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Frieze New York 2023

Josh Kline’s Art Is at Its Bleakest When It’s Most Hopeful

Considering the paradoxes and pitfalls of the artist’s explorations of work and class, on view at the Whitney during Frieze Week

BY Paul McAdory in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 15 MAY 23

In 2016, writing in the New York Times, Roberta Smith compared works in Josh Kline’s show, ‘Unemployment’ at 47 Canal in New York, to 'one-liners with many clauses, all sobering, but obvious and dull.' The exhibition included Kline’s series 'Productivity Gains', for which the artist used scans of unemployed people living in Baltimore to produce 3D-printed sculptures of their bodies. The life-size objects, folded fetal-style, sealed in plastic bags and spread across the gallery floor, posit the jobless middle class as economic waste products. In another series, transparent plastic orbs, spiked to resemble viruses and hung like waist-high chandeliers, housed cardboard boxes packed with office supplies and other effects of the newly laid off. Its title: 'Contagious Unemployment'.

Josh Kline, Contagious Unemployment (Best Wishes), 2016, cardboard box, mixed media, plastic, hardware, cables, LEDs, and power cord, diameter 66 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin © Josh Kline; photograph: Paolo Saglia

An ArtNews headline, au contraire, hailed 'Unemployment' as 'a Brilliant, High-Concept Thriller'; an approving Artforum reviewer said Kline 'merges social science with science fiction'. Alternatively, as one museum worker put it to me recently, Kline makes 'obvious Anthropocene boy art'. To me, it sometimes looks like crapitalism art, recalling the visual language of Adbusters, the ‘Journal of the Mental Environment'. For example, in his 2020 show 'Alternative Facts' at Various Small Fires in Seoul, Kline cast Samsung and LG televisions and wrapped them in American and Blue Lives Matter flags. Reality Television 16 (2020), from the American flag series, was doused in white epoxy — 'the skin color of Fox’s primary viewership', a gallery director told writer Travis Diehl during a Zoom tour reported in Art in America. The lone Blue Lives Matter piece on display, meanwhile, was titled Fox and Friends 5 (2020). Kline’s art is, in other words, the sort that induces you to nudge your neighbour in the ribs and trade expressions of forlorn apprehension, which, perhaps, then curdle into satisfaction. Whether it’s a one-liner or not: surely, we get the joke.

The press release for Kline’s first US museum survey, 'Project for a New American Century', on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York during Frieze Week, states that, 'at its core, Kline’s prescient practice is focused on work and class, exploring how today’s most urgent social and political issues—climate change, automation, disease and the weakening of democracy—impact the people who make up the labour force.'

Josh Kline, Contagious Unemployment (Talk Soon), 2016, cardboard file box, mixed media, plastic, hardware, cables, LEDs, and power cord, diameter 66 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin © Josh Kline; photograph: Paolo Saglia

If anyone should be aware of work and class as 'urgent' issues, it’s the Whitney, whose unionized workers agreed to a tentative first contract on March 6 this year, after 18 months of negotiations. This welcome development spared Kline the awkwardness of exhibiting explicitly activist art amidst a labour-management standoff. Had the negotiating been ongoing, I wonder if his approach would have landed differently. Is it possible that art about 'work and class' is, in fact, best delivered as a series of one-liners? Might some artists be right in prizing bluntness over subtlety, in the hope of raising consciousness among viewers, confronting audiences with capitalism’s rapaciousness and implicating them in its production of our bleak future? If people go to art museums to be consumed, don’t they also want to feel that they have consumed an accessible critique of themselves and broader power structures? (To feel themselves confronted, to bear witness to being implicated). To register as effective, and thus affectively gratifying, the critique must be digestible by its audience. But what enters a body tends to leave it. If the message, that something must be done, remains for a few hours or days, excretion can return its consumer to their baseline: apparently necessary participation in and acceptance of the world as it is.

'Now the highest aspiration of avowedly radical work is its own display.' The statement is from Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett’s 2019 manifesto, ‘The Tear Gas Biennial’, published by Artforum, which argued for ousting then-vice chair of the Whitney board Warren Kanders (in response to his ownership of a company that manufactures and sells tear gas and other armaments used to suppress protests in the US and elsewhere), and for artists to withdraw their work to further that end. At that year’s Biennial, Kline showed a series of framed black and white, LED-lit photographs, including images of a Ronald Reagan statue and Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. Water pumped through the frames slowly erases the images of political and corporate power until, blank, they are replaced by fresh photographs. I like these works. They dissipate their own obviousness, launder their meaning, restate and re-efface themselves: futility and plainness flip to perseverance and emptiness, and back again. Still, some moments call not for complexity, but directness: Kanders stepped down six days after eight artists withdrew from the show. (Kline was not among them.)

Josh Kline, Desperation Dilation, 2016, cast silicone, shopping cart, polyethylene bags, rubber, plexiglass, LEDs, and power cord, 117 × 74 × 102 cm. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York © Josh Kline; photograph: Joerg Lohse

Kline’s work is most affecting, and paradoxically at its bleakest, when it is most hopeful. In Hope and Freedom (2016), Kline’s video of a deepfaked Obama, the President makes very un-Obama-like demands for systemic change; and in Kline’s faux commercials for universal basic income, Universal Early Retirement (Spots #1 and #2) (2016), also included in 'Unemployment', diverse beneficiaries, freed from need, pursue their interests without thought for monetary gain. These visions, so dissonant with our reality, garnish Kline’s mournfulness with a rich, twisted optimism, like a dollop of caviar dropped on a Lunchable. As one-liners go, 'hope' still lands. 

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2023 under the headline ‘Supply and Demand’

Main image: Josh Kline, Universal Early Retirement (spots #1 & #2), 2016, video still, high-definition video, colour, sound, 3 min. Courtesy: the artist © Josh Kline

Paul McAdory is a writer and editor from Mississippi, US. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.