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Josip Novosel

Überstunden

Lodovico Corsini is pleased to present Überstunden, an exhibition by Berlin-based artist Josip Novosel featuring a series of new oil on canvas works. The collective imagination holds a special place for men at work, their bodies rippling, bulging, strapping, chiselled, and pulsating. Lifting pipes, laying cable, tugging ropes, driving rigs, hammering steel, pushing and pulling carts. Flexed, and brawny labouring bodies have for centuries exemplified civic, nationalist, and hypermasculine ideals. Yet, not only metaphors for the power of the proletariat, their oversized and calloused hands, oily torsos and taut clothing have come to encapsulate the opposing notions of work and leisure, of physical exertion and pleasure, of (homo)erotic endeavours and sexualised energy whilst on the job.

Josip Novosel delves into the intertwining of hypermasculinity and labour in this new series of works, naming the exhibition Überstunden or “Overtime” in English. Two groups of paintings deal simultaneously with these themes, all featuring male bodies performing gestures situated between work and pleasure.

An introduction to such ideas, the painting entitled Lunch Break shows four workers wearing denim overalls, steel-toed boots, and flat caps reminiscent of the 1930s. The men—relieved of their official tasks for a moment—swig beer, and grope themselves, and one another. But what is their job, exactly? Their garments are smeared with paint, suggesting they might be a manifestation of the artist-as-worker himself. Indeed, artistic practice, whether physical or mental, is hard labour, and every worker needs a break from time to time. The Cy Twombly-esque scrawls that spatter each man’s denim act directly to subvert the heterosexual American male monolith of the industrious and genius modernist painter. A zoomed-in companion painting entitled Painter’s bulge superimposes the abstract canon upon the worker’s canvas crotch, an erotic bulge starkly opposing with humour the usual flatness and self-referentiality of the traditional painterly field.

“Lunch atop a Skyscraper” is a renowned black-and-white photograph taken in 1932 of eleven ironworkers sitting on a steel beam 850 feet above the ground during construction of the Rockefeller Building in Manhattan, eating sandwiches. A lesser-known outtake from the same shoot saw the male workers feigning sleep, their heads resting in each other’s crotches. Across a second suite of thirteen paintings, Novosel hints at the Depression-era shot, his version set in the dead of night and showcasing worker men frolicking on a high-rise construction site, their flat caps turned backwards so as not to interfere with the carnal activities. On a backdrop of office buildings, their burly bodies overlap: tones of shadowy grey flesh meet hairy legs and buff arms, butts, and bulges, while gloved hands grasp and rub. Spotlights cast a yellow glare on the men and their moustaches, reminiscent of cinema noir, broadway musicals, or police manhunts. 

Using his signature syncretism, Novosel brings together in his work many symbols, intertwining both overtly gay and more latently reappropriated homoerotic histories and symbols, using the Depression-era workers as the vedettes in his scene, and placing them in Manhattan’s gay area of Greenwich Village. One work features an anvil falling from top to bottom of the frame as if knocked off a ledge, a presumed homage to The Anvil bar, a gay BDSM after-hours sex club located at 500 West 14th Street, that operated from 1974 to 1985. Regulars included Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Freddie Mercury, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, as well as Felipe Rose who began his career dancing at the Anvil, prior to becoming “the Indian” in the disco group the Village People, another habile 20th century meshing of macho gay-fantasy personas, symbols of labour and erotic energy.


In his essay The Practice of Everyday Life, an analysis of social representation and behaviour, French philosopher Michel de Certeau coined the term “la perruque” (“the wig”). This subversive practice allows workers on the clock to disguise their own pursuits as labour for their employers: “It differs from theft in that nothing of material value is stolen. It differs from absenteeism in that the worker is officially on the job. La perruque may be as simple a matter as a secretary writing a love letter on ‘company time’ or as complex as a cabinetmaker ‘borrowing’ a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room.”
By giving blow-jobs whilst on the job, Josip Novosel’s figures engage in this practice, unpicking the dichotomy between consumers and producers. In erotic workplace scenes, he transforms the body from a tool of production to a source of pleasure, encouraging joyful consumption of the other, as opposed to generating more wealth for the already wealthy. Rather than working overtime, their bodies exist outside of time. From atop a skyscraper, from the labourer’s orgy, the question, alongside discarded underwear, shirt, and anvil, floats down to our ears: “Sex is cool, but have you ever fucked the system too?"