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AUTHOR’S NOTE: The collective trauma that 2020 continues to inflict on us provides ample opportunities to examine how an artwork’s meaning might be inflected by dramatic shifts in the viewer’s circumstances. For this series of articles, I’ve been asking artists the following 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?
Adam Henry (Brooklyn, New York): The artwork I have thought of most during the pandemic is an untitled chest-sized sculpture by the artist Michael Queenland. I acquired it in July 2018. The day I received it felt like a hundred Christmas mornings!
I’m a long-time fan of Michael’s work and particularly admire his depth of thought. I’m sure I was originally attracted to the sculpture’s aesthetics: a transparent silvery balloon sealed with resin that changes the light and feel of its surroundings. During the pandemic I began to think of this sculpture differently — less about light and transparency and more about material ephemerality.
In April and May the idea of breath was really hitting the heart of the country and the world. George Floyd’s brutal murder by police and 100,000 people on ventilators fighting a deadly virus exposed our breathing as a delicate and underestimated part of life. It occurred to me that Michael’s sculpture was a poetic container of the artist’s breath, as fragile and fleeting as life itself. Marcel Duchamp’s “50cc of Paris Air” (1919) originally came to mind, but this is different. The balloon sculpture is much more personal, its material vulnerability more poignant. At some point the resin will decay, the breath will escape, and I will share air with Michael.
I can’t think of a better metaphor for our human construct of time than air slowly escaping from a balloon and mixing with the air outside of it. I don’t know when this will happen and I don’t think I’ll mourn the object, for this artwork has reminded me that although our society has placed incredible importance on the value of artworks as commodities, their true power lies in our experiences with them.
Carroll Dunham (Cornwall, Connecticut): Alan Turner (1943-2020) died last March, shortly after the beginning of the lockdown and for reasons totally unrelated to our present crisis. My wife and I have had this painting hanging in our house for years. After Alan died I would often take a moment in front of it, just looking and being aware of what thoughts might come up. Thus did my musings about my deceased colleague merge with those concerning the grim reality of the larger situation.
Our painting was made in 1984. Around that time, the conventional wisdom about Alan’s work concerned problems of personal intimacy, “dream-like” narratives, self-image, and identity (as that term was previously understood, not in its current “political” usage).
None of this is wrong, even in hindsight, nor does it contradict what Alan said about his paintings. But after mid-March there was no more “public/private” dichotomy for the time being, and almost every interaction became “remote.” And anyway, when an artist dies their work is set free from their agenda and intentions, and its use to those who remain is no longer under even the illusion of their control.
One thing seems obvious about the painting now that might have gone unremarked upon until recently: the skin that is represented is the skin of a white person. It is some sort of metric that until virtually yesterday that fact wouldn’t have seemed crucial to a description of the picture; it would have been okay to just say “skin.” But now it feels important to look at Alan’s interest in “human clay” as embodying issues of group as well as personal identity construction, an exploration of “white fragility” before it was named. It’s tempting to see this clusterfuck of body parts as illustrative of a group/cultural as well as personal failure to systemically cohere, to talk to itself and not know which way is up (Alan was white, Jewish, straight, politically very liberal).
The inclination toward this kind of topical interpretation is new for me (and might have been anathema to Alan), and I want to explore it. Simultaneously, the current atmosphere of death, plague, and social turmoil has reinforced a sense of the archaically repetitive nature of human affairs, and clarified the hope many of us feel — that “contemporary art” can find its place among the advanced and apposite conversations taking place in the larger culture.
Jodi Hays (Nashville, Tennessee): I collect fabrics and textiles. My interest is in rural culture and handiwork, and their associations with the body. Over 20 years ago, I bought this “crazy quilt.” It was in rough shape, so the dealer practically gave it to me. In grad school I pinned it to my apartment wall. Here in Tennessee, I slung it over a sofa.
