Above: Install of Soft Tread
Where are the distinctions between action and labor?
I’ve spent a not-insignificant amount of time riding bikes home from studios in post-industrial spaces. Where various tones of cement and concrete become infused with violets and coppers. Shadows from overgrown trees, shrubs, and grasses dance upon the ground. Golden hour beams illuminate narratives of energy disposed and refurbished across empty lots. Hot flashes off metal sheets and rose-colored reflections appear in third-story windows. Nicknames and neon marks appear brandied across building surfaces disentangled from the industry that built them. Squirrels pander to weeds and litter. Basses thud from rust-bottomed cars as they whiz by. Birds swoop parallel to my body as I ride through.
Hope Wang’s buttered tongue chokes the sky (2021) pulls me into my time slowly riding past half excavated industrial spaces, the dipping sun illuminating the barbed-wire fencing barricading my entrance. buttered tongue depicts shadows on warm salmon-colored siding shaded purple, barbed wire fencing, the shadow of a road sign, and a silhouette of the person taking the image with their phone’s camera. The narrative that the image renders aids the recollection of my experience.
Soft Tread presents work by Hope Wang and Micah Sweezie, who both meditate on manual labor, repetitive activity, and rituals of place-making. By meticulously re-crafting manufactured and industrial products, the two artists trace the imprint of human labor and reference broader realities of material histories.1 This appears, often, within the exhibition, as subversions of design tropes that point towards “safety,” often recognizable within specific workplaces. Examples appear in yellow and black caution tape in Wang’s mouths square like a safety exit (2020) and Sweezies use of diamond plate patterning2 that is naturally present in the commercial steel surface of both Cut Copy Paste (2022) and in Wall installation (2022). The designed materiality of “workplace safety” provides a lexicon for understanding this pairing of works. “Together, they present artifacts of malleability, where taking the shape of another object often requires one to first bend into it."3
Soft Tread is an exhibition in two acts. The first act is a representation of different types of labor that leans into material metaphor. These metaphors appear in the use of caution tape, slip-cast tires, anti-slip steel, and hand-dyed (as well as hand-woven) textiles. It also utilizes the semiotics of various tropes of artistic, and preparatory labor: a stack of Micah Sweezie’s White Gold (2021-22) sits atop a moving blanket, an object recognized by any art preparator as a necessary fabric for the assemblage and de-installation of artworks within institutions. buttered tongue chokes the sky, fresh paint (2022) and pepper rain (2020) are the only stretched works in the exhibition space, they’re comparatively rectangular (in contrast to the rest of the objects), and their rectangle-i-ness relates them to the pedagogy of Painting and its steadfastness as Art’s number-one product for sale. In addition, as seen in Fresh Paint, Wang’s process is described:
“Handwoven textile with hand-dyed cotton, embossed screen-print on paper, mounted on stretcher bars and archival foam board.”4
This description is intentional. The image list could have easily read the following:
“Handwoven textile, hand-dyed cotton, embossed screen-print on paper, wood, and archival foam board.”
The phrase “mounted on stretcher bars” illuminates how the piece was constructed, that it is a part of the story we are being told. Soft Tread, then, leans into the symbolism of “work” in the abstract by pointing towards the colors, symbolism, materiality, and the viewers' own relationship to labor and employment, which for me, pointed to artistic, warehouse, agricultural, institutional, and service industry labor.
buttered tongue chokes the sky, in the front half of the gallery, realistically and metaphorically renders the symbolic tropes that are prevalent throughout the exhibition. Its rendering makes it an entry point for the viewer to begin, carefully and poetically, to consider huge contemporary questions (that really have been present for the past 150 years) like how we need to collectively evaluate and reassess the value of all labor—and more importantly—how laborers, regardless of industry, are being grossly underpaid and undervalued, and this has a lot of repercussions. During a moment when unionization efforts are significantly increasing (The National Labor Relations Board reported in April 2022 that Union Election Petitions have seen a national increase of 57%)5 this is a relevant consideration.
For Wang, this discussion of labor doesn’t need to be quite so serious. There is a lot of room for play in how they describe their work as well as the process. “I am drawn to sloppy maintenance around industrial spaces. People work very hard—though sometimes, not diligently at all—to cover anything from discolored brick, architectural deterioration, or grafﬁti. The signiﬁers [of this maintenance] such as paint patches, construction plywood, and safety zoning barricades have a material quality that delineates how people occupy and pass through places." In Soft Tread, Wang utilizes these signifiers to bear witness to the ephemeral nature of labor and existence.
Though their work gestures toward the transitional quality of types of labor such as construction and maintenance, Wang points directly at the homogenization of spaces that refuse to end their transition throughout their lifespan. Wang’s observation of endless task-making, such as patching over and repainting areas that were inscribed with graffiti, or simply contained marks from boxes, forklifts, and box cutters, illuminates the process of homogenization of warehouse spaces: rather than allow them to forever mirror whatever the universe brought to the side of that specific wall. This observance of transition contributes to the narrative of this exhibition of Wang and Sweezie. In addition to thinking about labor, our experience of it, and how it is culturally valued (or not); we can ask how does the act of homogenizing work-spaces reduce, remove, or alter histories of labor? How can artists utilize the simulacra of the material objects of labor, and more specifically, how can they subvert the homogenization of labor to discuss the material production contributed by those who are erased by said homogenization; often times immigrants, Black, POC, Indigenous, and low-wage earning white people.
