AUTHOR’S NOTE: An artwork’s significance, while largely subjective, is also flexible — capable of shifting to meet the present moment. For this series of articles, I’ve asked artists to describe recent changes in how they see familiar artworks. Below are 10 artists’ responses to 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 at this weird, frightening moment? And does it take on new meaning?
With one exception, the works discussed predate the pandemic; any relevance they may have to its hotly debated medical, moral, social, and legal imperatives is in the eye of the beholder.
Judith Page (Brooklyn, New York): My art collection and my books surround me wherever I live and give me immense pleasure and inspiration — especially valuable during this dark time. Sam Losavio’s drawing, “The Bad Dream,” has traveled with me since I acquired it in 1987, and, after a move to Brooklyn in 2001, it has lived on the wall opposite my bed, where I see it daily and it sees me. Sometimes our exchange is neutral but more often it is charged with a strange energy, a cross between lethargy and action—an internal Brooklyn-style battle between “victim” and “aggressor.”
“The Bad Dream” had its genesis in Sam’s reading of Missing Time (1981) by Budd Hopkins, who had been a visiting artist at LSU when Sam was there. The subject of the book (alien abduction) aside, it is the metaphor that is critical and one that continues to have increasing relevance — those who take power and abuse it and the unwilling victims who eventually rise up and regain control. I did not understand the aforementioned depth of “The Bad Dream” in 1987 and responded to it more aesthetically (the directness and beauty of Sam’s use of charcoal) and personally (the pain and glory of love).
Since those early days of innocence, I have witnessed and experienced many power struggles but none more critical than what the world is experiencing now — a collective bad dream. Will we awake and do battle with the many-horned beast? Or, will apathy triumph? The drawing poses the questions; the viewer must answer. For this viewer, it is the challenge of a lifetime.
Barry Stone (Austin, Texas): The coronavirus has seized Texas with a vengeance. Our conservative governor now regrets allowing bars to reopen back in April. Like many, our family has been schooling and working at home since March. We spend our time buried in our screens, shaking our heads at the dumpster fire created by our leaders when they caved to AR-15-toting Texans demanding the right to assemble in gyms and hair salons.
In my home, there is an elegant 2010 photograph by Carlos Rosales-Silva of a skewed, “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”-branded toy Alamo made of cheap aluminum. In the textbooks Carlos and I read growing up, the actual Alamo in San Antonio served as a symbol of the valiant losing battle waged by Texans in their fight for independence from Mexico in 1836. These accounts never mentioned the Yanaguana or Payaya peoples who lived in the region for 10,000 years before the Spanish set up their mission in the early 1700s. I didn’t learn that the war for Texan independence was fought to keep slavery alive or that Alamo hero Jim Bowie, inventor of the famous knife, was a slave trader. Carlos depicts the Alamo as a hollow and hagiographic plaything embodying the distorted narratives invented to protect power.
I think about Carlos when I look at this picture. He says growing up in Texas as a first-generation Mexican-American meant that rooting for the Mexicans at the Alamo was siding with “the bad guys.” I asked him what he thinks of the picture in light of the politics of power now, 10 years later. He sees hope in new models of society emerging from the recent protests for racial justice and the eruptions of spontaneous mutual aid of local communities during the pandemic. For me, Carlos’s depiction of the Alamo is, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the truth told slant. We change the world by transforming the stories we tell about it.
Lucio Pozzi (Hudson, New York): When I was 6 years old, we came back up to our apartment from the cellar where we had been hiding. Through the rose arbor on the terrace my parents showed me the city spotted by fires. My little brother and I were kept wearing the bombardment overalls. Down in the street we were put in a car with dimmed headlights and were driven out to the countryside skirting the four-story-high flames of the tramway depot.
When I returned to the city after the war ended, my toys were too small for me. Loss is part of living. All that’s taken for granted cannot be trusted to last. Why are art people so shaken by the dimension this virus has revealed to us? It’s the empire of death and disease 800 million poor people have as normal. Did we not know?
We wake up from a long sleep of the mind, oblivious as we were to the tragedy of injustice and greed. We were feasting and lobbying and now we are hit like everybody else. How is art to react? By persisting in its freedom. Does the artist feel complicit? Yes, s/he is terrified to be supported by those who exploit others. Should the artist direct the art only to social action? No. If the artist censors any impulse in the name of an agenda, the art is lost.
Virus cleanses us of conformity. Now in our recaptured privacy it’s like having switched to another continuum in a science fiction story. The stuff around us is the same but it’s not.
