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Author’s Note: The testimonials collected in this series demonstrate the power of projection — how an artist imaginatively responds to another artist’s work — and the fluidity of signification that can occur within that response over time. Below are seven case studies in the instability (and inexhaustibility) of meaning, prompted by this set of questions: 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 in this weird, frightening time? And does it take on new meaning?
Sharon Butler (New York City): On September 11, at around 10:00 pm, in my fourth-floor apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan, I had a fever of 102.4, a pounding headache, and consuming fatigue. But I was unable to sleep. When I shut my eyes, I half-dreamed that I was scrolling through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and that the light from the screens hurt my eyes. Online life had colonized my subconscious, but my conscious mind was resisting. So I stayed awake in the dark and stared at an untitled painting by Vermont-based artist Martin Bromirski on the far wall, lit by the blinking blue lights from the internet modem.
I wrote about Martin’s work in an essay titled “The New Casualists,” of which he is one. The painting I own is a small abstraction featuring many fragmented circular forms, each about the size of an apple. Patches in its complex surface are scraped down to the raw canvas support, holes poke through where the scraping had gone too far, elements are collaged on top, and little pools of glitter are scattered about. I love the way it seems overworked and breezily offhanded at the same time. It is a terrific painting, and quintessentially casualist.
That night, I saw Martin’s piece with fresh if febrile eyes. The broken circular forms seemed to coalesce into faces and chunky figures, a group of cowboys, a series of square dancers moving across the surface. Just as I marveled at the clever lasso and cowboy boots, the circular forms shifted again, this time turning into a series of flowers in vases on a big picnic table, seen from a bird’s-eye view, then a bouquet of floating balloons. Enthralled, I wondered if Martin, too, had seen this antic insanity as he was making the painting.
When I woke up the next morning, the fever was nearly gone, and the playful figurative little painting returned to a sardonic abstraction – broken orange and pale blue circles embedded in the surface, locked into place, and surrounded by a halo of cool yellow pigment. But during my COVID experience, the painting had brought me some happiness and a sense of wonder – rare and precious commodities in the grindingly joyless age of Trump.
Jon Pylypchuk (Los Angeles, California): We bought JP Munro’s “Triple Headed Serpent” almost 15 years ago, captured by the simplicity of the composition and elegance of the brushstrokes. JP, a gallery-mate at the time, built lush landscapes that were familiar and foreign, drawn from history and imagination. It’s possible that the commentary in the work spoke of the younger Bush’s manipulation of the truth to dump the US into an unwinnable war, opposing common decency for political gain. Three heads — impossible to decide which to trust. It sat on our mantle for years until it moved to its more permanent real estate on the wall next to my side of the bed.
The Groundhog Days of the pandemic saw me sitting on the edge of my bed reluctantly sliding into my bootleg Jonas Wood pants, an indicator of another day not seeing friends, and pondering what I would plant or tend to that day. There was a peace to that. No rushing, not much consuming, days with hands in soil patiently watching things grow rather than dissolve. Every day was the same. I patiently waited for things to grow as I patiently waited for the moment the government (which was ignoring the scope of a pandemic that mostly consumed the old, the poor, and the nonwhite) realized there had to be a focused intervention. When something needs water, you water it, you don’t just hope for rain to come and quench the suffering. You make sure your plants have what they need to survive and thrive.
Is there a blade sure enough to dispatch the beast? Is there a hand strong enough to slay it? Removing one head might halt its progress but the attempt is perilous enough to warrant caution and would leave the other two to continue. Cutting out the orange serpent’s heart would render it flaccid and impotent and alleviate the danger. The heads became branches of hate, ignorance, and ambivalence — dimensions of purely political motivation with an awful disregard for the tenets that my adopted country was built on. I can’t return to normal. I can’t watch the same life come back. The reptile must be stopped outright.
