The first vividly bleak picture of the contemporary office environment was painted by Mike Judge, whose 1999 film Office Space made the prosaic struggle to control a lowly stapler a metaphor for oppressed white-color workers everywhere. The 2001 Ricky Gervais show The Office, followed in 2005 by the Greg Daniels version for U.S. audiences, codified the dull despair of those who push paper in order to sell it. Naturally, both were comedies, otherwise the exercises would have been unbearable.
The Office, on display now through June 2, 2012, at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, owes as much to these pop-culture phenomena as to the comparatively stuffy traditions of visual art. Indeed, the pieces in the show that try to play the art game first -- rather than mining all they can from their subject -- are generally less successful than their counterparts.
Packard Jennings, Business Reply Pamphlet, Panels 1 and 16
Take the work of Packard Jennings, whose cartoony illustrations for Business Reply Pamphlet, 2006, were initially designed for the business-reply envelopes that accompany junk mail. Jennings conceived his 16-part piece as an instruction manual for office workers whose job it is to open those returned business-reply envelopes, the charming conceit being that Jennings's handy how-to manual would enable them to overthrow their office hierarchy and replace it with a tribal culture in which the work space is used for homesteading, hunting and growing crops. Coincidentally, Jennings's aesthetic lends itself to the content of his piece, but he was smart to recognize this bizarre opportunity.
Other artists use office supplies for their work. Jill Sylvia cuts countless rectangles out of ledger paper, transforming this pre-Excel/Google Docs artifact into something resembling fine lace or delicately pierced silver. Sylvia's material of choice was obsolete before she made it doubly useless, but by destroying these sheets of green or yellow ledger paper, she gives us hope, as if proving that relics of the office, us included, might have some purpose after technology finally passes the last of the old ways by.
Alison Foshee, Drift
Alison Foshee also uses office supplies to create her pieces, but unlike Sylvia, who adds to the impact of her work by systematically eliminating it from our view, Foshee builds her pieces bit by bit. One collection of quiet pieces presents an array of delicate feathers created from nothing more than staples. Nearby, a collage of mostly red packaging labels affixed to canvas screams for our attention, thanks to the fact that its floral and optical patterns are produced by noisy "Do Not Bend," "Please Handle With Care," "Fragile," "This Side Up" and other stickers.
Less successful are pieces like Cling by Mitra Fabian, whose contribution to the show is a wall garlanded here and there with binder clips that have been secured to each other. It's a passionless arrangement that's contrived to look organic but is merely dull. The pieces in Lauren DiCioccio's Paper Reconfiguration Series have been lavished with more attention (they are hand-stitched to create three-dimensional shapes resembling tubes and donuts), but unlike Sylvia's work, which is ostensibly similar due to its material, these pieces don't provoke thoughts about offices and the people who work in them. Alas, like Fabian's installation of binder clips, DiCioccio's work is overly infatuated with itself.
Kirk Crippens, from the Plants on the Job series
Better is Ian Treasure's installation of a dozen office water coolers, which have been arranged in a grid and configured so that each bubbles at an irregular interval. The result is a symphony of bloops and gurgles, a watery version, perhaps, of the countless conversations that take place beside these monuments to the imperative of hydration. And I liked the quintet of photographs of seriously neglected office plants by Kirk Crippens. These symbols of the half-hearted effort to humanize the workplace struck me as weirdly poignant, especially those juxtaposed with plates of herbal tea and a photograph of a man holding an umbrella over his cello to protect it from the rain. Would that anyone cared as much about these plants.
The Office is on view through June 2, 2012, at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. For information, visit sjica.org.