AUTHOR’S NOTE: Trauma changes our view of the world, down to some of its finest details. The density of meaning we value in artworks sets them up for reinterpretation as our context shifts and, with it, the mind that each of us perceives with. In this series of articles, I’ve been asking artists these 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?
Elizabeth K. Porcel (Cumming, Georgia): Though my days working in a funeral home are well behind me, death has been on my mind. It took the kids nearly knocking Cynthia Farnell’s “Garlands (Spray)” off the wall — prompting me to rehang it a little higher — to remind me of all the flower ceremonies I’ve officiated.
The floral spray floats in a sea of darkness, its colors amplified and glowing. I was immediately drawn to this series of Cynthia’s the first time I saw them, so it was my natural leaning to select one from it when we exchanged works.
The Christmas tree had obscured my view of this image of funeral flowers for the previous month and a half. Looking at it again gave me pause for the families of more than 400,000 American families who’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19. Many of these family members won’t know the smell of a funeral home packed with flowers for their loved one. It seems like such a small moment out of many that these families will lose, but the ceremony, fragrance and visual affirmations of flowers are gravid with meaning.
More pragmatic people may think funeral flowers are frivolous and wasteful but, to the romantic, they are the perfect symbol of the merely fleeting beauty of life itself.
Since the start of the pandemic I’ve hung onto fleeting moments of beauty. That has been my anchor in the chaos of managing the endless mundane tasks of motherhood and family life with no comings and goings. St. Brigid’s day is just around the corner, which means I’ll soon be out in my own garden cultivating new life for better days.
Joe Fig (Sarasota, Florida): “Walk the Walk,” a large color photograph by Kate Gilmore, is the most visible artwork in our home. It prominently hangs in our open kitchen/living room area above our daily dining table, where we eat together every night. You can’t miss it.
Kate and I went to grad school together at School of Visual Arts. She is a close friend and one of my favorite artists. I acquired the photograph when we traded works a number of years ago. The image is a still from her performance piece “Walk the Walk,” which took place at Bryant Park in New York in 2010. The performance was staged daily, during the work week from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm. The photo depicts seven women in matching bright yellow dresses and beige shoes. During those “business hours,” the women walked, stomped and shuffled around the roof of a pavilion that was the same yellow as their dresses. They represent the traditional office worker engaged in the drudgery and grind of the workday. It’s an empowering piece that requires stamina, strength, persistence, and perseverance.
During the pandemic, for many of us the days have become the same. Is it Wednesday? Thursday? April? November? The women in the photograph don’t stop — they seem dazed as they go round and round like a clock, on their endless, aimless task. The artwork/performance now represents the endless, round-and-round, day after day monotony the pandemic has brought. One day is the same as the next, is the same as the next, is the same as the next…
Louise Bonnet (Los Angeles, California): I have owned this drawing for only a year but I have been thinking about Mike Kuchar’s work a lot for years, and looking at it every day makes me happy, because it is such a happy image and reminds me of what I thought when I saw a drawing of his for the first time about a decade ago.
I was a bit stuck then with my own work, worrying a lot about what people would think of it, what Guston would think of it (!), was it art, was it worthy, etc., etc. Seeing these Kuchar drawings, it seemed so clear to me how free they were, so uninterested in what one was supposed to make or not to make, but full of just the joy of making only what you want to make.
So, I could be wrong and he might disagree, I may be projecting all of that onto it, but seeing it still helps me every day to stop caring about what people might think, and in the vacuum of this pandemic, I need all the help I can get to not get sucked into a spiral of useless, stupid ruminations.
Arthur Simms (Staten Island, New York): This large oil painting on paper by my wife, Lucy Fradkin, is titled “Kingston, Jamaica 1968.” It is a portrait of my family based on a photograph that was taken at that time and place. The painting and the photograph are on opposite walls in my living room, where I now spend a great deal of time. The portraits are of my mom, dad, three older sisters and me, the little guy with the red bowtie. Lucy spent a year working on the painting, which was completed in 2000. Consequently, I have lived with this work for more than two decades.
The photograph is a treasure with lots of meaning from our past in Jamaica. I grew up with this photograph. Lucy’s painting based on the photograph is like a member of the family.
The painting itself is a delightful make-up of colors, patterns and familiar faces. It touches on a history of Matisse, Japanese painting, medieval painting, Greek icon painting, and Haitian and outsider art.
After the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was enacted, my mom was able to immigrate to the US by herself. My parents decided that it was more practical for my mom to come by herself to set up a base in Brooklyn and then sponsor the rest of the family.
We had not seen her for almost three years when she came back to Kingston in 1968 for a wedding. The photograph that inspired Lucy’s painting was taken a day before my mom was to return to the States by herself. This is why everyone in the photo is sad. One year later, the family was able to immigrate to New York to re-connect with my mother.
In May of this year, my middle sister, Grace, passed away from cancer. She was 64. Her death was a collateral death of COVID-19. She could not go to her needed therapy because of the pandemic. In November, her husband Douglas passed away. He was 63. I had known him since I was 11 years old.
I look at the painting quite often while sitting on my couch. I reflect on my sister, her husband, our past together, and life during this time of the pandemic. The work evokes melancholy feelings for me. But overall, it makes me happy.
Anna Kunz (Chicago, Illinois): Sabina Ott gave me this piece, titled “a cut in white lately,” during a studio visit about four years ago. Something I said excited her, and she took it off the wall and handed it to me mid-sentence. We were talking about Gertrude Stein’s love of freedom and fractured form. This work, titled after a line in Stein’s Tender Buttons, is made in a mode that foregrounds play and chance. Sabina created it, among many others, as a way to work through a difficult time in her life. The shapes are rhythmic and embedded, like heartbeats.