Alyson Shotz (Brooklyn, New York): Hanging in our home is a beautiful inkjet print of Mahalia Jackson by Ms. Carrie Mae Weems, given to me by Carrie in 2017. It hangs across from the kitchen, a loved and lived-in place. I look at it in the morning having coffee and I look at it in the evening before dinner. I feel strengthened by it, a loud and powerful shout for justice and equality. At least that’s how it feels to me at this fractious time in US history.
Its color is the deep purple of royalty, a purple that vibrates at the very end of the spectrum: a violet mixed with deep red intensity. It’s a purple that Prince would have loved!
For the past few years, gazing on the majestic image of Ms. Jackson, captured by Carrie Mae Weems, I have looked to this print and thought about my responsibility as a white woman to listen, learn, and stand as an ally — to fight for equality and rights for all, in whatever ways I’m able.
In mid-March the pandemic descended upon us. The abysmal response from the President and federal government, and the violent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, gave us no option but to break quarantine and get into the streets of New York City for the large and peaceful Black Lives Matter protests that continue today. This week, when a Kentucky grand jury did not give Breonna Taylor any justice, Mahalia seems to be screaming in anguish. But she also gives me hope. She steadily reminds me not to despair, to keep my faith and continue to act because we must win this fight.
Gina Beavers (Newark, New Jersey): A piece by Paul Torres hangs on the wall above my desk, salon-style with a bunch of other works. I found Paul’s piece on his Instagram page. I’d been following his account for a while, loving his paintings, his style reminiscent of Outsider Americana and Tom of Finland. His characters and scenes always appear burnished and highlighted, glowing in the dark. His figures are often hustlers, pimps, bikers — streetwise figures almost always depicted outside, in broad Western landscapes.
The piece I bought from Paul is called “3rd St. Promenade, Santa Monica” from 2018 and shows four people going about their day on a busy street, with a strip of ocean, the sun and a palm tree in the distance. It reminded me of the day I had gone to Santa Monica as a tourist, where it felt like a St. Marks Place on the ocean. This was like 10 years ago. We spent our time walking around the beach and trying on novelty sunglasses and ended up at a local vegan place (I was vegan at the time) and then a fancy hotel down the beach for a drink (I used to drink).
The vibe of that strip of Santa Monica we visited was undeniably marginal: people who were homeless, people who were strung out on drugs and many people selling odd goods just to get by. The bright California sun and the sound of the waves did its best to soften the scene, but it was a place where many vulnerable people made their home right next to fancy hotels and high rents. Not unlike New York, where the divide between its wealthy and its poorest is just as great, and highlighted during the pandemic.
Quarantined, I found myself looking at Paul’s painting and its figures with a concern I hadn’t felt before. What had happened to them? How had they fared during California’s multiple waves of the virus? I think before all this I looked at the people in his painting and thought they were independent and making their way, they had dignity and purpose. I still feel that but an even greater force has overtaken that understanding: how to survive in the face of an Administration that cares about its people even less than we thought, and a broken healthcare system incapable of providing equal care to the most vulnerable among us?
Keisha Prioleau-Martin (Queens, New York): For three years, I have owned “Back of My Head” by Joel Adas. The head is a bulb of a form, a hairy rounded egg, or an almond made of scrubbing brushstrokes and drawn brush lines. There’s space where the pink underpainting shows through the greenish brown near the crown, like a scalp showing through strands of hair. I enjoy the specificity and variety of marks Joel used to arrive at the head. The cold blue neck, the red hot right ear, the brilliant, Bermuda-blue sky, and the thick, loose, painterly mess of it all never get old.
These days, I spend a lot of time looking at the yellow part of sky to the right of the head with a lick of hair blowing through it. I am looking with him into the sky above a beach. I realized that this is a beach scene after having a conversation with a stranger, who noted the beach where we both happened to grow up was much more popular this year. He said it was likely because vacations elsewhere were canceled and nothing else entertaining was open. With folks unemployed, unable to congregate indoors and restricted from air travel, the beach looked as busy as I imagined it looked 100 years ago. It was one of the few things there was to do in a pandemic.
