AUTHOR’S NOTE: This series of articles explores changing context: the phenomenon that our perception of an artwork depends in part on when, in the course of events, we behold it. Images and objects often accrue meaning as circumstances evolve. With the recent detection of a particularly contagious variant of the virus — prompting anxieties over further lockdowns or even the emergence of a vaccine-resistant strain — I solicited statements from a number of artists in response to this multi-part question: 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?
Niki Kreise (Croton-on-Hudson, New York): I have had this gem of a Kaveri Nair painting for almost 15 years. For six of those years, it’s been in the hallway that is the main artery of our house. I love having this painting in a small space so I have to pass close to it, where it hangs at my lower-than-average eye level.
Aside from its vibrant complexity as a painting, it has personal significance for me. Kaveri generously made it after I shamelessly requested a painting with both of us in it. It captures a specific version of a frequent occurrence — the impromptu studio pop-in of grad school. I look at this painting every time I walk by, and it still evokes the comfort and closeness of the cohorts of youth. Its quirkiness feels like a badge of honor, evidence that we, our group, were special, our experience and our personalities unique, differentiated from those who came before and those who would follow. This painting has kept those feelings fresh and plump.
Now, in the “During” times, I pass by it more often, walking through the hallway a million times a day as I shift from one role to another. This role-shifting is not new, but like most people, I’m now doing it within the same four rooms. I still pivot on my own reflection, still remember the smell of that studio, but everything that came before now feels farther away and longer ago.
In my own life, and in my own work, I have been thinking about what a healthy body does— bodies in motion, at rest, vulnerable, delicate, precarious even in the best of times. Like an elevator, it’s best not to think about how it works if you intend to ride it. But this arm, gesturing, seems invincible. The motion seems stronger than the body to which it’s attached, larger than what it gestures to. It is providing guidance or revealing an answer, but that answer is off-screen, just out of reach, not yet knowable. I’ll continue to follow that gesture, off the stage and out the door, happy to stay moving.
June Edmonds (Los Angeles, California): There is a precious artwork hanging right next to my kitchen table that was given to me by my friend, Michael Massenburg, maybe a decade ago. “Heaven’s Sky” was a birthday gift. Having a birthday in late December has been doubly reflective because of the new year. The contemplation I ritualistically do at that time has consistently led to productive and confident planning for the following year, whatever my internal or external limitations might be.
“Heaven’s Sky” resonated with me then and still does. The work alludes to a precarious fate, but also perseverance, strong faith, and optimism. The dawn-lit sky, dancing with abstract brushstrokes and hints of a figureless El Greco dynamism, is something I have repeatedly gotten lost in. The eyes of the woman’s cropped face in the lower center remind me of times in my life when her kind of tenacity was required — and here we are.
Underneath a faint tint wash, there is a second cropped face, a profile and hands in prayer against a contrasting bright green background. I hadn’t noticed this nearly abstracted image in the middle section until very recently, during this pandemic! The praying figure and the woman with the solid eyes are undeterred by the train tracks crossing in different directions in the left corner, or the black, foreboding tunnel in the distance. The umbrella sky above everything gently breathes and stabilizes all that it covers, and I am energized as well.
Hal Hirshorn (Brooklyn, New York): This strange painting has been in my possession for several years now and I still haven’t quite made sense of it. It’s unsigned and its subject eludes me. The oil paint has darkened with age and parts of the painting are hard to see. There’s some signage that’s become illegible. The artist appears not to have had traditional academic training, and yet there are passages of painterly skill, such as the reflection of the clerk in the mirror behind him. The painting seems to be from the 1870s or 1880s.
Perhaps the source for this image was an illustrated newspaper such as The Illustrated London News, The Graphic or Le Charivari. These were among the first newspapers illustrated with lithography. They published the sort of social realist images Van Gogh clipped and collected early on. The painting in some ways is reminiscent of early Van Gogh. The scene, an interior, appears to be a business or bureaucracy. The figures, clients, or customers, who are shabbily dressed in shawls and cloth caps, convey an air of dejection.
