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AUTHOR’S NOTE: An artwork’s meaning is a tissue of implications and inferences, as Barry Hazard’s contribution to this series (below) suggests. Those implications may be embedded in the form of the work, but beholders infer what they will. I’ve been asking artists who live with art other than their own: 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?
Barry Hazard (Brooklyn, New York): I own this colored pencil drawing by Jaqueline Cedar. It is a bold, playful rendering of a flying woman, floating over the top of a well-combed head and surrounded by other randomly suspended images. Initially, the drawing seemed ethereal, full of levity, whim, and casual humor. As the days of quarantine progress, I am beginning to look at this drawing in a slightly different light. It now looks a little heavier, tenuous, surreal, with a touch of angst. It is the same daydream narrative as the first time I saw it, but now I wonder what I may have initially missed, or if the 2020 experience has tainted my perception.
Jaqueline is not only a dynamic visual artist, but she is also the founder and curator of the Brooklyn gallery Good Naked. Jackie has transformed her apartment gallery into a virtual and mobile experience, through online and outdoor exhibitions. A couple of her exterior shows included artwork wrapped to trees in Prospect Park, and sculpture placed on portable pedestals that were sitting in the grass and leaves.
Busy with the gallery, she has also been very productive with her own artwork. Seeing Jackie’s tenacious response to the quarantine experience has tweaked my perception of her drawing. I wonder if the winged woman might be Jaqueline herself, trying to navigate a new reality.
I definitely see the drawing in a broader, more complex way, after spending more time viewing and reflecting on it. What content does Jackie imply, and how much of it am I inferring? The drawing has evolved in my mind, but also the world is a little different now, and that collective difference seems to have changed everything.
Wendy White (New York City): I traded with Lamar Peterson for this piece in 2004. We were in a residency with several other artists and exchanged works at the end as a way to remember our time together. I don’t live with many works on paper and have always cherished the directness and simplicity of this image — a small, tender moment rendered succinctly in black and white. Who but Lamar Peterson would think to document such a seemingly innocuous moment?
I’ve always loved looking at this drawing, but recently its quirkiness has become an even more comforting presence. What is that fence? Why is her lower body missing? Why is the dolphin’s eye open… is it bored, apathetic, tired of performing?
In a year of insufferable loss, we can’t hug anyone. We can’t even shake hands. Suddenly a woman embracing a dolphin like a long-lost friend feels like a fever dream. I’m jealous of her. I want to hug a dolphin. This tiny image that used to seem surreal and perhaps even a bit comical has taken on a disarmingly serious tone as the months drag on. Like many other things that we used to take for granted, this small, personal moment now looms huge and universal.
Rema Ghuloum (Los Angeles, California): Earlier this year, Sarah Cain’s painting “Untitled (early summer)” entered my life. Its presence is undeniable. Living with this work carries so much meaning for me. I can’t help but associate it with strength, confidence, and power—which also describes Sarah, one of my dearest friends and greatest inspirations.
The painting is situated at the center of everything. It feels like the sun, always shining in my living room. It’s where I spend most of my time feeding my son, where I nursed him, and now where he drinks his bottle on his own. He was seven months old when we received the initial stay-at-home order. Grappling with the isolation was difficult even as I gained confidence as a mother.
The painting has been present through this period. It expanded and opened its arms wide. It became a window and an anchor that my son has lived with for most of his life. It is large, but its physical scale pales in comparison to the energy it exudes. It is like a prism that keeps transforming. The washy pinks, greens, violets, the one opaque red, the blues that reflect the sky on a clear LA afternoon; the black shapes, parallelograms, and fluorescent yellow rectangles that recall signs, the city — they are all contrasted by open space. They transport you. The white recedes into the wall. It oscillates beside the strips of canvas that flicker against an early evening blue backdrop of warms and cools. It feels like a walk, like fresh air.
The painting has attitude. It cuts through the BS. The strips of canvas hang effortlessly and the beaded line embeds itself into the ground. The painting doesn’t try to trick you. It’s a quiet reminder to devote time to what nurtures, what is most essential, and to do it with love.
Mary Jones (New York City): Stephen Mueller (1947-2011) is in my bubble. He was there before COVID-19 and will be there long after. I keep his work close to me IRL and in reproduction at the studio. This painting is from 2004 and I bought it about four years later from his studio on Little West 12th Street. I consider it both a trophy and a muse and it would certainly be in my arms if this place were suddenly ablaze.
The painting has two parallel objects — a silhouette of a Buddhist torso, flattened with a diamond pattern, and a striped oval. Both float serenely forward from slightly diagonal washes of an unfolding spectrum of pure colors. Deep space, deep consciousness, geometry, and a light touch. How he keeps it breathing still has me hypnotized, and I intend to stay camped in its spell.