Lorenza Sannai and I camp in a warehouse in Hudson, New York. There are only a couple of corners where we can hang the paintings of others. We place one thing from the collection near the bed in turns. Often we add a small work of ours to punctuate. This week, next to her painting and a vase by Julie Evans, it’s an acrylic by Michael Robbins.
Michael helped me in my New York studio. Wolf Kahn had suggested that he work with me when he saw I wasn’t able to cope alone. In the 1970s Mike was painting large and small works on paper or fabric, depicting a world in suspense. He became disappointed, I think, when all kinds of attitudes became current in the ‘80s that were similar but superficial explorations of the painterly ways he had pioneered in his uncompromising manner when they were unfashionable. I have lost track of him. Last time we talked I wished him to continue painting. The modern artist is not lonely but is alone.
The falling armchair has become a symbol of our civilization.
Carl E. Hazlewood (Brooklyn, New York): This mixed-media work on paper, “One Hundred Years of Brer Nancy,” is by the late sculptor, painter, and innovative ceramicist Donald Locke (1930-2010). Locke was born in the former British colony of Guyana, as I was. His education and international career took him to London and then to the US on a Guggenheim fellowship. He is one of those Black artists (whose lineage is decidedly mixed-race) being retrieved from the edges of colonial empire and the international art world. His neglected life’s work is finally being acknowledged as essential to the dissemination of a local-accented modernism before and after mid-20th-century. Aside from my bedroom, Locke’s sculpture can be found in institutions such as the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
I had plans for my time in isolation. I’d assumed life wouldn’t be too much different from my normal quiet routine. But the weeks flew by from one Friday to the next in numbing succession with nothing done. Each day I sat and stared at this painting. The abstracted subject matter concerns the West African trickster god, Anancy. He presents himself as a spider, and the Atlantic slave trade spread his influence and his edifying stories throughout the Caribbean archipelago. I discovered in the painting’s dark matrix collaged images of an actual spider, a tropical forest, and gleaming Brancusi-like heads.
I’d been worrying about the oppressive cloud of our Covid-19 situation, and my place as a Black abstract artist in troubled political and social times. This small painting however, reminded me that Anancy’s symbolic web of Afro-influence is all-pervasive, from Africa to Europe to America. Locke’s black-and-white painting has let me see that a work may or may not be directly social or political in an activist way to have cultural value; it is always necessary and affective for its humanistic and aesthetic potential. Providing this subtle spirit-poetry via music, dance, fiction, drama, and literature is a thing only WE can do. Expanding from the here and now, art is forever — or can be. Realizing this has helped me begin working again.
Branden Koch (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania): Suspended volcanic dust fog/ cataclysm fallout. Since total-shutdown-Ides-of-March, I stare at my tomato plants more than I stare at the art we have hanging around our living space. Quarantine has been such a filthy and fucked up first-world privilege. Everyone knows it didn’t have to be this way. Five months later we are still those who wait for actual leadership, for justice, for a test result, for a mask that fits, for hand sanitizer, for tomorrow’s local infection numbers, for another video of a white cop murdering a Black person, for Quarantine, Part Two: September Edition, for Election Day. Meanwhile moments of contemplation, precious and peppered, compete with my full plate: homeschooling my 7-year-old son, chasing unemployment benefits, being a worn-out parent, trying to make new work in the studio. Is my mind’s eye amplified or dulled? Not sure, glued to a screen half the day… iPhone sez: Zoom, Meet, First Grade online learning games, Breaking News, Insta-Drama, Instant Activism. For art and for artist’s sake alike: BLM/Covid-19/Systemic Failure warrants a more active and amplified looking and making kind of responsibility. Everything’s finally ripped open, thanks be, with more to come.
Nearly every day I help my kid write a journal to practice printing letters, spelling words, and reading comprehension. He illustrates his stories, which are just a couple of sentences thus far. If there’s anything around here that I am looking at daily which is collecting and shifting meaning, it is the stacks of his drawings. When I look at them I have many complicated feelings that evade words, unlike staring at tomato plants. This one is of a cathedral. He’s very interested in them, I don’t know why. He says he’s making a book. I asked for his permission to share here, and he gave consent.
Miriam Marshall (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): Among the artwork I live with, the most dramatic perceptual change is in this Richard Serra screenprint. It’s always spoken to me. I love its pristine simplicity and the strength of its lines. But now, the void within those lines predominates.
Like an old friend, the image still calms, its beauty undiminished. I don’t love it any less. But the void now connotes pandemic life in confined spaces, isolation borne of self-preservation. Unwelcome thoughts seem to move freely within its borders.
Although nothing was ever certain before, in this new reality, uncertainty reigns. Some days, the void reflects the unfamiliar anxiety one feels on familiar city streets when strangers pass too closely. It reminds me of suffering, upheaval, loss and mortality, fears stoked wherever one turns.
