Preparator Magic

Working as a preparator, I’m halfway through a two-week install involving lots of building. It’s exciting and exhausting, requiring focus and grace. You work with materials, tools, people, institutions, vendors… elevator systems, security systems. You aim to please, perhaps even aspire to perfection, yet you have to manage expectations, including your own. Preparators are only midwives to artists’ visions, but pride—not to be discounted—is at stake. Behind the impression of timelessness that artworks and exhibitions strive for is a lot of risk/hopethatworks/noonewillknow. Dive in, fight fatigue, feel crumbly yet alive, playing a role in a complex that fuses creative ambition with material reality.

In my research about Jim Hodges this weekend, I came across examples of the paradoxes/great cosmic jokes that preparator work involves.

Jim Hodges, Untitled, 2011  Mirror ball, mechanics and water; dimensions variable. Source:

Jim Hodges, Untitled, 2011 Mirror ball, mechanics and water; dimensions variable. Source:

Jim Hodges oversees the deinstallation of Untitled at Gladstone Gallery. Source:

Jim Hodges oversees the deinstallation of Untitled at Gladstone Gallery. Source:

Different locations, same artist, same gallery.

First image: Jackhammered hole.

Second image: Concrete floor protected in gaffer-taped Masonite. Note pieces cut-to-size for break-away brace. Nifty.

In art and art exhibitions, the visible is often just the tip of the iceberg, while many more systems, materials, labor, and even experiences, are kept invisible.

Art & Development

Why I do art technician work

On occasion, I work as an art technician. The job involves handling, installing, and sometimes fabricating artwork, and all the physical aspects of transitioning galleries between exhibitions.

The work is not for the faint-hearted (think: carrying lumber and sheet goods up stairs) or status-minded (the art world can be very classist), but I find it rewarding and educational. Technician work requires multiple abilities: skills of facture, art materials knowledge, problem-solving, and communicating with artists. Art schools don’t teach how to build crates, pack artwork, make pedestals, light galleries and so on. You also need to be able to switch gears: to throw it into high gear when it’s time to jam, and slow down for details and delicate work. It is wonderful work when you can manage this as well as maintain a good attitude and a sense of camaraderie with your team.

I’ve been helping out with exhibitions at Art in General, a non-profit alternative art space dedicated to producing and presenting new work. Their mission reflects the ethos of the art world I’d like to participate in.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done there—this week involved framing things on odd angles, sheetrock, 15 pedestals, 72 linear feet of guttered shelves. Ticking off what seemed to be an impossible checklist is very satisfying. As are the moments when a tool becomes an extension of your consciousness. While I love doing graphic design work, it can mean sitting at a screen all day, increasing my appreciation of the physicality and immediacy of technician work (which, in turn, can increase my appreciation for design work).

Best of all is doing this work alongside good-natured, problem-solving co-workers. I need enthusiasm no less than skills; the “let’s do it” attitude whether the job is re-doing a detail that’s 1/8″ off, or rip-cutting a lot of plywood first thing in the morning.

There are pitfalls to the work—for artists, disillusionment; and in an oft-male-dominated field, confidence becoming arrogance. But I’ve been very lucky to get my on-the-job training from experienced individuals who share knowledge generously and patiently, and who are communicative and team-oriented. And in inviting new members of a team now, I know that I owe my comfort with tools and confidence in my skills to those mentors. In gratitude, I look forward to sharing my modest abilities, and hopefully, my enthusiasm, with those who are hungry to learn.


Moby-Dick is coming!

Moby-Dick, the forthcoming exhibition at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, is gonna be a great show. It’s formed around Melvillian motifs and features new and recent contemporary art alongside historical works. The list of artists follows.

Kenneth Anger, Matthew Benedict, Mark Bradford, Marcel Broodthaers, Angela Bulloch, Tom Burr, Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher, Tacita Dean, Marcel Dzama, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Rodney Graham, John Gutmann, Susan Hiller, Evan Holloway, Peter Hutton, Colter Jacobsen, Brian Jungen, Buster Keaton, Rockwell Kent, Mateo Lopez, Jorge Macchi, Kris Martin, Henrik Olesen, Paulina Olowska, Damián Ortega, Jean Painlevé, Kirsten Pieroth, Adrián Villar Rojas, Richard Serra, Andreas Slominski, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Orson Welles

Pretty much all these artists are amazing, but there are a few that are outstanding for personal reasons. I saw Mark Bradford speak at SFAI a few years back; he’s the kind of bright and sensitive artist I aspire to be. I was greatly impressed by Angela Bulloch‘s highly refined LED-based work in the Leeds Art Gallery. And as a one-time woodcut artist, I was also delighted (in my role as a preparator) to see the inclusion of some beautiful old Rockwell Kent prints.

Moby-Dick will be on view at the Wattis from September 22 to December 12, 2009. The gallery is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11–7, and Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11–6. There will be an opening reception on Tuesday, September 22, from 6:30–8:30. For more info please visit