The “crazy quilt” style blends improvisational piecework and grid-based composition. This particular quilt is less improv, more grid. The ecru top dominates the overall effect, silk threads dangling loose. I have always envisioned the maker a tight-lipped Victorian New England Protestant. There is no fabric in the quilt that I associate with the American South, such as cotton in the form of gingham and seersucker. The outside border is made of pieced cigar ribbons (so my Mom says) laid together to form diagonally striped patterns on not-quite-square fabric supports. The interior pieces are jeweled tones of corduroy and silks punctuated with colorfully embroidered dogs, crosses, moons, stars, flora, wheels, and arrows.
In early quarantine, grateful to be safe and healthy, I answered the collective call to stay home and to make use of the long days. Organizing the studio, I folded stacks of fabrics, lacework, crocheted doilies, towels, letter jackets, and quilts. My working and living spaces benefited from this anxious process.
In May, I became curious about the quilt’s structure, seams, and batting. I carefully separated the quilt top from the paper-bag-tinted backing. The corroded threads disintegrated with the slightest force, revealing my favorite feature: floral linen edging, two inches wide around a cruddy and stunning linen-colored flannel batting with printed pink stripes.
Sometimes paintings are discovered. Object becomes material. Rosie Lee Tompkins said of her patchworks, “I hope they spread a lot of love.” In the slow days of unease, the quilt was a giver. I feel the love.
Kathe Burkhart (Amsterdam, Netherlands): Kay Rosen and I have been friends since we were stablemates at Feature back in the early 1990s, first in Chicago, where we both showed before Hudson moved his gallery to the first Broome Street location in New York City. In paintings, installations, drawings, prints, and publicly sited works, Rosen flips the meaning of familiar phrases and reveals the underside of the text. The title of this lithograph, “Only the Lonely,” references the classic 1961 song by Roy Orbison. The work gains layers of significance and poignancy during the collective isolation we’re experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rosen’s work traffics in the extraction of multiple readings and gives visual form to the text. She shows that meaning can be elastic, distilling its essence and semiotically embedding it into the visual form. In doing so, she treats the immateriality of language as a material. She turns it upside down, backward, or sideways, personalizing, politicizing, merging, expanding, or contracting it like a Slinky toy. In punning on the rhyme, in remaking the tune, Rosen breaks down the song to its lowest common denominator, drawing our attention to the Other, the only.
COVID-19 is an RNA virus, like HCV and HIV, for which there’s no vaccine after 37 years. According to the World Health Organization, globally, in 2019, an estimated 38 million had HIV/AIDS, and 7.1 million of them didn’t know they were infected; 71 million had chronic HCV. Of them, the Center for Disease Control says three million Americans are infected, and up to three in four don’t know it. We’ve been here before… and we know what being a clueless asymptomatic carrier is. I was one once, and I’ll never know who I might’ve infected before diagnosis. Now everyone is a biohazard. Survivors who’ve endured disability, the greed of Big Pharma, stigma, lost loved ones, and the long-term side effects of antivirals already know that. This is the ‘new normal’, and what ‘learning to live with it’ really means.
The flip side of cabin fever and its ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic violence is the ravenous skin hunger and loneliness of people home alone. There’s the isolation of partners separated by border closures and quarantines, of COVID-19 long-haulers, of those in ICUs, of the anxious and depressed, of the elderly marooned in nursing homes, or people with risk factors and pre-existing conditions who can’t travel or attend family funerals. We’re all on house arrest, doing time…Only lonely.
Jason Karolak (Brooklyn, New York): Every so often I move the plants, chairs, and artworks (many made by close friends) to new locations in my apartment. I don’t have a backyard or a garden, but I get to live with these generous objects. The quarantine brought another rotation, and I positioned “Rogue” by Arjan Zazueta in the bedroom’s north-facing light. The work appears to me as a delicate line drawing, and I imagine the artist slowly maneuvering the cotton thread through the paper towel, being careful not to tear it. This piece is one of a series Zazueta produced from 2010 to 2012, exploring ideas of process, identity, and masculinity, he told me at the time. The images are mostly abstract with slight references to elemental structures, Mexican patterns, craft traditions, or nothing at all.