Sitting on the floor in a way so untouched by delicacy or security that I at first believed them to be painted rubber, Micah Sweezie’s slip cast porcelain tires, White Gold (2021-22), rest in the center of the room (and one placed in the window). Simultaneously fragile and structurally enduring; they provide a materially significant dissonance between their rubber reference and their porcelain simulacra. This dissonance appears, literally, in my first assumption that it is a painted tire, and not the more labor-intensive and fragile version sitting in front of me. Sweezie’s reproduction of the tire indeed appears to document the material realities of production, more visibly so than rubber. Text (“Michelin” along with tire measurement details), beading, tread, and seams are all evident here, making visible a tire’s production and materiality so often looked over by consumers. The use of porcelain holds weight here. Of course, porcelain is a durable material that has a tremendous amount of historical and material significance. “For the purpose of historical examination, porcelain vessels are particularly revealing, for they have always been produced as simultaneously functional wares, treasured possessions, and bearers of cultural significance; hence the history of porcelain must be linked to changes in commerce, art, and social values.”6 “By duplicating these iconic forms in porcelain through the process of slip casting, [Sweezie] alters their perceived value related to material, quantity, and production. Their approach addresses value as subjective and artificial to highlight similarities in antiquated values associated with the represented ideologies.”7 Sweezie’s reproduction of the tire also rarifies the tire, calling to mind the connection between work, its evolution in terms of place, and how refuse contributes to changing landscapes. This rarification also links the work, materially again, to that understanding of artistic labor — these tires have been transformed by Sweezie’s own labor, time, and money. So much of commercial objects constructed for temporary use (or safety tools, as mentioned earlier) are made with temporality in mind, while the object’s actualized longevity remains unscrutinized. Thus, the porcelain tire contributes to all of the metaphors present in Soft Tread. They gesture towards truly transitory workplace objects: coming into production, being transported, used temporarily, and either left to deteriorate or sent to landfills (or in the case of tires, frequently abandoned) to finish out their very long lifespan.
The backroom of the gallery is the second act of Soft Tread. All wall works, consisting mostly of prints, the viewer is directed to another type of artistic production that mimics industrialized practices. Nearly a dozen screenprints, monoprints, etchings, and latex molds gesture towards their own subjecthood while referencing the method of their creation: printmaking. Hope Wang’s embossed screenprint on paper west, the sun a belly button in the sky (2019), archives an anonymous employee’s dusty footprint upon a concrete surface painted safety yellow. There is a barely discernible crack in the floor depicted, and the footprint implies a type of “bringing the outdoors in.” It’s the track of a work boot, mapping someone’s migration around a worksite.
Micah Sweezie returns to the diamond pattern present in both Cut Copy Paste and in Wall installation from the front room in Diamond Bánh Tráng (2022). Diamond is a latex print that resembles what could be a mold of the pattern that was industrially pressed into the steel sheet used in Cut Copy Paste. The same diamond pattern appears upon the porcelain rounds that are paired with a rice paper lid of the Bánh Tráng brand in Wall installation. This latex piece, framed in the back half of the gallery, illuminates a theoretical means of production for the artist. When considered as a group of work that is in conversation with one another – this act appears as organizing of an industrial ‘original,’ (i.e Cut Copy Paste), the porcelain ‘copy,’ (the porcelain circles present in Wall installation), and the mold (Diamond Bánh Tráng) that exists as a mediation between the original and the copy. Latex acts as a mediator for the type of transitory labor and production that Sweezie employs to create these rarified objects.
So here, the distinction between action and labor seems to be the act of slowing down to solidify the ephemeral qualities of industrially made realities. This is performed by reproducing, recontextualizing, and revisiting how work-a-day experiences are conceived; Micah Sweezie and Hope Wang successfully maneuver a close reading of safety, hidden forms of labor, and mitigated workplaces by making them concrete, rare, and as well as stationary. In Soft Tread, invisible or homogenized labor not only becomes visible — it becomes pronounced and filled with longing for the viewer’s understanding of their relationship to work, places of work, and the political economy of those concepts.
Soft Tread is on view at the latent space in Chicago until May 29, 2022.
- Exhibition Statement. Soft Tread. Latent Space. Chicago, IL, 2022
- Diamond plate is a metal plate product that features a raised diamond-like pattern on the surface. This pattern creates increased traction for an individual or object on top of the metal surface.
- Exhibition Statement
- Latent Space, Soft Tread Checklist. 2022
- “Union Election Petitions Increase 57% in First Half of Fiscal Year 2022.” National Labor Relations Board, 6 Apr. 2022, https://www.nlrb.gov/news-outreach/news-story/union-election-petitions-increase-57-in-first-half-of-fiscal-year-2022.
- Finlay, Robert. “The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History.” Journal of World History 9, no. 2 (1998): 141–87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20078727.
- Micah Sweezie. “Biography and Statement.” Artists Website. http://www.micahsweezie.com/biostatement
Megan Bickel [she/they] (MFA, MA) is a trans-disciplinary artist, data analyst, writer, and educator working at the intersections of painting, new media, and data visualization. She is the founder and organizer of houseguest gallery in Louisville, Kentucky.
Install of Soft Tread
Hope Wang, Pepper Rain (2020), Screenprint on nylon and fiberglass mesh, cotton muslin, upholstery foam, laminate wood, 25 x 19 x 4 inches.
On Left: Micah Sweezie, Red Jar (2022), Oil monotype on rice paper, 10 x 12”. On Right: Micah Sweezie, Broken Bottle (2021), Oil monotype on rice paper, 10 x 12”.
On Left: Hope Wang, Morning Balestra, Acrylic on wood dowel, ceramic hook, 54 x 3 x 1, inches. On Right: Hope Wang, Afternoon Balestral, Acrylic on wood dowel, ceramic hook, 54 x 3 x 1 inches. Edition of 2.