LOS ANGELES — In 2020, I can’t count the number of times that my social media feeds shared how iconic names, like Shakespeare and Shelley, created landmark works while in isolation. But this overlooks the mental weariness and overwhelming grief many people — including artists — felt during the tumultuous year.
Esther Pearl Watson finds a way to channel the surrounding strangeness of this period — and our collective adapting to an unprecedented time — in Safer at Home: Pandemic Paintings at Vielmetter Los Angeles. In more than 100 paintings, the artist froze mundane moments that she observed during the pandemic, which collectively catalogue larger shifts like social distancing, racial uprisings, and economic uncertainty.
Watson describes the pieces as “small, intimate records” of the scenes she encounters on her drive to her studio in Los Angeles. She imbued her “obsessive memories” into each small painting, created in the style of the ex-voto, an artwork traditionally acknowledging a tragic event intercepted by divine forces. The artist sees these pieces as signs of resilience.
Yet the artworks are also windows into some of our privileges — yours truly included, as I write this from my apartment, where I view the exhibition virtually — in the midst of the pandemic. One painting mentions the death of George Floyd while showing figures walking their dogs. In another, a group gathers on a front lawn for a distanced happy hour, a luxury not all Angelenos get. While the pandemic changes everyone’s routine, who gets to walk without fear and who has the means to adjust more easily is still a stark contrast.
Black cloth banners interrupt these clusters of paintings, showing the number of deaths in the US from COVID-19, starting with one death and increasing to 238,000.
Watson captures the lives of people of color in the city, like those selling tamales and masks on the street. La Fiesta Party Supplies shows up a few times, eventually with a sign in Spanish that says it’s closed. This brings to mind the work of Jorge Garza, also known as Qetza, which depicts essential workers as Aztec warriors. Or the drawings of Aya Brown depicting Black women essential workers in New York. Communities of color, after all, are being hit the hardest. The growing digits on Watson’s black banners might also remind us that each number is a person someone has lost.
Watson sometimes created two paintings a day to keep up with what she saw. There are still so many changes, every day, happening around us.
Safer at Home: Pandemic Paintings continues online and in-person at Vielmetter Los Angeles (1700 S. Santa Fe Ave #101, Downtown, Los Angeles) through February 6, 2021. The gallery is open by appointment only.