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AUTHOR’S NOTE: “Every good work should have at least ten meanings,” according to Walter De Maria. Maybe — but some of those meanings might be latent, pending events that reveal them. Since this series of articles began, I’ve been asking artists: In the context of rampant disease, 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?
Rosaire Appel (New York City): My husband, Robert A. Ellison, acquired this sculpture around 1992 from Arnie Zimmerman, the artist. It is untitled, but we call it “Knobby Top.” A large portion of Bob’s collection will be on view at the Met in 2021, and a book is in progress, titled Shapes from Outta Nowhere. This particular piece, however, gets to stay home.
“Knobby Top” is 15 inches tall, with a plump base that gives the impression of being soft and squishy but is actually hard and gritty. From the beginning I read this piece as a sort of mean, outsized toy – or a cartoon character in a dark, sassy mode – but nevertheless real, non-synthetic, unsentimental. The tilt activates it. If the material were edible, a toddler might venture to suck on those spilled-icing knobs.
But now – reading it now, I can’t help but see Covid protein spikes sprouting from the top. This changes things, turns the piece into a reminder of the moment we’re enmeshed in. No longer playful, but ominous – not a villain spouting negativity, but a symbol of where we are now.
It lives, currently, at the entrance to the kitchen where it manages to hold its own despite my adjectives, despite my associations.
Brad Brown (San Francisco, California): I am always on the lookout for magic. It is important to pay attention to possible omens: signs of ill will and bad spells, or of enchantment and equilibrium. For a Southerner, superstitions are hardwired. I learned that adhering to strict protocols of behavior could be the difference between bad luck and keeping everything in a flow.
My studio is filled with talismanic objects; some are man-made, some are not. All the art I make and all the art I have of others function as talismans, more or less.
Since 2002, my friend Nigel Poor has been working on a project titled Do You Have 30 Seconds and Can You Get Your Finger Dirty?, which involves the deceptively simple process of collecting fingerprints from a multitude of individuals from all walks of life. It is a collection of more than 10,000 unique impressions that, as Nigel describes it, “marks a place where two strangers had a momentary and intimate interaction”.
When I learned that she had collected the fingerprint of Ricky Jay (Prestidigitator, Actor, Writer, Con Man, Enchanter…), I set about convincing her that it belonged in my studio. It has been hanging here for the past 12 years.
I don’t remember when I first encountered the work of Ricky Jay. For as long as I can remember I have been in awe of magicians, but Jay elevated even that lofty position. He was literary, a historian, an expert on gambling, con games, and “unusual entertainments.”
For Nigel’s project, sitters answer five common questions: Today’s Date. Gender Identification. Age. Occupation. First Name. Note Jay’s answer to Occupation — “Crowd Estimator.” Is there a more apt description for the master of the con?
Near the edge of Jay’s fingerprint there is a little white spot (a white hole!), a secret slot where I imagine all the playing cards were kept. His extra finger. I swear sometimes it glows.
The piece has always been a beacon of possibilities. I know that magic is the product of years of devotion and hard work, steeped in the history and intellectual rigor of the field. Any artist knows that magic and art are correlatives in that respect. I also know that this would explain things only up to a point.
Nigel’s project was structured on a series of “high touch” situations with strangers. These days, living under a funky cloud of bad juju, encounters like that seem a world away. Jay’s fingerprint has taken on an added aura, and might well serve as a guide to a time when touch is again possible.
Padma Rajendran (Catskill, New York): This painting, “Night Triangle” by Lois Dodd, has been in the background of many a Zoom call this summer and marks my shift from kitchen-table-working to bedroom-working to finally designating a proper work space in my home. Those of us who work from home now broadcast our space’s identity, its characteristics, and its relationship to us.
I already consider interior spaces as a sort of hiding place, an idea that strengthened as most people isolated themselves following stay-at-home orders. Before the pandemic, I considered home spaces potentially protective for people of color, functioning as sites of non-dominant culture, or as an annex of another country’s culture. These sites still feel conflicted as our homes transform from spaces for rest, dreams, and revealing different layers of our identity to becoming everything spaces for additional levels of work, distanced social interaction, education, research, playgrounds, continual food preparation, and endless clean-up.
I wonder about the circumstances of our everyday life and how they will continue to change.
The silhouette of the house piercing the clouds in “Night Triangle” reminds me of my own home with its sharply pitched roof. Picking out the stars shining between the clouds, I contemplate the ancient characters of constellations, and a future when we all will be able to move freely, without concerns of perpetual injustice or infection.
Those electrical lines let me know we are still communicating to create change and offer comfort, still working through the events of this time despite the shifting clouds blocking our view of the stars. This stormy sky will pass, and how we continue sharing and pushing for change will reveal still more possibilities.
Howard Schwartzberg (Brooklyn, New York): While in quarantine, as I look at the artworks in my house, I am discovering that the pleasure of living with them, and the importance of the personal connections many represent, have only strengthened. As I spend more time with these pieces, mostly created by artists friends of mine, their honesty and restorative power has been further validated. This is especially the case with the drawing “Bloodlines (#4)” by artist and curator James Elaine, which hangs in a corner of my living room.
In this small work, red lines are drawn in a repetitive, meditative manner. James’s efforts to correct what he perceived as uncontrollable ink flow from a tip-less ballpoint pen resulted in the ink creating a serum resembling various tones of blood. The orderly, vertical direction of the lines always helps to calm my focus.
Much of James’s work alludes to life, death, decay, and renewal. During this stressful and unpredictable time, the lines in this drawing have become more vital than ever. They are the lifelines or connections we have with others, whether through heredity (blood), or through the relationships we develop with friends, lovers, colleagues, and associates that we at times take for granted, but when in need depend and rely upon. They represent everyone’s struggle with identity and survival in the face of life’s challenges.