The haunting thing about the figures is that, through the circumstances of the pandemic, I have become almost one of them. This painting disturbs me in the way it reflects my experience. It’s emotionally dark and banal. It mirrors both the grind and the uncertainty of the pandemic, waiting to be tested, hoping for a vaccine, and dealing with the time in between. If this odd, enigmatic, and bleak painting captures anything, it’s the idea of bureaucracy. Dealing with the realities and circumstances of the pandemic is far more comforting than trying to deny or ignore our current perilous situation.
Spencer Lewis (Los Angeles, California): My partner, Caitlin Lonegan, often brings her paintings home from the studio, just to look. I’ve seen her work for 13 years, but because I anthropomorphize abstraction, we stick to a mostly formal discussion.
Personally, I am interested in seeing the space that her work creates as perpendicular to that of post-painterly abstraction, particularly by using stained splatters and sculptural specks to locate the picture plane right at the canvas’s surface. This is an interesting conflation of the canvas as window and object — a reversal of time perhaps, as the painting looks back at the looker while its loose threads of canvas soak paint upwards and the Gamsol evaporates. Here, this inversion, a (probably) feminist re-figuring of paint mark as bodily fluid, mends the binary world of Jackson Pollock splatters or Helen Frankenthaler stains.
My projection notwithstanding, Caitlin has for some time been interested in how the changing light in her studio affects her paintings. And, sitting on the couch throughout a whole day, I finally truly noticed it.
On the right side of the painting, there is a pink stroke that do-si-dos around an iridescent silver ground. Mid-morning, however, raking light causes the silver to give way to a pale-yellow ground, forcing the pink form to shoot forward. My read was obliterated and perhaps I was finally understanding her intentions. The painting is hardly trapped to its surface.
I’ve come to think of Caitlin’s paintings as stabilizing, in the era of anxiety. By clearly presenting the shifting ground, she places the viewer in the present.
Gregg Louis (St. Louis, Missouri): “Hard Soft Fuzzy Luck.” What the hell does that mean? Is it a riddle? Is it a description? Is it a poem? Maybe it’s just a feeling.
I was immediately drawn to this painting by Koen Taselaar. It was one of the first works I bought by an artist I’d never met. Over the years, it has brought a playfulness to every space I’ve inhabited — in Brooklyn, then in LA. During quarantine I’ve been locking down in St. Louis with immediate family and a few hometown friends. Through my art collection I have a nostalgic connection to the vitality, perseverance, and ingenuity of the artist’s spirit.
I’ve fallen for Koen’s painting all over again — the quickness and authority of the brush marks, the perfectly balanced way the lettering sits inside the framing edge, and how the daylight bounces off the bright orange and yellow surface in the morning. The work has brought a real magic to my daily life. In the five years I’ve lived with this work, I have to admit, I never truly understood it, but I have always loved it. During lockdown I find myself staring at it as I drink my morning coffee or look up from my emails. Its warm glow always seems to light up my periphery. It emits a feeling of comfort during a tough time — a sense of confidence in the midst of wariness.
I’ve come to accept that it’s both totally ambiguous and incredibly specific at the same time. This je ne sais quoi is what keeps me staring. It’s a painting about uncertainty with a tinge of optimistic fatalism — perfect to get me through 2020.
Mary Tooley Parker (Amawalk, New York): This haunting black-and-white photograph is by Margaret Moulton, from a series she made with a Diana camera. I keep it perched on top of a 19th-century step-back cupboard in my living room, unassuming in its quiet spot but always in my peripheral vision. I was drawn to this piece because of its mood of a fleeting moment, captured. The tight cropping suggests that whatever had been going on in this sunlit backyard, it has all moved beyond the frame. Or maybe it’s meant to evoke a moment of reflection on people and afternoons long ago. It seems pensive with a twinge of sadness, like memories of a place left behind.
