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Handle With Care

At Last, the Roadies of the Art World Get Their Time in the Spotlight

Manhandled: Anonymous art handlers play fast and loose with Chuck Close's "Emily," displaying it alongside a highway while transporting it to a client.

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 4/23/2003

Pity the art handlers. In the pop-and-pyro rock show that is today's art world, they are the roadies. They are the young mandarins with hidden skills who make it all happen when the crowd isn't looking. In practically every show you've seen at a museum or big gallery, they've been the ones who have packed, shipped, trundled, mounted, installed, and--in more cases than you'd care to know--created the art on display. But of course, there's more than a little tension that attends this kind of work, because its very purpose is to seem as if it had never been done at all: The art handler's highest injunction is to leave no mark, issue no commentary, elide no details, make no noise. In an industry fueled by ego and expression, they are expected to remain selfless and silent.

Danielle Sara Frank herself is not a handler, but for recent purposes, she has become something of a spokesperson. And her indignation at the inequities of the handler's lot seems well-placed. "You have the art sphere, the art world, the art market--whatever you want to call it--and all the attention goes to the artists themselves," she says. "But the fact is, there are all these people, in museums, transport companies, auction houses, whose work allows the artists to be artists."

Moreover, she notes, the very reason handlers are so skilled and officious--the reason they're willing to devote long hours to high stakes for low pay--is that they themselves are usually artists. So, having kept company with plenty of art-prep professionals while studying at Maryland Institute College of Art, Frank decided to finally give them their due. The result is Art Work, an exhibition of work by, and oftentimes about, art handlers that's now on view at Canton's Chela gallery. And the artists make surprisingly different use of this time in the spotlight: A few have come here to flaunt their talents, some want to vent about their thankless jobs, and others still seem eager to simply dish on the art market. So what you end up getting out of the show depends largely on what each is in it for.

Actually, it's hard to tell which pieces are meant to be about art handling and which just come off that way. Apparently, this is a kind of occupational hazard. "They tend to experience artwork not just as art, but as work," Frank says of her featured artists. As a result, self-expression often leads to shop talk, which accounts for why much of the show seems so self-regarding. Toronto's Ross Bell, for instance, labors by day as a driver and technician for an art-handling company, and his artwork trades heavily in office gossip. Bell's material of choice is carpet tack strip--the thin, brad-studded slats used for laying rugs, retaining fabrics, and the like--and he uses it to slick effect. His "Anti-Tank Barricade" is a six-foot-tall, six-pointed star of lumber, like those used on the battlefield to keep troops at bay, bolted together from two-by-fours and covered in tack strip. Striking a defensive posture against the rest of the gallery, it resembles a giant asterisk denoting danger. His "Strip Crate" is even more to the point: From common hardware-store boards, he has constructed a small and inexpensive crate, the likes of which are commonly used for shipping paintings; but he has lined the inside with more carpet strip, as if hoping to destroy whatever the crate was intended to protect. This, it turns out, is not the show's only jab at the gallery establishment.

New York's Chris Lowery similarly seems to take his work home with him, or perhaps the other way around. At jobs ranging from museum librarian to art-storage manager, he has devoted his downtime--coffee breaks, lunch hours--to a series of "work drawings," made from whatever materials he had at hand. His "Gel Roller Triptych," for one, is proof that even when goofing off, his attention is uniquely focused; on eight rectangles cut from manila folders, he has inked muzzy, vibrant op-art patterns in colors that could only come from the office supply closet: baby-girl pink, artificial peach, commercial purple. The wit is stretched thinner in his ongoing project "Endless Drawing," in which he has drawn five thick, perfect lines on whatever scraps he could snag at work over the years. Thirty-eight in all, the pieces range from library cards to blank museum memo paper and hang on the wall so as to align their five lines, an opening for a joke that will probably have a years-long punch line.

Of course, not everything in Art Work comes across as water cooler talk. Some of the best pieces here are those that stand on their own, outside the handler's life, and most of them are the work of New York's Mike Smith. His miniature constructions of styrene and cast urethane--a miniature model of a corporate conference room, a finicky three-inch shopping cart--stand as feats of technique as well as bitter social reproaches, triumphs of craftsmanship over commercialism. But these fine, quiet statements seem drowned out by all the art-handler in-jokes that surround them. Too bad most of those jokes aren't worth the distraction. While they apparently aspire to make arch commentary about art, they really just seem like pranks.

This is borne out in the show's biggest work, a somewhat cynical souvenir of a recent art-handling adventure. When dismantling a prestigious show this spring, freelance Manhattan art techs Noel Heberling and Carlyle Micklus saved the 720 staples that had held together the giant canvases of iconographic artist Olivier Mosset. After the show was over, they painted the staples orange and punched them into the Chela wall to form two outlines of blank space. Dubbed "reincarnations" of Mosset's work, the empty rectangles hang there like the hollow skits that they are, giving us little more than an art handler's argument for some kind of acknowledgment. (Micklus himself made just such an argument to some gallery guests the day before the show opened. "I mean, we are the staples," he intoned.)

But if some of these pieces are meant as screeds to unite the brotherhood of art handlers, then the real manifesto sits in the corner of Art Work, with no attribution. In sotto voce, Frank indicates that some handlers contributed to the show on the condition that she never reveal their identities, and rightfully so. What they offered was seven snapshots documenting what they did with priceless works of art that had been left in their charge. Most of the pieces, Frank explains, had been entrusted to the handlers for transport from one museum to another, or from dealer to buyer. Suffice it to say, the roadies' treatment of the work was not always reverent. One photo depicts a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture teetering on a toilet. Another shows a Merce Cunningham standing on wet asphalt, leaning against a truck-stop gas pump. There's Chuck Close's giant portrait "Emily" perched alongside a highway, next to a dead deer. And Claes Oldenburg's small, plush "Soft Drum" sits atop a diner table, between a platter of chicken-fried steak and a grilled cheese sandwich with fries.

Frank points out that some MICA faculty who saw these pictures were horrified, which, as critical responses go, is probably a good sign. After all, art loses a lot when taken out of context--not just its dignity, but also much of its meaning. Issues of scope, color, and even content can go out the window when most works are removed from the rarefied confines of the white gallery cube. But while these points are not lost in looking at the illicit pictures, what overwhelms them is the baser stuff that most likely inspired them--the giddy thrill, the defiance, maybe even the envy, either of artist or owner. While statements in their own right, they're still basically stunts. But they're not without a lesson: Art handlers may indeed be out to prove that they've got as much brains as balls, but the best place to do that is still the studio.

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