As this stifling stretch of quarantine time extends indefinitely, my relationships take on new dimensions — mandatory boundaries necessitate new ways to keep us communicating and vibrant to one another. I want my relationships to survive the pandemic. Although techno connections can be a necessary effort for the pleasure of staying involved, I often have nothing to say, but nevertheless unleash the onscreen chat that is, in its essence, a ritualization of longing, a refusal to let go. There are people that I miss so much, and since I can’t see or touch so many of them, the boundaries between those who have left us and those who are lodged in a Zoom screen begins to dissolve, and in that space I’ve remembered visits to Stephen’s studio with renewed clarity.
The end of Little West 12th was still surprisingly undeveloped when he was there, and it was exciting just to encounter this small relic of the old city of the 1970s. The building seemed shuttered and uninhabited; I’d always check his address a few times before pounding on the door, and never failed to be surprised when he opened it. The entrance was dark and small, with a glimpse of his bedroom on the right, where a meditation rug lay on the floor, then into the kitchen and his table. Incense, tea, and great music were always part of the experience. Sitting with him over tea, he would smoke and I’d use the time to overcome, to the best of my ability, my overwrought fandom and my needlessly total intimidation of Stephen. Then came the work. The room was square with high ceilings and a central skylight. Extra paintings were always stored out of sight. Everything visible was new, in progress, in the light. These were paintings beaming their magic as if they’d just landed from outer space, with codes and trace memories for psychic survival.
Or at least that’s what my painting of his seems to be emitting to me, as I watch it from my couch.
Beth Campbell (Brooklyn, New York): It was the whites of the eyes that hooked into my doldrums, slowly oscillating between anxiety and emptiness.
Back in January 2020, my perception of this painting by Karen Heagle would have settled on the otherworldly majesty of this lioness surrounded by reflective gold while adorned with the deep velvet red of a mouthful of meat pulled from a carcass — wild, powerful, and beautiful.
But these eye whites, or sclerae, would begin, in the following months, to amplify my sadness, much like hitting repeat on a biting love song in hopes that it will push you deeper into your melancholy. Alone in the bedroom, changing my clothes, I would look up at her.
According to Wikipedia, the sclera surrounding the iris conveys the direction in which the eye is looking. To engage another’s eyes is to witness their awareness, yet we opt out for the reflective glints in the pavement or the hungry feed on our phones. Currently, it’s a challenge to avoid contact in this new sea of eyes. I look to the eyes, all the masks with eyes; I don’t want to see the mask-less face.
It’s not very common to see the whites of an animal’s eyes. Perhaps this conveniently allows us to animate these creatures with our own agendas and hierarchies, as we do with each other. I feel sorry for the fate of the feline, I feel sorry for the brutality on the streets, and I feel so terribly sorry for the many afflicted families.
I can’t really know the lioness and I don’t really know much of myself. I do feel the slightest bit of jealousy about the way she eats the meat, perhaps with pleasure, definitely with necessity. I eat the meat with sides of guilt from land use, exhaust from semis, truck-stop biscuits, gravy, large plastic cups… Everything is so out of control.
For the moment, COVID is removing this covert domestication of daily busy-ness, endless consumption, and needy media interactions, and exposing that, despite this ruse of civilized performance, we are all wild and alone, misunderstood to ourselves and everyone else.
John Monti (Brooklyn, New York): This is a cherished work by Kathy Grove titled “The Other Series After Benton.” Grove is known as a conceptual feminist photographer who manipulates iconic images, fundamentally changing their meaning. There are many layers of interpretation in this work and, through the lens of COVID-19, it goes meta fairly quickly.
Thomas Hart Benton’s 1939 painting, “Persephone”(which Grove alters) is based on the Greek myth of Persephone, the daughter of Zeus, who is abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Through the abduction she becomes goddess of the underworld, springtime, flowers, and vegetation. She is often portrayed robed and is said to make her appearance in the spring in anticipation of the harvest, and later in the fall disappears back into the earth.
Benton portrays a farmer in the role of Hades, leering lecherously from behind a tree. Persephone is represented as a nude — an unknowing ingénue enjoying an autumn day, or a vintage pin-up replete with black high heels and a velvety red robe. In Grove’s work, “The Other Series After Benton,” the figure of Persephone is digitally removed from the scene and from our gaze, and the robe is meticulously reconstituted, made languid in its entirety. The farmer’s sexual desires are thwarted; he is emasculated, wanting, longing. The viewer is caught in a double bind, wanting to conjure the missing figure whilerecognizing the poignancy of Grove’s feminist critique.
During our moment of political upheaval and pandemic, I have been looking at this work often with so many things in mind: our misogynist 45th, the Woman’s March, the #MeToo movement, rising COVID-19 deaths. The absence of the body in Grove’s work conveys a dreadful metaphor for the 275,000 people dead of COVID in this country (and the 1.5 million worldwide). The scene where the figure once lay now conveys a shrine of sorts, not unlike an impromptu memorial where people leave flowers and other mementos. The red shroud is a stand-in for the body’s absence and now seems to be a site where it is laid to rest.
In spite of all this there is optimism, and with the vaccine on the horizon there is hope. Beyond the foreground there is a languid, bucolic scene ripe for renewal; it must be spring!