Now, in this isolating year, the solidity of this tree gives me hope. It is alone, immoveable, yet it casts a long shadow that seems to reach out. Its seeming solitude allows it space to extend and shape itself, imperceptibly and steadily, without constraints. Its roots probe the earth for strength and balance. Adapting to the seasons, it knows every nuance of cold, hot, wet, dry, loud, quiet, windy, still. Its display of buds, twigs, leaves, fall colors, and stark winter nudity is glorious and effortless. It hosts innumerable critters and offers them food, shelter, repose, support. It does all this while standing in ONE SPOT year after year after year. I figure if this tree and all the trees around our house can thrive within their innate limitations, then so the hell can I. I will take Zoom ballet, call the ones I love regularly, hook my rugs, and stay safe until COVID-19 is gone. I can be content.
Scott Taylor (Los Angeles, California): Among a few small framed works hanging on my walls is this watercolor drawing of a Los Angeles landmark, the Griffith Observatory. It is a prominent art deco building perched on a summit overlooking Los Feliz, lit up at night as a glowing yellowish beacon. I live close to this building and see it every day; it is my favorite architectural achievement in all of Los Angeles. The Observatory, with its mission to discover new worlds and enlighten us through science, is an enduring symbol of hope. When I wake up in the morning and step onto my patio, I look at the Observatory and I’m excited for new possibilities, even in this disastrous year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The woman who made the artwork is named Joyce. She lives on a nearby sidewalk, up against a building along Hollywood Boulevard, with a shopping cart and blanket pulled over her area. She has been in my neighborhood for years. So when I saw her setting up shop along a short wall near a bus stop, selling her watercolors of birds and landscapes, I had to buy one of each. They are on nice watercolor paper, and signed simply “Joyce.” She has a good eye for detail and scale and proportion. She is a keen observer of the local birds and several were accurately drawn and painted from memory with their identifying names.
The pandemic has altered the way I see Joyce’s drawing of the Observatory. Many more homeless encampments have sprung up around my neighborhood since March. I have looked for Joyce, but she is no longer around. I heard that she had family nearby and I hope that she has reunited with them. I worry for those who are behind in rent and close to joining the growing number of homeless people looking for a way to survive. Joyce decided to make watercolors of birds and images of landmarks that were personally meaningful to her in exchange for a few dollars. I am glad my collection includes the very special work of this unique artist.
Antonius Wiriadjaja (New York City): This sketch of a man with an Indonesian drum for a head has been in the background of every video call I’ve made during the pandemic. Feathers sprout out of his buttoned-up suit as he sits on a swing made from a gamelan. His feet are winged, like Javanese shadow puppets. A crowned naga (dragon) peeks out from behind his seat, and leaves and flowers in the shape of a garuda (eagle) wrap around his shoulders.
I got this sketch from street artist Andres Busrianto, better known as Anagard. His stencils pepper Yogyakarta, the arts capital of Central Java, as well as a small farming village just outside of it called Geneng. That village was badly hit by a devastating earthquake in 2006. A young Anagard revitalized Geneng by painting newly built buildings’ bare walls with murals. He persuaded artists such as Swoon (Caledonia Curry) to add their own street art over the years and soon the area gained international fame. The murals brought in tourism and revitalized the village.
I was supposed to return to Indonesia for research in the summer of 2020, but the day I was to pick up my visa from the consulate, New York went into full lockdown. A year ago, when I first walked through Geneng, hopping from mural to mural between rice paddies, I couldn’t believe that this marriage between traditional life and street art could exist. It was born out of a catastrophe that killed thousands and left a quarter-million people homeless. The two cultures still have occasional quarrels. Once in a while, a farmer paints over one of the murals without permission. And sometimes a street artist tags a wall that wasn’t meant for tagging. But looking at this illustration— a study for a large mural in Geneng — in my tiny New York City apartment, I have faith that despite how hard this virus will divide us, we can become more united through art and compassion.