touching on aspects of the inner city, suburbia, and the dirt road boonies. Along the way I’ve come to get a fair grasp on all of them. As you drive 45 miles northwest from Detroit, right before the farmlands takes hold, but long after the suburban sprawl’s last streetlight, lies Brighton Township that boasts its motto, “Where quality is a way of life.” This sylvan place is where I grew up. Brighton is known for it’s well-adjusted side, but that wasn’t my social life. My parents friends lived in the sticks, partying, four-wheeling, and mud-bogging. My friends were in the trailer park across the street and big houses on the lake. Skateboarding brought me to the city, brushing elbows with crackheads in Liberty Park downtown after digging ditches for work. Seeking an education beyond community college and an in-depth experience in the city, I moved to Detroit. One of my early gigs after making the move was rehabbing a gutted house in a northwestern neighborhood called The Eye, opening my own eyes to the expansive areas Detroit had to offer. Doubling down on my intrigue, I signed up as an Uber driver to try and see it all.
It's often thought that Uber is for drunks, but it’s busy all day and night. Gamers who work at Amazon’s distribution center, women in labor, vets with staph infection returning home from the hospital, drug mules moving work, kids going between divorced parents, hopeful people headed for job interviews at McDonalds, and countless other characters prove to make up more of the regular carless crowd. I came to find that this demographic spanned devastated Detroit neighborhoods and deep into the metropolitan area, sometimes over an hour outside the city. Even well-to-do Bloomfields Hills, where Cranbrook Academy of Art sits, has service workers catching rides in to cook, clean, and take out the trash. After about 1000 rides, I’ve been everywhere.
I commute to Cranbrook from my apartment in Delray, a neighborhood in Detroit razed by industrial titans, with Michigan’s most polluted zip code. The extent of Delray’s decimation feels as arcane as Uber’s contractor rates. The corporate veil over each respective issue is one in the same, but from different organizations of society. Delray’s abandonment is intensely visual as it relates to industrialism. My weekly pay from Uber exists only in intangible digital space as much of post-industrialism does. In succession, each issue is a further removed and more unrealised blow to working-class people. Working in advance for an unclear amount of compensation determined by an algorithm I’ll never grasp builds the imbued worry clouding my thought. Opacity, abstract financial instruments, and the prospect of downward mobility cement anxieties that withhold any extrapolation of a brighter future in my neighborhood and immediate line of work.
Figure 4. Plassing, 2019 - ongoing
Artists holder, centrifuge tube, artists blood plasma, signed and dated
Open edition, $30
My working-class concerns become visually apparent when I return to my dad’s auto repair shop. Palarchio’s Auto Service has been in business across three generations of Palarchio mechanics, and is where I spent much of my time as a kid. Despite the distance I’m there practically every other week. Palarchio’s, as if a library, has become ground zero for my sustained practice—a place to make, borrow a tool, catch lunch, dig up material, have an epiphanic idea, banter, share a beer after hours, and even repair my own car. Conveniently, these activities at Palarchio’s are synthesized into one single, accessible location with regular hours. Many of my materials and thoughts are mined here, both in examination of and participation in the existing social relations at the auto shop and the leisure activities beyond work, including hunting and fishing.
Palarchio’s has been open since 1946 when my great grandfather, an immigrant from Italy, moved from the steel mills of Pittsburgh to Detroit. My grandpa, Dominic, and my dad, James, have operated Palarchio’s their entire lives, moving the business twice during the white flight, first in 1968—just a year after the 1967 Detroit Rebellion—a few miles north to Southfield, then eventually settling in Brighton in 1988. All setup to be next in line, I was learning the ins and outs of wiring and retrofitting aftermarket car stereos before I made it out of a booster seat. From the early 90’s to the mid aughts aftermarket sound, stereos, subwoofers, amplifiers, speakers, and accessories were icing on the cake and the new wave at the auto shop. Occasionally I’ll crack into the droves of unopened stereos and neon underglow in Palarchio’s attic for a period piece (Fig. 7). Car audio took a hard nosedive when manufacturers and connectivity caught up. My dad went from installing 3 full systems a day, to 3 a week, to 3 a month until that aspect of the business became totally esoteric.
