AUTHOR’S NOTE: This series of articles examines the ways a global cataclysm can reshape meaning in artworks that predate it. The multi-part question I’ve been asking artists since mid-April is: In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, do you look at your personal collection differently now, and which works in particular? Is there one that especially resonates with you at this weird, frightening moment? And does it take on new meaning?
I’m interested in the ways that collective experience of trauma can influence the significance we project onto artworks, even those we think we know well. It’s clear from some of the responses below that the killing of George Floyd on May 25 triggered a reshaping of that collective experience yet again.
Helen O’Leary (State College, Pennsylvania): I saw Todd Bienvenue’s painting, “Stop,” on Instagram early in 2016 and reached out to trade. I read it as vulnerability under attack and knew I needed to own it. It spoke to my younger self, this shot-up stop sign with its broken language, riddled with bullet holes and malignant harm. Rusty, perforated, yet still articulate, it summed up both brutality and resilience for me.
The painting moved with us from room to room and it became our visual thermometer for the political, economic and personal emotions of the moment.
Now “Stop” sits propped up on the medicine cabinet in the bedroom. It has been many things these last few months — a postcard to our plague, a plea for calm. Lately, my reading of the work has flipped, like a camera obscura image, and leads me to think that the brutality is not in the bullet holes but rather the signage, and in the erasure of this word is a moment of hope.
Louis Cameron (Berlin, Germany): I own and live with a poster by Rashid Johnson entitled “Run.” The poster was included in a free online portfolio I published in 2015 in response to the unjustified killing of Black men in the United States around that time.
The word “run” struck me as an interesting response to these killings. We know that one can’t necessarily run and be safe. This was proven by the video of the murder of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer in 2015. However, running seems to be a natural instinct.
When the shelter-in-place orders issued all over the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic put a “pause” to life as we knew it, I thought for a moment that the kind of violence against Black people that Johnson’s poster refers to would halt temporarily, allowing other readings to emerge. The release of the video showing the killing of Ahmaud Arbery proved me wrong. While Arbery was killed before the shelter-in-place orders, the video was released during the shelter period and there has since been a succession of killings and incidents reigniting the urgency felt around 2015. The killing of Breonna Taylor, the Amy Cooper/Christian Cooper confrontation in Central Park, and the killing of George Floyd, which has sparked international outrage and protests, shifted the world’s attention away from the COVID-19 crisis.
I quickly understood that the COVID-19 pandemic failed to change the way I see the work by Johnson because it hasn’t changed the conditions in which Black people were unjustly killed in the United States.
Sandra Lapage (São Paulo, Brazil): Since the self-isolation period began, the apartment I share with my artist partner has been completely overtaken by studio chaos. There is stuff everywhere. Lots of our art collection disappeared under piles of material and works in progress. As I uncovered and rearranged objects and artwork, I experienced a change in perception especially in regard to Mario Sader’s photograph, “Madison Square Park, New York.”
Mario has developed an idiosyncratic language, playing in the overlap of architectural compositions and abstraction. His underexposed photographs are melancholic, posh, and gorgeous images, in which the only hint of human presence is the eye of the artist. In this contemplative wintery evening cityscape, the surprising framing of the building, light emanating from the top, is angled as if caught in a glimpse during a silent walk in the cold stillness of the world.
It took on a completely new meaning of an endless pit of darkness as pandemic has compounded political crises in both the US and Brazil. While the US has been taken by an outcry against police brutality targeting the black community, in Brazil we are facing the echoes of racism in the recent deaths of 5-year-old Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva and 14-year-old João Pedro Motta and, simultaneously, the rise of the country’s epidemic curve, indicating Brazil as the new epicenter of the pandemic.
Both countries share the Ubu Roi-like posture of populist leaders exhibiting reckless behavior, disrespect and even obscenity in the way they dismiss recent losses and the need for isolation to fight the spread of COVID-19. Ignoring scientific recommendations, they advertise ineffective or scientifically unproven substances as miracle cures, while avoiding international cooperation for long term solutions to the problem and threatening authoritarian measures to control the dissatisfaction of the population.
Populist power remains a flagrant parody of itself, but hopefully the reactions around the world might bring the contemplative poetry of Mario’s work back to the surface.
Joseph Nechvatal (Paris, France): As we timidly try to tiptoe past the pestilence, I am acutely aware that the transmission of COVID-19 has steered important cultural work towards a heightened sense of human mortality and vulnerability. Kiki Smith’s “Double Self-Portrait” has been propped up on my bookshelf for at least ten years. With the viral pandemic, it has taken on extra cultural relevance.
Her photogram prompts prime questions of aesthetics in the viral context because the two hot, dynamic, multilayered, phantasmagorical, glaring, negative images of Kiki have a ghostly drift to them that the pandemic makes prescient. We all feel extra fragile and ephemeral, these days. It is as if a moving magic lantern threw her face twice on the flashing red rear screen of my mind.
