Josh Kline, installation view of “Project for a New American Century,” 2023, with (left to right): Remittances, 2023; and Personal Responsibility: Vitali and Mercedes, 2023. Photo: Ron Amstutz

Josh Kline

New York

Whitney Museum of American Art

“Project for a New American Century,” Josh Kline’s astutely orchestrated, mid-career survey of work made over the last 15 years (on view through August 13, 2023), combines fantastical 3D-printed sculptures, videos, and installations in a timely and gripping presentation. There is nothing subtle here. Kline knows what he wants to say, and a focus on labor and class is central to his practice. Exploring urgent social and political issues, he questions how emergent technologies are changing human life; and though he addresses a broad range of public problems, he does not preach. Like Hans Haacke, who has melded art and activism, Kline strikes a balance in his work, delivering a message but with hope for change.

The works in this provocative show demonstrate that Kline has thought deeply about his concerns—he is a storyteller relating a compelling message of worlds to come. Viewers confront challenging uncertainties about unemployment and the effects of automation, drugs, income inequality, and climate change. Kline’s haunting and foreboding work is akin to film noir; one doesn’t have to like it to keep thinking (and worrying about) the mysterious narratives it presents. 

Like the Pop artists of the 1960s, who adopted the symbols of advertising and commercial design in a critique of capitalism and materialism, Kline, too, employs recognizable everyday brands such as Lysol, Walmart, Advil, Amazon Prime, and FedEx in his mélange of biting commentaries. Each gallery highlights an idiosyncratic theme, and the surreal atmosphere is compelling. Viewers can traverse 11 immersive spaces, including sections devoted to “Personal Responsibility,” “Blue Collars,” “Unemployment,” and “Creative Labor.” Using up-to-the-minute, 3D-printing technologies, Kline renders dramatic, not-so sci-fi scenarios.

Personal Responsibility (2023–ongoing), his most recent work, contains an encampment of temporary shelters often associated with the landscape of migrants and the homeless, including trailers, cars, and tents, set within a glowing red gallery. Inside each bunker-like structure, a screen presents a video interview with fictional survivors who recount their stories while hoping to start anew in a post-apocalyptic world.

The “Blue Collars” series (2014–20) consists of sculptural assemblages that address how blue collar workers are portrayed and branded through their jobs. Heads and limbs fill shopping carts or float amid packing material and products in FedEx containers. The detached heads, arms, and hands shelved on a janitor’s cart in Cost of Living (Aleyda) (2014) were 3D-printed based on a Manhattan hotel housekeeper whose likeness was scanned by Kline’s group of producers. Objectified and reduced to the tools of her labor in the sculpture, the real woman is able to share tales of her working conditions and desires in an audio-video portrait. In two memorable works—20% Gratuity (Applebee’s Waitress’s Arm with Checkbook) (2018) and Keep The Change (Texas Roadhouse Waiter’s Feet with Shoes) (2018)—trays sit on classic restaurant stands, filled with 3D-printed plaster facsimiles of food accompanied by detached heads, limbs, and shoes.

Uncanny, life-size sculptures of slumbering office workers in casual clothing, curled up in fetal position and confined in plastic bags, occupy the eerie “Unemployment” gallery. In these 3D-printed plaster forms, which seem like the dead waiting to be hauled away with other trash, Kline underscores what happens to people when they are no longer of profitable use to a company. 

Civil War (2016–17) is disturbing not only in its visual presentation, but also in its grim underlying premise. Reflecting on the divisiveness that permeates the U.S., Kline imagines a civil war that crosses all boundaries, resulting in destruction of the populace. Mounds of gray cast sculptures of children’s toys, machinery, furniture, and other demolished debris evince the reality of what might happen if we cannot reach some kind of equilibrium. 

In another darkened gallery, the futuristic spectacle appears inviting and beautiful. The illusion is shattered, however, once the nature of the sparkling glass spheres is revealed. The suspended forms (reminiscent of magnified viruses) in Contagious Unemployment (2016), enclose cardboard boxes filled with the personal possessions of laid-off workers. The illumination within each sphere signifies a human being whose life will be drastically altered. As technology increasingly replaces the workforce, an intensifying epidemic of unemployment will spread unless new alternatives can be found.

Kline operates like a modern-day Charles Dickens, presenting dystopian nightmares and raising questions of what might come if we do not change our behavior. On the other hand, being somewhat of an optimist, Kline has said, “The future hasn’t happened yet…It can still be shaped in the present.” This is the beauty of his work. He is the canary in the coal mine, desperately sounding an alarm in a most creative way.