AUTHOR’S NOTE: For this series of articles, I’m asking artists about the ways that the collective experience of trauma has influenced the personal significance of artworks they live with and know well. The widespread anxiety prompted by Covid-19 provided the original impetus, beginning mid-April, to ask my contributors if there’s a work in their collection they see differently now — if one in particular resonates with them and perhaps takes on new meaning at this weird, frightening moment.
As the moment gets ever weirder and more frightening, with sources of collective trauma proliferating like crabgrass, the malleability of an artwork’s meaning under the pressure of circumstances seems, unsurprisingly, to be as great as ever.
Pamela Jorden (Echo Park, California): The windows of the combined living room and office in the small apartment I share with my husband and our dog look out on Echo Park Lake. Hanging between the windows is a painting our former next-door neighbor Steve Canaday gave us in 2012 just before he moved back to Detroit. Titled “Lumps,” the painting is composed of chunks of painted wood stuck into the painting’s gooey, impasto surface of pastel and atmospheric colors. I’m not certain it was Steve’s intention, but I think of this painting as a portrait of the lake and the view that we shared.
I spend a lot of time looking out these windows at the sky, the horizon, and the lake below. At the beginning of the quarantine, I thought about the unusual quiet, the absence of airplane contrails, the sunsets, and Venus hovering in the western night sky. Now I think about the changing use of the lake and park, which is inhabited by not only the usual dog walkers, joggers, amateur photographers, fishermen, and picnickers, but also expanding tent encampments and more recent protest marches.
Steve’s painting revels in its materiality. Each chunk of wood is doing its own thing in the polygonal field, but now I’m seeing a kind of unity and togetherness, even as they seem to be sliding toward and away from each other within the fluid movement of the paint. I may not always live so close to this urban lake where I have observed and felt the anxiety and hopefulness of this time, but Steve’s painting will hold it and bring it along, wherever we go next.
Craig Stockwell (Keene, New Hampshire): This painting by Anthony Palocci sits in a central room in our house. A small painting, it occupies a lot of visual space on the wall. It is always shifting. I observe it at all times of day, in every different light, and it continually feeds me. During shutdown I have thought a lot about limitations, formal structures, doorways for imaginative action. This painting offers, repeatedly, those possibilities. And it is such an absurdly humble, simple, handmade painting — very physical in both its presence and its making.
As our art world shrinks and collapses, I have worked this winter/spring to just keep going. Surprisingly, I found that small, structured yet provisional paintings, like this one, are what I turn to both for looking and making. It is a small painting that activates domestic space; a painting shaky in its making yet firm in its presence, resistant to aesthetics yet rooted in art historical reference. Anthony is a Boston-based painter and I purchased this painting from a show at the former et al Projects in Bushwick during the year I spent in New York at the Sharpe-Walentas Space Program, 2013-14.
My work during these recent months has consisted of small, handmade, precarious formalist paintings, which I mailed to people (selected from Instagram) around the country. I reached 100 and am now done with that particular melancholy project. The luminous, shape-shifting quality of Anthony’s painting was an ongoing inspiration for what a painting might be at this time.
Odili Donald Odita (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): My wife, Emanuelle, and I got this print by Roman Signer as a gift from Emanuelle’s late mother, Manuela, who acquired it from the artist’s studio in the mid-1990s. Apparently, it is an image of the aftermath of an avalanche in the Appenzell region of Switzerland. I always thought it was an awkward gift to receive. Since Roman Signer was a friend of my wife’s family, and Emanuelle had known him since she was little, I would have thought that her mother might have gotten us something more iconic from Roman. In any case, his print has traveled with us on every move we’ve made – from Brooklyn to Tallahassee, to where we live now in Philadelphia.
Initially, I felt this gift was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on our marriage as a potential disaster zone, but over time it has become fixed in my mind as a survivalist piece. It gives me the feeling that no matter what storm happens within that space, those two posts will always be standing together.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, this imperative certainly rings true. I never thought I would experience something as historically significant as this in my lifetime. The pandemic has forced in me a heightened sense of responsibility – simply, that of the survival of myself and my family.
I believe that coronavirus is real. I believe it kills people, all people, yet 50% more black and brown than others. I do not believe that it is an infringement on my rights to be told to wear a mask; on the contrary, I believe that wearing a mask is giving common courtesy to other people. It is out of respect for others that I will follow through on my civic duty as a citizen and a human being to wear one. Plain and simple, it’s about survival, and ultimately, it’s about surviving together.