What especially attracts me now to “Double Self-Portrait” is that I see it as art about death by a young person. Kiki created “Double Self-Portrait” when she was 29 years old. It’s strange how and why the occult style of the anti-realist realism of this transcendently beautiful piece pervades my pandemic ponderings these days, with its emotional-visual taunt of facing the fear of the (sooner or later) inevitable. So I see it as a permanent haunting visual meditation on dissolving death that provides me the chance to do the counter-fearful thing: to look at what I fear with a gnarly twinkle of aesthetic pleasure. Looking hard at it means entering into myself and emerging with a punk pleasure from years gone by. Far from being a toast — or a passive surrender — to death, the fiery artistic creativity transmitted to me stimulates the flowing juices of life and confirms my love of visual art in the midst of the inevitability of insubstantiality.
Michael A. Robinson (Montreal, Canada): When I returned home from New York City’s Spring Break Art Show in March, I was sick. I had to abandon my side of the bed for a while — long enough to heal myself and to protect my sweetheart. But I love my bedroom (my books, my Buddhas, the artworks) and leaving it for more than a few days was no fun.
Elmyna Bouchard’s work has been above our bed ever since we moved in. I have always cherished it. Deciding where to hang it was a no-brainer. “That one goes there!” I know a few things about Elmyna’s printmaking practice. I know that she explores the normal constraints of the discipline. (Genre smashing makes for a smashing genre!) Hers is a hybrid practice that borrows from the field of drawing. Montreal poet Annie Lafleur has written about her work: ”The theater curtain is then cut up and set on the stage like characters in search of a short play for paper.”
I also know a few intimate details regarding the subject matter of the artwork in my room that are not exactly comforting.
Now I’m happy to be back in my bed. I’m reading Annie Lafleur’s new book of poems, Ciguë, and I can feel the edge of a frame on the back of my head. I’m starting to think about the artwork again even though I can’t see it. There is a crazy full moon tonight. Like Elmyna’s work, it’s not simply reassuring. These uncertain times have us questioning so many of the things we take for granted. We’ll all get through this together, I guess. I’m tired and I have to stop reading now.
John R. Thompson (Mexico City, Mexico): I’d been thinking about the work in my collection in relation to the idea of pandemic before I had ever heard of COVID-19. Early last December, my friend Alex Aceves and I opened our exhibit, La Amenaza, at Universadad del Claustro Sor Juana in Mexico City. The title means “the menace” and connotes threat, anxiety, or impending disaster. The exhibition included art by American and Mexican artists combined with design works and common objects. Even then, we had a strong feeling that something was not right and we wanted to examine this feeling.
The works in the exhibition project a feeling of menace, paranoia, or other uncomfortable sensations or experiences—the same feelings the actual pandemic would elicit two months later. While curating the show, I often found a painting or object began to reveal subtle secondary meanings.
The Chinese robe (circa 1860) had always been, to my eye, the epitome of exotic beauty and richness. The midnight blue silk and the exquisite embroidery are amazing. It was like something you would see in an old National Geographic. But against the 19th-century backdrop of poverty and starvation, and brutal images of beheadings and prisons, I began to see this beautiful robe as a symbol of privilege built on a foundation of corruption and the misery of many people.
I realized that these same attitudes had existed in the United States, and still do — that the same (white) privilege, corruption, and callous indifference of those in power to people less fortunate was still alive. The Chinese robe was a perfect choice for La Amenaza; for me, it initiated a personal soul-searching brought into sharp focus by experiencing and dealing with the many pressures of the pandemic.
Jane Harris (Dordogne, France): I live on the edge of a small rural hamlet in southwest France. The house/studio has a wide, airy entrance area with large glass doors which open out onto a courtyard, the garden, and the landscape beyond. Just inside the doors, two drawings hang side by side. They are the first artworks I see when I enter the building and the last when I leave.
For months, no one except for my husband and myself has crossed this threshold. This meeting place between the internal and external world, previously a place of welcome, has become a dividing line, an invisible barrier — a situation pertinent to these two drawings made by two artists, father and son, one very near, one in another country, both close to my heart.
Although very different in character and intention, the drawings have similar aspects — their sensitive line, their spatial complexities, their craftsmanship, their attention to detail, their disconcerting mix of ‘foreignness’ and familiarity, the historic with the present: their otherworldliness.
Jiri Kratochvil’s “That Bad Feeling” connotes suspended animation. Images of emblems and objects, referring to the handmade and mechanical, are sourced from different times, places, and cultures, but equally have a timeless quality. Their graphic wit belies an unsettling undertone. They are held at that moment when activity is at a tipping point, when everything could change, unfold or fold in on itself, but is arrested. The bowl is nearly full but held precariously by a thread. The liquid inside is still and calm but even a slight breeze could upset its equilibrium. The flask above it, pivoting, pours a branch of leaves coated in copper.
