Laura Davidson looks at the critique of hierarchy in the workplace within contemporary art, whilst reflecting on the questions brought forward by the exhibition The Workers, and talk by the exhibiting artists at Standpoint Gallery, London, earlier this year.
A modest white dusty shelf was mounted onto the wall at Standpoint Gallery, the objects removed to reveal crisp white shapes, betraying the obsolete length of time they had been lingering on the surface. The layer of protective glass on top of the shelf however, suggested that something was amiss. The dust had not floated down upon this shelf over years; it had in fact been constructed by human hand. A mêlée of tiny, precise pencil flecks, mark out the boundaries of objects, which we will never see. This dust is illusory, Untitled (2016) has been generated by hand, by the toil of human labour. The list of works attributes it to the artist Susan Collis. Her name verifies the paper, pencil, glass and Formica as being a result of her lonesome artistic labour. Elsewhere, illustrations of objects are arranged in an orderly fashion on a triptych by Caitlin Hinshelwood. Taking inspiration from displays of tools in museums, drawings of curious implements are placed in eccentric yet, indexical form across the three mutely coloured silks. If this were a conventional group show of shared concerns between artists, then the visual relationships between Hinshelwood’s silks and Collis’ shelf would be interesting in their own right. However, The Workers has a gentle undertow. All the artists have at one point during their careers worked with Collis in her studio as assistants. So, it is more than likely a community of hands have worked to create Untitled (2016), from buying materials, to executing the work and during its installation process.
Despite the romantic illusion, the artist does not manifest her ideas in isolation. Lucy Clout’s Bob Weight (2011) is hung within a short distance of Collis’ meticulous dusty shelf. During a talk to accompany the exhibition, it was said that the act of sharing in Collis’ studio inspired the work of the assistants to varying degrees, by either strengthening the skill set of the assistant, or by rebelling against Collis’ acute attention to detail and craft. Clout made a funny remark about how she had chosen to exhibit a less than perfect item; cheap Argos catalogue-esque earrings mounted on a collar of roughly cut paper. The discussion posed questions to the artists about hierarchy and influence in relation to the artist and assistant(s). It did appear that the only hierarchy present at Standpoint was academic in nature; how the work included sits together intellectually and materially. However, just as the The Workers was not conceived to present to us a master and her disciples, it wasn’t just a group show of shared concerns. There were strands of both ideas present. The artists talked about the sharing of skills, ideas and humour within the studio. It sounded like a convivial space as opposed to a space that was instructional and linear. Collis even mentioned that it’s possible some of the artists who worked as her assistants stayed for long periods because of these commonalities.
It is true to say that this atmosphere of sharing is reflected in The Workers; the use of and the imitation of textiles runs throughout Collis’ practice and it is without much surprise textiles were in abundance in The Workers. The aforementioned Caitlin Hinshelwood’s screenprinted silk work Hedger (2015) and Tamsin Casswell’s careful selection of colour and texture make up the abstract and embroidered textile panel Interior View (2015) facing out of Standpoint’s window onto Coronet Street. In both Hinshelwood’s and Casswell’s practices there is an emphasis on the exploration of craft and handiwork, something they share with Collis. Aileen Harvey continued exploration into these ideas with Found Alphabet (Corfu) (2013); a beautifully placed collection of stones resembling pre-linguistic forms, reminiscent of the kind of display found at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers museum.