Art

Unemployment as Artwork

Paul Shortt, "Tight Fit" (2014), HD Video, 4 min and 55 sec (all images courtesy Pleasant Plains Workshop)
Paul Shortt, “Tight Fit” (2014), HD Video, 4 min and 55 sec (all images courtesy Pleasant Plains Workshop unless otherwise noted)

WASHINGTON, DC — In a tiny storefront in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, Paul Shortt grimaces as his gray dress pants rip along the seams. They’re clearly inadequate for his large, bearlike figure, but he loops a belt through and leaves the pants unbuttoned. As a metronome beats faster and faster, Shortt sighs and sweats as he pulls on more ill-fitting business casual clothing. His dress shirt makes ripping noises when he moves his arms. His sports jacket refuses to close. Shortt completes the exercise with a tiny clip-on tie, takes one last tragic glimpse in the mirror, and trudges out of the frame, presumably off to work. The four-minute looping video, titled “Tight Fit,” is a solid entrance into a solo exhibition that transforms the search for employment in the art world into a rueful, Kafkaesque experience, which any recent liberal arts graduate will tell you is, basically, reality.

Paul Shortt's "Intern as Artwork" (2014) features intern Michael Schiffer searching for jobs as a performance in the gallery. (click to enlarge)
Paul Shortt’s “Intern as Artwork” (2014) features intern Michael Schiffer searching for jobs as a performance in the gallery. (click to enlarge)

Shortt’s solo exhibition Essentially Qualified at Pleasant Plains Workshop features video, sculpture, and a variety of interactive employment-based exercises, including “Intern as Artwork,” a performance by Corcoran student Michael Schiffer taking place on Saturdays. A large, official-looking poster explains the intern’s duties, including “Intern will spend his or her time searching for jobs and writing cover letters” and “The intern will greet and talk with gallery viewers about his or herself and the exhibition.” Despite a long list of instructions, the bespectacled student in professional attire was unfailingly genial, and happy to explain the interactive stations available for viewers.

“Diploma Station, 2014” is a table is outfitted with certificates, golden seals, and a variety of stamps, including an embossing stamp that certifies “EQ” and “Paul Shortt approved.” Each certificate, printed on heavy cardstock, leaves room for your name and a generic fingerprinting grid, the type used to for job applications and incarceration. Although the station would have been more enticing with the addition of a substantial desk and chair, its commentary on the ubiquity of the college degree and its generic uselessness in obtaining employment is spot on.

Participant creating a hands-on diploma at Paul Shortt's "Diploma Station" (2014), stamps, seals, and certificates
Participant creating a hands-on diploma at Paul Shortt’s “Diploma Station” (2014), stamps, seals, and certificates
Paul Shortt, "Make a Point" (2014), modern resume #3 (image courtesy the artist)
Paul Shortt, “Make a Point” (2014), modern resume #3 (image courtesy the artist)

Following this line of inquiry, Shortt presents “6 New Resume Formats” in a plastic wall dispenser that’s authentically institutional. The artist questions the relevance of a resume in actually securing a job and presents several alternatives, which manage to be both ironic and strangely appropriate. In the “About to Burst” resume format, presented on hot pink cardstock, the subject is encouraged to “Forget about past employers. List people who know you personally. Use people who will talk you up!” In the “Keep it Circular” modern resume, the candidate is told to use an oval format, punched out on green cardstock, in order to “reflect how well rounded you are.” My favorite resume is the “Door to Door” version, featuring a door-handle hanging tag to literally “put yourself out there.” This resume includes space for previous relationships, day and nighttime activities, and a biography covering childhood until now. Although tongue in cheek, Shortt’s modern resumes illuminate the qualities and criteria that employers actually use in the hiring process, challenging the notion that decisions are made clinically, from a stereotypical single sheet of paper. As Shortt suggests, why shouldn’t ex-girlfriends or neighbors serve as job references? These are the people who know us best.

Rounding out the show, Shortt includes two large sculptures, displayed in the gallery’s doorway and storefront window. “Please Congratulate Me,” made of hand-dyed rope, foam, and aluminum, is an eight-foot-tall graduation tassel, complete with a golden “2013” badge; “Diploma” is a six-foot-long replica of Shortt’s own, rendered convincingly on a wooden panel. Like Jeff Koons, Shortt blows up common objects to ridiculous proportions in order to alter their meaning and power. Although Koons’s giant sculptures tend to blindly celebrate the things he inflates, Shortt’s come off as ironic, prompting us to question their validity. More than any other pieces in Essentially Qualified, these two sculptures function as a cultural mirror, reflecting a bland devotion to the effects of education, but without valuing the education itself.

'Paul Shortt: Essentially Qualified' storefront view
‘Paul Shortt: Essentially Qualified’ storefront view

Pleasant Plains Workshop is an engaging DIY space, but it’s tempting to picture Shortt’s works in a large, white cube gallery, where his sculptures would be granted the breathing room they deserve and his video projected imposingly, instead of on a small flat-screen monitor. But to do so would also be to lose the cramped intimacy his work creates here, and to replace it with a bitter irony. Just like Shortt’s video, the mini-gallery is a “tight fit” for his ideas, and this cluttered inadequacy actually enhances the awkward, loveable self-awareness that unites all the pieces in this show.

Paul Shortt: Essentially Qualified continues at Pleasant Plains Workshop (2608 Georgia Ave NW, Washington, DC) through October 18. The “Intern as Artwork” performance takes place on Saturdays in the gallery through October 11.

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