“A Couple Embracing” by George Kratochvil takes place at other thresholds, between flatness and depth, between here and there, between now, the past, and the future — a tryst, a forbidden world of touching, intimacy, coupling, passion, two becoming one. The image is surrounded by a wide white border, a protective space. On closer observation, the woven, wavy, repetitive and rhythmic horizontal lines, which literally and metaphorically mark time, are actually tiny tufts of grass. The two trees, set apart from each other like sentries and beacons, become symbolic of the distancing of which we have all become so aware.
For me now, the prescience of these drawings elicits two different emotional states — in George’s one of yearning and in Jiri’s one of jeopardy.
Kelli Williams (Brooklyn, New York): My favorite artwork in my home is a Syrian marquetry table, made with artistry and attention to details of craft like William Morris’s idea of decorative arts. But things like that don’t usually exist in the contemporary world. New goods are mass produced and relationships are transactional. There’s no room left in the world for things that are more beautiful than they need to be.
I bought the tables in Canada because Syria is on the list of countries on which the US has a trade embargo. At the time, Syria seemed to be becoming more democratic. I couldn’t have believed that it would be torn apart, its cities in rubble. The artisans who made the tables might be dead or displaced. Maybe their homes are destroyed. Maybe they are in countries where they aren’t welcome. They certainly aren’t nearby, because Syrian refugees were blocked from coming to the US.
New York City feels more like a fortress now than a refuge for people from all over the world. People are under quarantine in their homes and anyone who has a home is lucky. I read that some of the Syrian marquetry artisans resettled in Lebanon and make jewelry boxes to raise money for aid groups.
The table fell in a chase with my cat. I learned how to use shellac and wood epoxy to fix the broken leg. There might not be tables like this again or people who make them. When tiny pieces of colored wood flake off and I reapply them with glue and tweezers, I sense the care that went in to making them. I learned that marquetry workshops began in Damascus in the 1800s during an earlier civil war, as a part of rebuilding.
Art exists for the ages, outside of time. I wonder if I will pass the tables on to my brother’s kids. These objects may outlive me and may have outlived their makers. Once, I might have thought that showed the power of art. Now it just seems sad.
Amber Boardman (Sydney, Australia): As an American down here in Australia, the pandemic has me feeling severed more than usual from loved ones in the US. I’m aching for a visit but I can’t imagine when that will be possible. The circumference of my world has shrunk from traveling for exhibitions and teaching commitments to a 10-minute bike ride between home and studio. I’ve been spending more time with the two works hanging above our dining table. I think I understand them better now, or at least differently.
Liron Gilmore, an Australian artist and close friend, gave me the wall sculpture titled “Pushing Upward (Earth Gives Birth to Wood).” It calms me. Liron suggests resilience through the transformation of slender, curved branches, meticulously wrapping them with colored yarn to resemble insect wing patterning. These patterns reveal the structures that make insects sturdier in their environment through camouflage, and the work reminds me to keep adapting to the new normal.
Nearby hangs an untitled work by Two Bob Tjungurrayi, a member of the Papunya Tula art movement in the Northern Territory of Australia. Bought by my Australian partner years before we met, this work calms me too. The central circle with the wavy vertical lines flowing around and through it plays a nice counterpoint to the dangling branches in Gilmore’s piece. I see an interplay between adapting and letting go — between Doing and Being.
In the midst of a contagion that threatens our way of life, isolates us remorselessly from family and friends, and breeds fear and paranoia, I find these pieces grounding. The quietly determined resilience I sense in “Pushing Upward” and the Tjungurrayi painting’s gently flowing acceptance are complimentary, not contradictory. They inspire me to strive for both in the life I lead and the work I make.
Laurel Farrin (Iowa City. Iowa): Jim Shrosbree’s “UBV” hangs in my living room in plain sight but was often overlooked in my comings and goings. Now, going nowhere, I hear birds and breezes and feel its extrasensory gaze following me. “UBV” (Ultra Blue Velvet) is a small-mouthed vessel, an absorber of air and anxiety, a distiller of blue, a lung. It listens and observes, breathing in my footsteps, words and worry, breathing out equanimity. “UBV” is an elder, a sotto voce horn. It’s become an oracle. I ask questions but the advice comes in riddles.
Also looking at me in the living room is Jane Kent’s “High Noon.” The clock has stopped, or it is ticking out the same moment over and over—some moment nearing doomsday. A pinkish, plucky clock face softens its existential message so I’m not paralyzed with fear. It’s a wake-up call to action, set to go off at be accountable. Its alarm says: act in the face of nothing, fall, get up, keep on, help someone.
But each day becomes the same as the last. Which makes hoping for better days a challenge. Evolution is change over time and now it seems there is no change, just time, ticking. “Now? No, not now…Now?” So take care, take courage. Change — it’s high noon.
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