The duality between the “noisy” public space and one’s inner, domestic world has been further emphasized during this pandemic-quarantine period. The clamor outside is both good and bad. We have a robust racial justice movement larger than ever before, and then we have the toxic posturing of an ignorant narcissist. What does it mean to talk loudly, to be strong in 2020?
Along with many tragedies, this period has given each of us an opportunity as we quietly isolate at home — to strip away the unnecessary, reorient our attention on important aspects of our lives. Having begun quarantine with an indulgent approach (my first trip was to the wine store), my days have become more monkish and productive; reading more, cooking with a renewed focus, and getting work done in the studio. Despite the remote nature of the pandemic, my connections with close friends (including the artist) and family are strengthened and affirmed.
There is something both confident and vulnerable at play in “Rogue.” Formerly, I saw this work as symmetrical, refined, complete. Now I am noticing that little “extra” shape to the left, wittily hinted at in the title. Is it a mutation, a fringe character, or is it a seed venturing outside of the conforming pack, striking out solo for a while?
Sophie Treppendahl (Chicago, Illinois): Like every other millennial on Instagram, I love houseplants. But nowadays, my relationship with my plants has transitioned from casual and nonchalant to obsessive. In the before times, as we shall call them, our house was always very social. Big group dinners, raucous house parties, movie nights, backyard fires — my husband and I love to have a house full of friends. But in a world without parties or a social life, my plants are my friends!
My husband bought these planters last year from Esmë Ogiyama. She was his ceramic instructor in a beginner class, and we both fell in love with her “little buddies.” They made me smile. I filled their bodies with plants and went on with my days. I’d water them, fertilize as needed, and occasionally stumble upon a new plant to add to the windowsill. I never thought too much of them. But now, when I come home from the studio at the end of the day, I drop my bags, wash my hands, and then walk over to check on all my friends. I often catch myself greeting them. “Hello! How are we today? Oops, feeling a little dry? Let’s fix that.” New growth on my succulent gives me a rush of dopamine. A new monstera leaf feels like a triumph.
The world sucks right now — there’s not really another way to put it. Living in a masked society where I haven’t seen a passing smile since March, these little buddies’ dopey smiles just make my day. Their lumpy little bodies, their painted eyes looking up at me, their backs abundant with green buds and life — what else could you want in a friend?
Soumya Netrabile (Oak Park, Illinois): I met painter Ethel Peterson in 1995 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which she started late in life after losing her husband. It took a lot of courage to go back to school. She was shy and self-conscious about her naive skills and struggles with color, and teachers’ comments often brought tears to her eyes. I bought “The River Gihon” at her first solo show, in 2000. It hangs on our dining room wall, where my family passes by or sits near it several times a day. It’s been a silent witness to two decades of mundane and significant events in our lives.
Ethel told me she painted it during a residency in Vermont; since her method was mainly observational, I assumed the subject was a river located there. Five years ago I discovered that the Gihon is one of three rivers that emerge out of Eden and — surprise! — not a landmark in Vermont. I had always considered the chaotic landscape a symbol of Ethel’s passion and tenacity to become a painter, the raging river a metaphor of her emotions.
But nowadays I gaze at it and think about an ancient, extinct river and what it might have signified for Ethel. Gihon in Hebrew means “gushing or bursting forth,” which she depicts with wide swaths of paint. It is thought to have existed in Ethiopia, but as with much of ancient history, there’s controversy about this. It’s hard for historians to pinpoint the geography of a long-gone river because, well, time (like a river) messes with things. It erases evidence, leaving scraps for historians to support their theories.
My mind leaps to how the truth of our current world might be erased or rewritten. We already live with such divided notions of fact and fiction. How will it, how can it all be sorted out? Now I look at this messy painting as a reflection of our messy world and take comfort in one thing that can create a thread through time — stories. The stories we tell through art, writing, music, and dance just might allow us to move forward.