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This new podcast is ‘A Piece of Work’

| Tuesday, August 22, 2017

podcast webSusan Zhu

It’s a Monday morning in Santiago, Chile. I’m squished into an overcrowded metro car. Somebody’s elbow juts into my spine and a woman right next to me snacks loudly on a candy bar. It’s hot, and I’m stressed.

For a second, I close my eyes and push an earphone deeper into my ear, so as to catch the voice playing into my headphones: “Imagine the color blue. Now picture it deeper. Now picture it sharper, almost electric. Picture the kind of blue that is the deepest blue you have ever experienced…”

Rush hour commutes can sap the life out of a person if you aren’t careful. Most mornings, I rely on podcasts to make the commute bearable. In particular, Abbi Jacobson’s new podcast series, “A Piece of Work,” makes me look forward to my time alone on jam-packed metros.

In “A Piece of Work,” Jacobson teams up with the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) to provide an auditory tour of some highlights in MOMA’s immense collection of modern works. Jacobson works both as an illustrator, writer, producer and actor in “Broad City” with her co-star Ilana Glazer, so the podcast reflects the same wacky spirit that pervades “Broad City” and many of Jacobson’s other comedy routines.

Like any good tour guide, Jacobson unites and presents seemingly unrelated pieces in unexpected and exciting ways. For instance, in my favorite episode, “#3: How Questlove Learned to Love Silence,” which I quoted at the beginning of this article, Jacobson discusses Yves Klein’s “Blue Monochrome (1961)” and compares it to meditation. She then interviews Questlove — a professional musician — about the merits of silence.

In the nine episodes of its first season, the podcast traverses an impressive landscape of modern artists, including  — but not limited to — Jo Baer, Beatriz Gonzalez, Marcel Duchamp, James Turrell, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Sol LeWitt. Jacobson also boasts a long list of guest speakers: MOMA curators, conservationists, researchers, writers, artists, comedian Hannibal Burress, “Rookie” editor Tavi Gevinson, RuPaul and Questlove, to name a few. In one fantastic bit, Jacobson visits the conservation lab of MOMA to speak with curator Ellen Davis. She describes walking into the room to find a Picasso resting against a table — “it’s like casually hooking up with a Picasso!”

Jacobson revels in the questions that don’t have easy answers. She asks the fundamental questions, starting with the most simple — such as, “What is that?” and “What on Earth was that person thinking?” She then moves deeper: “What am I supposed to feel when I look at art? What does this mean? Does art have to be beautiful?” Jacobson doesn’t hold back on her opinions, and certainly doesn’t shy away from controversy in the art world. She often riffs on the title of the podcast when she gets to an especially thorny subject. “That, you guys, is a piece of work!”

The biggest drawback to the series stems from the limitations of the podcast format itself. Jacobson possesses a remarkable gift for painting word pictures, but it’s still difficult to visualize exactly the work of art she’s talking about, especially if I’ve never even heard of the artist before. MOMA compiles a gallery of the works discussed in each episode, but not every piece is included — so it remains up to the listener to venture through Wikipedia pages and the MOMA website to get a grasp on exactly what artwork Jacobson and her friends chatted about on the latest episode.

In many ways, though, this problem indicates that Jacobson and her peers at the MOMA are succeeding in their work — the podcast invites its listeners to mull over the pieces of art they hear about. Jacobson offers no easy answers, but rather invites her listeners into an extended exploration of the works she discusses.

I’m back on the train, heading home after a long day, and through the grimy metro window I catch a hint of setting sun over the Andes. The sun’s rays filter through smog and blend with the fluorescent lighting of the train, and I think of an episode where Abbi and writer Samantha Irby visit a James Turrell skylight. Turrell mixes and juxtaposes natural and artificial light sources in vast, open spaces — they look kind of like this window on the metro. I glance at my phone, and I notice the “@” symbol — and I’m instantly reminded of an episode where Jacobson traces the aesthetic inspiration behind the simple yet elegant design.

The more I listen to this podcast, the more art begins to infiltrate stealthily into my daily life. In that respect, Abbi Jacobson’s new podcast is a truly impactful — you guessed it — piece of work.


Podcast title: “A Piece of Work”

Host: Abbi Jacobson

Provider: WYNC Studios

Average episode run length: 20 minutes

Favorite episode: “#3: How Questlove Learned to Love Silence”

If you like: modern art, “Broad City,” comedy

Shamrocks: 4/5

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