Julia Kunin (Brooklyn, New York): I’ve gone to Pécs, Hungary, every summer since 2009 and it’s become my home away from home. Covid-19 prevented me from returning this year. The pandemic has been used as an excuse for the Hungarian government to ramp up an already autocratic regime. The “Blue Nude,” as I’ll call her, has become my portal to Pécs, reminding me of my friends that I worry about and miss very much.
The Blue Nude was made during the socialist era in Hungary, when ceramics were produced in factories by highly skilled anonymous artisans. My collection pays homage to these unsung craftspeople, without fetishizing a repressive era. What looks like hip retro-modernism has deep political roots. Themes of labor and family were ubiquitous in works of art, but there was some room for artistic expression and innovation.
After much searching, I was able to identify the artist of the Blue Nude when I found a signed, clothed version of my wall sculpture. (A few brushstrokes of glaze give her a shirt.) Perhaps my piece is one of a kind, even if it was reproduced with a mold. György Fürtös most likely made my “Blue Nude” in the 1970’s at the Zsolnay Factory , where he was a designer from 1962 to 1999. (Sadly, he passed away in 2010.) The piece is made of Pirogranit, the factory’s proprietary clay for outdoor works.
I’ve speculated that Fürtös was using humor and sexuality as a form of rebellion. Then I discovered that during the 1970s in Hungary, artists often combined modernism with elements of Hungarian folk art. Archaic figures such as the Venus of Willendorf were glorified, encouraging an abstracted eroticism in the form of large-breasted female figures. Even tulips, a common Hungarian folk symbol, became eroticized. The bird on the blue woman’s breast is a dove, a Hungarian folk symbol of love. From my Hungarian teacher, who knew Fürtös, I learned that what I thought was generic state-mandated artwork is very likely a portrait of the artist’s second wife, Zsofi.
The Blue Nude has inspired me to incorporate an unabashed eroticism in my multiple-gendered wall pieces. I am also paying homage to the Venus of Willendorf in the creation of queer goddesses and warriors. Looking hard at these ceramics reminds me of the circumstances in which they were made and the artists who made them. Meanwhile I’m thinking about my artist friends in Pécs.
Kjell Varvin (Oslo, Norway): The days in isolation do not differ much from what I am used to. I work in my studio after a morning walk in the woods and along the fjord, keeping distance from early joggers and dog walkers. This summer is hot and brilliant and the air is fresh and clear.
Over my desk hangs a particular painting that I have admired for 75 years and that still gives me thrills and joy.
My uncle came home from Iceland after the war, bringing with him a landscape by Johannes Kjarval painted in 1942. It is sparkling with saturated colors in thick layers, and the rocks of the landscape are painted with the conviction that this nature will always be there.
When I was a kid, my father often took me for a visit at my uncle’s. While the two brothers talked and played the piano, I would study the painting for hours, thinking that once in the future I would paint like that.
Reading about the pandemic that isolates countries and individuals all over the world, we are informed that Iceland has had fewer problems than any other. They reopened their magic island with its eternal landscapes to travelers on June 15.
Nicole Awai (Brooklyn, New York): At the entrance of my apartment is my collection of small works by my artist friends, family, former students, and others acquired over the last 25 years, hung salon style. It is intriguing, what the mind selects to focus on (or seek refuge in) during a time of crisis. My mind is dealing with the dichotomy represented by two artworks, one that is the memory of a pleasant, reinforcing experience, and one that is indicative of the times, that compels me to respond as an artist to the painful injustices affecting me as a person of color in this society.
Thinking about the former artwork now fills me with the urgency to preserve it. I recently located and unrolled my Sol LeWitt print, which has been in a tube for 20 years. I have long reserved a spot for it on the wall in my foyer salon. In the fall of 2000, I was a member of the artist team that produced the wall drawings for the Sol LeWitt retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum. Sol honored us by including our names on a main exhibition signage wall, and he editioned a suite of prints titled “Loopy Doopy (Blue/Orange)” that he signed and inscribed to us individually. Being a member of that team and working with Sol was extremely important to me and my practice as an artist.
Another work in my salon hangs from the handle of the foyer’s electrical box. I have not thought about it in years, but in the last few weeks it is constantly on my mind. In the early 2000s, I was asked to contribute editions of small, take-away artworks for the annual Skowhegan Gala. I responded to the injustice of the ‘Stop and Frisk’ policy in New York City that was being actively contested at the time. “Pose” alludes to a person of color assuming “the position” at the command of a police officer. The image was scratched onto plastic magnifying cards accompanied by the definition of the word “pose” printed on another clear plastic sheet, suspended on an extension badge pocket clip:
Pose v. 1 put into or take a par-
ticular attitude. 2 pretend (to be
a person or thing). 3 put forward,
present (a problem etc.) n. 1 an
attitude in which someone is pos-
ed. 2 a pretense.