While the drawing’s meaning has not changed, its purpose and my needs have. As we navigate through the current volatile social and political environment, its poignancy reveals to me, even more, the fragility of our existence.
Margaret Meehan (Richmond, Virginia): Sitting on my mantle is a set of whimsical ceramic shot glasses by Kristen Morgin. She calls them her “Bitter Cups,” and they feature images of a vintage cartoon time bomb, an angry Mr. Horsepower, a pack of Lucky Strikes, and an anxious Charlie Brown. Inside one cup reads “GET SOME REAL PROBLEMS CHARLIE BROWN.” On our crappiest days before the pandemic, my husband and I would sip rye from them.
This year Covid-19 shut down the world with loss of life, health, homes, and jobs. Our “normal” evaporated, hinting at a new reality. George Floyd’s murder on May 25th spotlighted another global pandemic: white supremacy and its connection to racism and power.
A recent acquisition that now sits on the mantle behind those cups is a print of George Floyd projected on the Robert E. Lee monument here in Richmond, the former “Heart of the Confederacy.” The print, produced by Enrique Figueredo and Elizabeth McGrady, was a fundraiser with 100% of the proceeds benefitting undocumented families impacted by the pandemic; the Minneapolis Sanctuary Hotel; and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.
I see hope every time I pass this work even though it was spurred by violence and pain. It shows the power of claiming public space and writing a new narrative. The artists started work on this print in June and it evolved as the Lee monument was transformed. No longer a simple symbol of white supremacy and privilege, it’s now a place filled with activism, families, and celebration.
I live just minutes from Monument Avenue. Living with this print shifts my relationship with the world and Morgin’s work. Now when I sip from her cups, I am reminded there is still work to be done (like decolonizing syllabi, reallocating police funds to enable help not fear, and demanding the arrest of Breonna Taylor’s murderers). Views can change and we should be active participants in that change. While there is nothing quite like the bitterness of your tears, it’s important to step outside of your sorrows to see that you are not alone, and that bitterness gets you nothing. No more pity parties; instead, raise a toast to amplified voices and rejoice in life over tragedy.
Sabrina Gschwandtner (Los Angeles, California): I bought this 1845 Signature Friendship quilt from quilt expert Julie Silber. During the pandemic it has become my office: I email, do research, and edit video while sitting on it. The quilt was featured in Pat Ferrero’s 1987 documentary Hearts and Hands, a social history of the 19th century told by women and their quilts. (Julie was an associate producer.) Pat gave me 16mm copies of the film, which I’ve used as material in my artwork.
In the beginning of the pandemic, I sat on the quilt and wondered about the group of women who made this quilt together: who were Elizabeth Himball, Mrs. Lans, Melinda Buck, and Ms. Wilder? They had all signed the quilt in beautiful script. Some or all of them lived in New Hampshire, because the cities of Peterborough and Jaffrey are written on a few squares. One of them listed her age, 79.
My artwork highlights undervalued and marginalized female labor, like textiles created by homemakers. I’m pretty much a full-time homemaker now. I work at home a few hours a week, mostly at night, after my 9-year-old goes to sleep. I visit my studio on Sundays. During the week, I cook, clean, play “the floor is lava,” and oversee remote learning, while my husband — who makes more money than I do, so continues with his job — occupies our home office. It’s a common setup: “Pandemic Could Scar a Generation of Working Mothers” is how the New York Times headlined it in June.
That same month, the NYT published Roberta Smith’s feature story, “The Radical Quilting of Rosie Lee Tompkins.” Smith repeatedly compared Tompkins’ quilts to paintings before asserting that the quilts “were crafted objects that transcended quilting, with the power of painting.”
I read that line from my quilt office, and threw a fit. Quilts transcend the power of painting when it comes to providing a soft place to rage. We are living through extraordinary times, with many of us demanding change in the distribution of power and privilege, yet I keep seeing the same old hierarchies re-inscribed: painting over quilt-making, men over women, individual over collective.
Lately I lie under the quilt and wonder how Rosie Lee Tompkins, who worked as a nurse and raised five children and stepchildren, found time to make such incredible quilts. I fall asleep without an answer.
Amy Borezo (Orange, Massachusetts): Artists’ books are typically not out for everyday viewing. Instead, I catch a glimpse on the shelf of the ones I’m lucky enough to own, waiting for their covers to be opened, pages revealed and performed. I appreciate artists’ books even more now for that partially hidden quality and the purposeful interaction I have with them. When the days all seem more repetitive than usual, this solo performance of a bookwork is unique, special, revelatory.
Even more so with this book by Russell Maret, which consists of linoleum prints of two-color studies captured while in residence in Ireland. This small book is a companion to his much larger work, Character Traits. Before the pandemic, I had a special fondness for this book and its warm, hand-carved, brightly colored geometric abstraction. The shapes are wobbly and the blocks of color don’t always fit together perfectly. Lines waiver, rectangular forms veer. Russell’s color studies are not representations of things, but the things themselves on an elemental level: particles of air and particles of light grabbed by hand and eye, pressed down onto paper.
Now that travel is restricted, Russell’s book is echoing my own new patterns of noticing what is nearby. I see untold color studies within a small radius from my house: the Black Lives Matter signs held by people standing outside every Saturday in my small town; the tall weed growing across the street, whose milky white sap is said to relieve pain; the darkening color of my daughter’s hair as she grows older. There is so much here that I never looked at because I went somewhere else instead. I used to think art was an escape from the grind of daily life, but this work tells me it might be more of an inoculation — pieces of the world absorbed in small amounts so we can go out and live in it.