For a while, this piece made me think differently about the backs of heads. I really saw them out in the world, I would stare at the back of people’s heads on the bus for years afterwards with so much gratitude. Now, I can’t help but see past Joel’s head and wonder why we are here. We are getting away from the world, which in a few ways feels on fire behind us.
Joel’s head was always susceptible to whatever I was going through, and able to hold any projections I may have for it. Sometimes I’ve looked up at the head and waited for it to turn around, to smile, to wink, to chat with me while I sat in my home alone as the pandemic progressed.
Power Boothe (Harwinton, Connecticut): Of the artworks I live with, this drawing by Hanns Schimansky stands out because of how it engages me in thinking about the complexities of freedom. I acquired it from the 2013 exhibition, Lines + Spaces, curated by John Yau at the Joseloff Gallery (at the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford). Hanns flew in from Germany to speak about his work at the opening. He reflected on his experience of living in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He said the East German police would periodically arrive unannounced to search for the subversive artworks they were sure they were going to find in his studio. Of course, they were surrounded by subversive drawings but they did not have the eyes to see them. They walked away — “No subversive drawings here.”
For this work, Hanns performed an act of freedom when he first folded the approximately 15” x 18” paper into smaller and smaller rectangles. When he opened it back up, the perfect symmetry of the original surface was broken. This is not unlike what happens when life begins: the symmetry of the egg is broken at the moment of fertilization and the zygote is formed – an asymmetrical entity that will morph into a living, self-determining creature. Hanns painted the back of this paper with black ink, which then seeps through the tears in the cracks of the folds to reveal the grid. At the same time, it creates random blotches of ink on the front side of the drawing.
Now the illusive grid becomes the arena for the free act of play and invention; the drawing becomes a dance between wildness and structure. The initial broken symmetry invites a drawn response, and each line invites another. I never tire of watching this drawing come to life. Hanns makes decisions that make me laugh. I see the human spirit unbound. This drawing is thrilling. The space of freedom that it opens up speaks to a core sense of imaginative possibility that, of course, no secret police could fathom.
Jane South (Brooklyn, New York): Ann Messner’s “face value” is a quietly powerful work. An edition of 100, “face value” is instantly legible as something fixed and iconic, but there’s a double-take. The dollar bill first appears degraded (as a result of circulation?) but reveals itself as the image of a $100 bill laser-cut onto a single denomination. The “value-added” intervention activates materiality, process, image, and text, conspiring to engage us in a mind-bending series of elegantly interwoven unfoldings.
Here are just a few. A banknote: an image printed on paper. An artwork: same; this artwork, both. Face value: what a banknote IS; “face value”: both what it is and what it is not. A banknote: a government-issued limited-edition print that fluctuates in value via exchange rates; “face value”: an individual’s limited-edition print that fluctuates in value via the art market — but not so fast. None of the 100 prints in the “face value” edition are for sale; they circulate only as gifts. This work is a labyrinth spinning out in ever-increasing circles. Ann Messner focuses our attention on the complexities, contradictions, and inhumanities of industrial capitalism by removing a dollar bill from circulation and radically altering the means of exchange from one of impersonal commodification to an intimate offering — a gift.
Then came COVID-19, and “face value” now seems both prescient and haunting. The pandemic has claimed over 200,000 US lives. Social injustice is endemic, and equality for all nothing but a myth. Now I look at “face value” and see visual metaphors galore. The dollar is riddled with erasure from (laser) cuts that seek to falsely inflate its value. Society suffers job losses that destroy working people’s lives while the stock market remains strangely unaffected. These same cuts literally de-face the images of two founding fathers (one-dollar Washington and 100-dollar Franklin), rendering them ghostly, much as their vaunted values are disfigured by a GOP more greedy for power than principle.
This artwork, which only a few months ago quietly pointed to a pre-existing capitalist condition, now screams the fact of a new disease. Now that COVID-19 has taken up lodging in the very individual that history will ensure never appears on a banknote, an incompetent, vain man who depends on being taken at face value, a new sense of urgency emanates from the symbolic space of this artwork. Let’s make sure that 2020 will be the year that, like “face value,” radically alters the terms and the means of exchange.