Julie Schenkelberg (Cleveland, Ohio): This painting is by my friend Aaron Hillebrand. We went to grad school together. This is a small painting for him — about 16 by 20 inches. It has great significance to me because Aaron gave it to me so I could have something to put on the walls of my new place when I settled in Detroit a little over a year ago. My move was a long-considered decision after being a nomad for 5 years. I’d left New York City in 2015 so I could follow a life of being an artist full-time, creating sculpture and installations, roaming around from project to residency to fellowship. When Covid came I was at a residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs. The residency closed, but I couldn’t return to Detroit because I had sublet my place. Things became complicated and I moved in with family in Cleveland. I haven’t returned to Detroit since January. I am a nomad again.
Being a nomad has made me fond of the objects I “live with” from a distance. I have a habit of thinking about the things in my house and how I left them. This became amplified with Covid. My memory felt more distant, reflective, and despairing. I often think of this painting in my bedroom. When would I see it again? What I am living with is the absence of my things — thinking about them and not seeing them. In the past, this painting was peaceful to me and a recognition that I was home, preparing for the next adventure. Now my memory of the fragmented, dashing, swirling brushstrokes of colorful mountains feels as if something else is at work in this landscape.
In retrospect the period of indecision in finding a place to live before I chose Detroit seems like an indulgent luxury compared to the current arrival of the pandemic and the eyes of the country opening to injustices. The dashes of the painting feel more fragmented and urgent to radiate change (and to settle) for us than ever.
Sally Smart (Melbourne, Australia): Our household for lockdown is multi-generational, with four adults, all artists, living in the inner city of Melbourne. I walk to my studio, in the early days a walk eerily quiet and disturbing. (Our city had only just recovered from weeks of smoke drifting in from devastating bushfires, a yellow choking haze — a tacit reminder of what those close to the fires were enduring daily.) I am the first to wake in our household. I feed the dog and have my morning coffee, a routine that gives me the space to think through the day ahead.
This work by Australian artist Jenny Watson hangs on the wall opposite the table I sit at. A diptych, it is made from materials typical to Watson’s practice: oil paint on textile, on multiple panels. Her characteristic minimal scrawled marks and letters across a rabbit-skin glue surface are psychologically potent. The satin taffeta textile is contradictory as it oscillates in the light from lushness to dullness, with the texture and color resonating feminized space. The larger panel is an image drawn in white oil paint of a female figure within a linear structure describing a simple house; the smaller panel is of various shaped letters. Before the pandemic and lockdown, I’d read this image (inspired by the word “up” legible in the text panel) as relating to Watson’s series re-imagining the Alice in Wonderland story — a narrative circling around the figure expanding with her house.
Now I look at the painting and I am absorbed more by the sense of the figure’s containment in the house. Some days this is a feeling of harmony, but other days the jumble of letters signals difficulties of concentration, unease, and sadness in confinement, and the need to be in the world again. Yet I’m reminded of the privilege of a house that is safe.
Cela Luz (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil): “Untitled (Seesaw)” by the Brazilian visual artist Maria Laet has lived in my living room for over a year. Since I first encountered this work, it has affected me mainly because it is so strong and yet so delicate. Its formal harmonies — especially the parallel placement of her arms and the more distant diagonals, which point to her jaw — seem to exist without effort. It is evident that the artist found a stone of exactly her weight to achieve the physical balance of the seesaw. I read the symbolism as a moment of self-control, pondering, self-analysis — a dialogue with oneself. I identify with both the artist and the stone.
In the past three months I have had the privilege of being quarantined in my home. It has been challenging to maintain hope for better days, facing an inefficient Brazilian government that chose not to adopt measures that would have diminished what we have today, a total of more than 57,000 deaths.
In this scenario, Maria’s work invited me to rethink this construction of necessary balance in light of being face-to-face with brutality. I started to look more closely at details in the photo, such as the dry leaves, which cause me a certain melancholy; at the same time, there is a need to remain strong, as Maria seems to be, without holding the seesaw support.
Her balance is there in an elegant way, with her arms resting on her legs, showing a certain fluidity and intimacy with her most significant struggles.
Her work gives me courage.