My relationship with “a cut in white lately” has deepened through the hours I’ve spent with it at home. It holds a mirror up to the moment. Its acute nuances speak louder than ever, now that so much has been cleared away. There is no color, not really, as in the way color owns painting. It is an open space with some obstacles, suggesting peaks and valleys, or aerial views, depending on where you are when you look. Daylight moves over it, suddenly unearthing subdued spectral hues that might otherwise remain concealed under a blanket of white. The white won’t last — it is temporary, as we all are. The object will soon accumulate the dust and dirt of life on its surface.
Sabina has since left the planet, and this piece has become saturated with her life. Now, the best way to know the painting is to literally feel it. This empty space longs to be touched. It invites the viewer to notice small things, to feel, to discover the strange sensation of an elusive presence, weighty but transcendent.
The first sentence of Sabina’s Zava’ah (ethical will) is “Live to give.” Always abundantly generous, even in her absence, Sabina whispers, through her work, a reminder to those of us who have the connection to our own creative inner life: Art is a tool of survival and renewal, capable of buoying us during difficult times and outliving us.
Melissa Dadourian (Brooklyn, New York): I have lived with “The Original Smiler,” a painting by EJ Hauser, since 2016. But it never came to my rescue quite as it has during these past months of the pandemic. The almost black and white painting has a raw simplicity and innocence; its humor is like a breath of clean air. The painting is the first thing I see when I arrive home, as it hangs right above the coat rack. I look up, smile, take off my mask, and finally let loose.
The painting is from an exhibition at Regina Rex in 2015 entitled Amphibian. I became obsessed with this odd group of characters EJ created. They are all quite serious yet funny, too, and her staccato brushwork allows them a vibrant giddiness. But “The Original Smiler” stood out, conveying a clear-headed confidence that makes you really believe in it and trust it, like a dear friend whose sole purpose is to soothe or cheer. That is one reason why it saves the day at this most isolating and challenging moment in our time.
The pandemic has made me feel like I am coasting on a dizzy cloud full of white noise keeping me from staying focused. I need grounding or reassurance, and living with this painting-friend, whose smile I have been returning for years, uniquely meets that innate desire.
Cris Gianakos (New York City): Every morning when I get up and head for the shower I pass a wall with a collection of artworks. In this group is a François Morellet titled “gravure sur bois no.1.” It is a very reductive work: a quarter-inch plywood panel, front surface painted flat white, incised with an equilateral triangle. The material of the wood shows through the incision in a rough way. The economy of the execution keeps it in the concept stage. As it turned out, it was a prototype of a successful series to come. I acquired “gravure sur bois no.1” at the Independent Curators International Tenth Anniversary Benefit Auction in the late 1980s. As soon as I saw it I had to have it and in fact overbid in my enthusiasm! I got it!
In the ‘70s I had concurrently been working with equilateral triangles in drawings, Mylar works, and prints. Triangulation is a basis of my Rampworks. I had met Morellet and although we had never discussed this geometric form, it seems we were both onto it.
The pandemic has had a strange effect on our everyday life. Some days are productive, others are not. My own work has undertaken a radical change away from the geometric to the expressive. Through it all, I have remained connected to the Morellet. My relationship to it has been constant, timeless and unchanging. Although it is a very active image, the feeling it gives me is a sense of calm and focus. It’s been like this ever since I acquired it. I am grounded by its sense of order. It’s similar to having an Eastern Orthodox icon in a religious household, such as the one I grew up in, having emigrated from Crete at age four. It’s just enough to give me a daily positive boost throughout this pandemic period.
Lynn Aldrich (Los Angeles, California): “The Peaceable Kingdom” and the “Mouth of Hell” are two works in my collection that I actually bought, instead of trading with artist pals. Just so you know I was committed enough to part with hard cash. Graphite drawings by Los Angeles artists, they were purchased years before COVID-19 hit. But during repeated and prolonged shutdowns, their dialectical connections began to vibrate, and one day I rearranged everything so that they hang side-by-side.
Both have extended titles. “The Peaceable Kingdom (after EdwardHicks)” is by Patrick Angus who died of AIDS in 1992. I never met him. “Vegas Apocalypse: Mouth of Hell” is by Jeffrey Vallance, an artist friend who makes work that I fondly call “silly profound.” Funny, but when I first hung them together, I immediately thought of that place in the Bible where God says, ”I place before you Life and Death . . . choose Life.”
Both drawings depict city spaces with dystopian architecture and heraldic figures. Both represent a dried-up landscape associated with pleasure, escape, and over-consumption. Both are fantastical visionary depictions, charged with longing and desire. As my gaze whips back and forth between them, I recognize the uncertainty and lack of community these recent times have grown in me.
But now, quick observations settle into contemplation, one of the gifts of solitude. I take my time and think through some contrasts.
In the Vegas image, electric sign advertisements and urban development boosterism offer a kind of politically and culturally determined “kingdom” where the central image is a speeding roller coaster ride behind Lady Liberty. I love the Charlie Brown-type grimaces on the tiny faces of the riders entering the gigantic Mouth of Hell. With all the flashing enticements, my own lack of contentment becomes self-evident. How does one get off this roller coaster in the desert where we all want more stuff?
I turn back to the “peaceable” drawing and notice that things are quieter, though a little anxious around the edges. The flora could use a good rain; small children lack innocence and look a bit pouty. The central figure of the lion seems nervous and disgusted with all this reconciliation. But, lo and behold, biodiversity has congregated at last, lying down together in community; the gently smiling ox moves close to the lion. His horns are forming a love heart!
Think I’ll hang out on this beach for a while.