A life hack is a way of outwitting the system, a gratifying shortcut that saves thirty minutes in an overloaded afternoon, or gives a DIY method for storing shoes. The term was popularized by Lifehacker, a blog that publishes advice and tricks for conserving time and money. Titled “Life Hack,” Justin John Greene’s exhibition of four paintings and two drawings at Smart Objects (all 2018) offered suggestions for expanding the term’s purview, applying it to the fraught spaces of socioeconomic privilege, gendered power dynamics, and dystopian technocratic hegemony. It was a strange premise for an exhibition, and the notion that the works were meant to relate to life hacking was illuminating in some instances and perplexing in others.
The six-foot-tall painting We Eat Out Too Much depicts a typical weekend soiree, where a youngish crowd languidly sips martinis and beers around a restaurant table. A man with the head of a rhinoceros splays his legs, taking up more than his fair share of the real estate under the table. This notorious gesure of male entitlement—“manspreading”—read here as a boorish kind of life hack, in which one deploys social privilege to secure a position of power, regardless of merit. In the foreground, a man on his tiptoes stands atop a silver platter held high above a waiter’s head, defying the laws of gravity in a surrealist feat of equilibrium.
A dapper film-noir actor appears to panic in the smaller painting Expiration Date, oblivious to the glamorous actress hanging from his neck. He is transfixed by a bunch of ripe bananas, one of which has an iPhone charger cable inserted into it—a reference to the urban myth that plugging a dead cell phone into fruit will resuscitate it. There’s a joke here in the contrasting of the phallic banana’s vitality with the iPhone’s impotence. A superimposed passage from Martin Amis’s 1978 novel, Success, reinforces the theme of emasculation. It’s a poor man’s account of getting robbed. “I felt my trousers go wet and hot,” he says. Pairing Amis’s hapless protagonist—whose shifting fortunes are the book’s subject—with the image of a movie-star fantasy man, Greene underscores the latter’s fears of inadequacy and alludes to another meaning of the word “hack.”
Posing as a Hacker is a portrait of a young woman reclining on a couch with a Macbook Pro. She wears socks and a trench coat over a black dress. Her intense absorption in the screen is heightened by the dramatic moonlight that colors the whole scene blue. While Greene undermines certain clichés of portraiture with this woman’s disregard of the viewer’s gaze, the work lacks the subversiveness and buoyancy of the more peculiar compositions elsewhere in the show.
Wild man-machine hybrids appeared in the remaining works. The two drawings depict figures whose bodies are composed of tubes, bolts, screws, and other objects and mechanical components. The final painting, 2.0, shows the artist with a large plastic funnel inserted into his arm, where gears and cylinders have replaced his ligaments and flesh. In this work, he renders himself bionic, a body hacked open for some madcap convenience or a quick, cheap fix. The bizarre urgency of this scheme suggests that our hacks are overtaking us, altering our very sense of what matters as we race to outmaneuver the system.