ArtLocal Review: “Payroll” by Tim Halco

By Jamie Loftus


After years of creative hemorrhaging, Boston artist Tim Halco has returned with a new exhibit at Chipotle Mexican Grill in Davis Square, strainer spoon in hand.

Halco’s first solo show in five years presented a full range of his work from 2005 to the present, the duration of his Chipotle employ. A signature combination of performance art and assemblage, his “Payroll” exhibit presents commentary on the working class and showcases his dark, caustic wit. As expected, the centerpiece of the exhibit is new work “Payroll 5/4/15 – 5/20/15,” complemented perfectly by Halco’s “Chipotle employee” performance art piece.

“Jeanine,” the artist drawled from behind the counter. Without making eye contact, Halco scribbled the letters “CG” onto a compostable bowl and swiped the Mastercard of a thrilled pseudo-patron.

“With black beans, right?” she asked, per Halco’s tweeted instructions on how to interact with the performance piece.

He narrowed his eyes and cracked a thin-lipped smile. “I don’t see color,” Halco answered before striding to the end of the burrito bar to ask the next patron whether they wanted a white or wheat tortilla.

Around these “doubles” performances in which patrons can watch the artist “work” at the “local Chipotle” from “open” to “close,” the framed pieces are a fascinating look at the artist’s MassArt post-graduate years. It’s a journey of sorts, watching his carefully tabulated hours devolve into a series of typos, eye rolls and spilled bean juice.

Newer fans crowded around the iconic “Payroll 9/14/11 – 9/28/11,” an Excel spreadsheet reeking of abstract expressionism, with coffee spilled across the page and little devil horns around the name ‘Farshad.’ I found myself drawn, however, to Halco’s well-composed mid-aughts assemblages.

Laid out chronologically, the artist’s message as a former Chipotle manager speaks for itself – making ends meet is tough, and the turnover rate can be brutal. Since his 2005 hire at the branch as a 22-year-old, Halco’s descent into bitterness and depression is chronicled with each subsequent spreadsheet.

In “2009,” several brown beans are held within the frame to symbolize a period of weight gain and of Brazilian colonialism, a subject he Halco had taken a night class about. Halco’s name is at the top of every spreadsheet and logs at least 100 hours in any given two-week period, a fact that he’ll gruntingly confirm if asked during his twelve-hour performance ‘shift.’ He’s on par with Abramovic, calmly explaining the “no carnitas” policy to disappointed pork consumers who don’t realize the farcical situation they’ve stumbled into.

Halco’s work is notoriously provocative, and the new store-wide exhibit is no exception. A representative for Chipotle’s Mexican Grill said (sic: screamed) that her ‘employee’s’ pieces were unethically conceived and against company policy, particularly the “Payroll” series. The artist responded with a performance art-infused roll of the eyes and mumbled, “Gina is a bitch.”

Chipotle management’s criticism is only feeding the hype. One aspect of “Payroll 5/4/15 – 5/20/15” that must be addressed for its subversive commentary on the nature of pay rate and race. In several cells, we see that employee Felicia Johnson received a full $1.50 less per hour than white counterparts like Halco and assistant manager Brian Tamblin. When asked whether this was a comment on race, Halco remained in character.

“We’ve worked here longer so we gets more,” the artist explained over the impossibly loud hum of the refrigerator, brushing stray bits of salsa from his beard. “Not as much as Gina, but more.

As an experience Halco’s Chipotle exhibit is at first innocuous, drawing customers in from the moment they realize that the vaguely Mayan wooden hanging that used to adorn the plastic walls have been replaced with dirty payroll sheets. The work sneaks up on you and pounces, standing head and shoulder above contemporaries like Janice Pemberton, whose dull watercolors make any experience at the Davis Square Panera Bread comparable to sticking your hand through one of Chipotle’s meat grinders. Coincidentally, this is a task that Halco threatens to do at least once every “doubles” performance.

It’s ironic that Halco’s gallery space is a traditional Chipotle Mexican Grill, the company from which he still receives his income save for a few “freelance logo design assignments,” the artist said before handing me his portfolio. Just as we can witness Halco’s descent into depression by circling the restaurant, so can we see our own lives passing by, two weeks at a time. Just as guacamole is extra, so is the emotion and anguish connected to this unforgettable exhibit.