Shawnee Barton "I need to get a job, so that I can get a 401(k), so that I can have a peaceful retirement full of all the things I want and love"
In the Great Recession of 2009, real estate brokers turn to curating and artists to making art about being unemployed. Shawnee Barton’s current show at LivingRoom Gallery, “Artist: Unemployed,” puts a 21st century spin on the myth of the starving artist, advocating cheap therapy via photo booths and offering job-hunting advice through fortune cookies. Barton attacks her unemployed plight from a number of angles displaying a wide creative range. Some pieces have a cobbled-together feel that reflects the desperation of endless job searches, while others are well designed and polished to the extreme. Much of the work is tongue-in-cheek (as in the letter written from herself, to herself, firing her from the position of artist within their organization). This is a seemingly appropriate response to this, one of the worst times to be an artist and unemployed.
One way to view this work is from Barton’s perspective as one of the millions of Americas desperately seeking employment. Her poster “Cheap Therapy” outlines a step by step alternative to expensive therapy sessions: find dive bar, consume cheap beer, pour one’s heart out to the disinterested eye of the photo booth camera – repeat as necessary. The fortune I pulled from one of the golden cookies Barton offered to visitors read “A move to a country with universal health care is in your future,” while others were printed with inspiring quotes for the would-be worker. The whole tone of the show, staged within the offices of the sustainability-conscious LivingRoom Realty, vacillates between comedic and tragic, a difficult balance that Barton successfully maintains. However, some of the work veers off into the overly-saccharine because of this balancing act, like composing a corporate-speak-laden letter firing herself as an artist (“Pink Slip”). The tragicomic tone comes across best in clever and self-deprecating pieces like “What Color is My Parachute?” – an interactive bicycle-powered contraption that takes the sentiment of Richard N. Bolles’ best-selling job-hunter manual of the same name quite literally, or “I need to get a job, so that I can get a 401(k), so that I can have a peaceful retirement full of all the things I want and love,” my favorite piece of the show. This unassuming assemblage of magazine cut-outs represents the increasingly forlorn attempt of the jobless to articulate the end result of their job search, leading to a deep questioning of social values and the dreams they have for the future – which in Barton’s case, appears to include a swimming pool full of macaroni and cheese and an arcing rainbow of classic cars.
Many of the pieces included in this show present the idea of “artist” as a professional occupation that one can be hired for, though I don’t think Barton means this to be taken seriously. However, it does raise some interesting questions about why cliches like the “starving artist” exist and the value our society places on the work that artists do. It’s absurd to think that all artists have the opportunity to be funded by grants and fellowships like those doled out by the National Endowment for the Arts or major museums, and many of the most well known artists throughout history lived in poverty at some point in their lives. The path of the unemployed artist may mean sacrificing money, luxuries, and security to pursue passions that are left uncompensated. This is the reality for most artists today who are forced to either pick up unrelated creative work like graphic or web design, or take paltry part time jobs. The world economy, on the whole, assigns little or no value to the creative and intellectual work of artists. Barton’s show sparks a debate about how the “Artist: Unemployed” means to swing between the basic need for security and success, and the sacrifice of those safety nets for the creative freedom of life on the margins.
(Candace Weber, Chicago Art Map)