John Pilson's new exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center, SkyScraper Souls, is not as straightforward as it might seem. Pilson's work — black-and-white portrait photography as well as two-channel videos — revolves around cubical culture: bulky office buildings and the worker bees therein. And yet the message that comes through in these works is so much more than gleeful derision.
Yes, the videos are funny. "Above the Grid" mixes elements of humanity and workaday culture to form a surreal and hilarious set of scenes: two adult men, clad in dark suits and ties (the uniform of corporate conformity), sing together in an office bathroom. It seems ridiculous, out of place. But the artist turns it all around: "That's my dad and his best friend," Pilson says from his New York studio. "They're both lawyers, and they've been singing together forever."
Neither Pilson's father nor the father's best friend actually works in the building where the artist shot the video, but it doesn't much matter. The important thing is that they do work in that building — just a different one.
They wear those suits. And they sing.
Pilson's father plays a major role in his development as an artist.
"As a kid, we moved from the city to the suburbs, but my dad would go back to the office (in Manhattan) every day. Dad's office," he pauses, thinking, "I developed a fantasy of the office. I never got more than a glimpse of it. ... It was an exotic place to me."
To Pilson, there was more to cubical culture than the people buzzing around it, doing their work. There was an inner life. Not for the office as a whole, but for the individual people doing their jobs, collecting a paycheck, going home and living lives that are completely unexpected. Like Pilson's father's singing — what lawyer does that?
Pilson went to undergrad and graduate school for photography. His first cohesive group of photographs were portraits of workers — lawyers and their secretaries. That portfolio got him into graduate school, where he became obsessed with the work of August Sandler, the German portrait artist. Sandler was hired by the German Weimar Republic to take German Portraits. These images are sometimes "so seamless." Other times, Sander's portraits show a kind of gap, or "friction," between the employee and the employment.
That friction is, to Pilson, the person's complicated inner life, and it can't help but come through in portraits. When Pilson started photographing workers, he began to focus on that inner life. The work soon became theater, the workers and actors, "representatives of the personalities" they are supposed to hold.
In graduate school, Pilson went to a strip mall in New Haven, Conn., and made portraits of every worker he encountered, from morticians to manicurists to pet shop workers to car salesmen. All these people fit into neat roles, but who are they, really?
The artist doesn't have a neat answer. All he knows is that these people aren't just morticians or manicurists or pet shop workers or car salesmen; they are all weird individual people with oddities and nuances and differences, all unique to themselves, all separate from their own vocational world.
After leaving a job working for Annie Leibowitz in the 1990s, Pilson took the advice of a sculptor friend and began working in an investment bank cubical during off hours. To an artist (musician, writer, painter, photographer), the cubical is often considered the most mind-numbing, sell-out, murderer of inspiration and originality that exists in our globalized, money-obsessed world.
Not Pilson. He worked in a cubical in his high-rise Manhattan office for four years. And, reading between the lines, he loved it. Because he worked during off hours, like-minded, creative people surrounded him. Everyone, it seemed, had aspirations outside the cube. Long shifts gave his coworkers the time to write their novels, sing their songs, paint their pictures. He saw CEOs in their gym gear.
It came to him in a moment: video. A woman sat at her computer, singing. Pilson taped her (the work is in the CAC exhibition), her beautiful voice completely disparate from the Photoshop crap she was working on.
"It was anarchy," Pilson says of his after-hours workplace. "Absurd. It was a comedy of errors. It was like Folk music."
Folk music in the sense of its origins: Migrant workers toiling away and singing, creating songs to tap into their self-productive side.
"We were all like migrant workers, in a way," Pilson says. "The turnover was incredible at these places."
The two most wonderful things about Pilson's CAC exhibition are its truth and its humor. Not a single event he shows here was invented. The videos are documentaries. There are no actors. It's all real, true.
"I have never taped something that I had never seen happen," Pilson assures me. Which doesn't mean that he catches it on camera the first time. Sometimes his works are reenactments. Nonetheless, they are real.
At the same time, it's performance. Like Sandler's documents of German workers, Pilson's "characters" seem to be a part of theater. Whether it's the suit or the singing, well, that's the whole point isn't it?
Pilson doesn't condemn anyone for "selling out" — just the opposite. He understands necessity, but more than that, he finds the world of the cubicles a mysterious, magical place where people come to play and act and be incredibly normal.
What normal means depends on where the viewer is standing. Are you watching Pilson's videos, thinking of your own loved/reviled cubical? Do you see some of yourself in the guys playing ball in the hallway? Do you sing to your spreadsheets? Is your job all you are?
SKYSCRAPER SOULS is on view at the CAC through April 15.