Figure 7. Untitled, 2018
Underglow, muffler, hydrographic, acrylic
16 x 6 x 3 in
To invoke a socialist position and future is an unabashed goal of mine. The cultural standing of physical labor has been increasingly downgraded. Marx’s labor theory of value stands to correct this decline—goods and services should cost only as much as the amount of labor necessary to produce it as opposed to capitalist’s discretionary utility theory of value, which favors profiteering from arbitrary surplus value. This degradation of labor in the public eye comes from capital’s expanded subsumption of all aspects of personal and social life. Steve Shaviro details the human impact of post fordist subsumption in his essay Accelerationist Aesthetics:
"This means that everything in life must now be seen as a kind of labor: we are still working even when we consume and even when we are asleep. Affects and feelings, linguistic abilities, modes of cooperation, forms of know-how and of explicit knowledge, expressions of desire: all these are appropriated and turned into sources of surplus value. We have moved from a situation of extrinsic exploitation, in which capital subordinated labor and subjectivity to its purposes, to a situation of intrinsic exploitation, in which capital directly incorporates labor and subjectivity within its own processes.
This means that labor, subjectivity, and social life are no longer “outside” capital and antagonistic to it. Rather, they are immediately produced as parts of it. They cannot resist the depredations of capital, because they are themselves already functions of capital. This is what leads us to speak of such things as “social capital,” “cultural capital,” and “human capital”: as if our knowledge, our abilities, our beliefs, and our desires had only instrumental value and needed to be invested. Everything we live and do, everything we experience, is quickly reduced to the status of “dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Under a regime of real subsumption, every living person is transformed into a capital stock that must not lie fallow but has to be profitably invested. The individual is assumed—and indeed compelled—to be, as Foucault puts it, “an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself . . . being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings.”"
On the binary, a horizontalist mission to reinstate the appreciation of physical labor in the face of the one percenters is not exactly the exit strategy we need from all-subsuming capitalism. Instead a future, as speculated by science fiction, where the surplus of automation relieves us to work less and receive a universal basic income is the route I desire.
We’ve settled into the coma of neoliberalism and need to be lurched out of it towards a new ideology. Our society’s state of deep unconsciousness brings back a memory of my uncle George playing a joke on my cousins and I as kids drowsing off in the moving car. With gusto he’d suddenly proclaim, “All monkeys take a bow” and simultaneously jam on the brakes making all of our little heads lurch forward into a bow with swift inertia. The abrupt motion invigorated our alertness to uncle George’s purposely haphazard driving. Was it Safe? Probably not. But, as in the prank, All Monkeys Take a Bow, something can and will lurch us into a new alert state of consciousness where a revolution is the obvious answer. Bertolt Brecht a marxist playwright places the capability in society’s hands:
"We Gain our knowledge of life in catastrophic form. It is from catastrophes that we have to infer the manner in which our social formation functions. Through reflection, we must deduce the “inside story” of crises, depressions, revolutions, and wars…. Existence depends on unknown factors. “Something must have happened,” “something is brewing,” “a situation has arisen”—this is what they feel and the mind goes out on patrol. But enlightenment only comes, if at all, after the catastrophe. The death has taken place."
Coronavirus, the current world-sweeping catastrophe, feels as close as anything to be the catalyst in mind. Alas, crises will continue, each with more subjugation to be resisted than the last. The classed-materialism of my artwork is readily positioned to aid these causes, especially a class consciousness from the bottom up.
Figure 5. Win McCarthy, Mister, 2017, installation view, at Silberkuppe, Berlin
Figure 6. Yngve Holen, Cake, 2016, installation view, VERTICALSEAT, at Kunsthalle Basel, 2019
Additional Works Researched:
Dora Apel, Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline, Rutgers University Press, 2015.
Daren Bader, Meaning and Difference, The Power Station, 2017.
Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso, 2012.
Aria Dean, Notes on Blacceleration, e-flux, Journal #87, December 2017.
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, John Hunt Publishing, 2009.
Mark Fisher, How to Kill a Zombie: Strategizing the End of Neoliberalism, Open Democracy UK, July 2013.
Alexander Koch, Catfish Instead of Buddha: Michael E. Smith’s Materialism of Basic Needs, KOW.
Maurizio Lazzarato, Immaterial Labor, University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
John Miner, Mike Kelley: Educational Complex, Afterall Books, 2015.
Laura Mott, Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy, and Materiality, Cranbrook Art Museum, 2019.
Hito Steyerl, In Defense of the Poor Image, e-flux, Journal #10, November 2009.
Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism, MIT Press, 2018.
Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, #Accelerate: A Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, Urbanomic, 2013.