There’s nothing good to be said about global pain and anguish. In my own little world of art on the walls, beauty now coexists with these uncomfortable thoughts. Surprisingly, in ways difficult to explain, that beauty is deepened by an added complexity.
We may never be the same, or see as we did. How we think about life has changed, how we navigate our days, view the world and care for those we love. Everything speaks in new ways, including this much-loved work of art. Beauty endures.
Neha Choksi (Inglewood, California): I crave fleshy contact, not mere communication. Hugs, not words. Maybe we all do in times of Covid-19. “Half-circle,” a work from 2014-2015 by Rachelle Rojany, makes me think differently about contact. Or rather, I have grown to appreciate what it tells me about my desire for touch.
The work is a contact print on plaster of wet painted marks on her studio floor. Every morning I take my keys off the hook in front of this plaster cast to go to my studio. It watches over me, telling me to make studied marks, to trace the conditions of my existence. Looking at it now, I think about not only the mark, the indexical scar, the displacement of the subjective onto this object; my gaze is not only on the brown and black slashes that look like the greasy residue of a machine stutter.
I have also come to see that there is a ground to the figure, a space in which these marks float. I am drawn to how the delicate plaster cuts the bold lines short at the bottom, how it forms a clear shape implying another missing half-circle, its fragile material poised in earthquake country over my entrance area. In a time when we hold hope in our fragile and tense environment, I find a strange parallel in the poignant way the expanse of the plaster holds the marks.
The overlay of several time spans — first of Rachelle drawing, then pouring the soft plaster into the mold and, later, removing the hardened artifact, followed by my gazing on it gratefully — also makes real the distance between all of us today. It makes tangible the collocation, that shared hug, that seems impossible but through the generosity of a half-circle.
Hector G. Romero (El Paso, Texas): I acquired this drawing by trade from my artist friend Jim Pustorino. It is modest in size for what Jim normally does, yet the shift in scale maintains the impact and nuance of his larger drawings and paintings. The drawing could be described as conceptual and, as the title indicates — “Every Second Counted–the Thirtieth Day of Summer” — it deals with the idea of marking time. Although parameters controlled the process, these limits become a take-off point that goes beyond ideas of “mark making” and creates a landscape that for me is both abstract and literal (think Monet). I see each mark and color shift as a notation of a moment in time as well as memories of the past and optimism for the future.
As I look at this drawing now, I think how apropos for the current moment is this idea of counting — are we not counting the days in our own way until all this will pass? Looking at Jim’s drawing and making my own work I am reminded of this solitary act I am pursuing, alone in the cave of my studio. I have always seen my drawings, paintings, and sketchbooks as a form of history and autobiography. I guess they are also a way of marking time and now that idea seems to be even more relevant. I still maintain hope and find it more important than ever to pursue this act of visual creativity.
Iemke van Dijk (Leiden, Netherlands): Confined to our house almost 24 hours a day, I find the art on our walls becoming a recurrent fascination for me. The work that responds most dramatically to the changing daylight is “Black on Canvas” by René Eicke. It looks as if it has ongoing movement in it. From the point where I often sit, the work seems to have an uneven surface, a relief even. But the surface is actually flat, marked by dots that have been placed with a felt tip pen. Although the dots seem to define a grid, they break from it with minuscule shifts — some dots overlap, others just touch, and some are on their own. It is obvious that the artist did not design an exact composition beforehand, and that the subtle irregularities emerged in the making process. It is natural, but it does not imitate nature. It has its own nature.
Looking at the dots I start to see moving diagonals; seconds later, horizontals. I know that my brain is connecting the dots, trying to construct an understandable structure. In full daylight, the dots vibrate and reach out from a flat two-dimensional existence into the third dimension. A pleasant sensation. The constantly changing views remind me of panta rhei — everything flows — and inspire me not only to reflect on these phenomena, but to actually feel them. Regarding Covid-19, this makes me confident that there is movement toward the positive as much as toward the negative.
David West (Paris, France): These three masques by Ciel Lefton were left to me in some convoluted way by my maternal grandparents and sent here to Paris a decade and a half ago by my late sister.
I guess they date from around 1958 to 1960. I remember them in my grandparents’ house on Outer Drive in Detroit as a small child — they scared the shit out of me.
Ciel Lefton was active in Detroit as a ceramic sculptor during the mid-20th-century. I’m happy as hell I have some of her work. She taught my grandfather to sculpt, and I wish I had a piece by him, although thinking about it is enough, and I don’t want that kind of juju. It’s bad enough to think about what will happen to my work.
I see now, as an adult, that the mask on the left could be taken as simply an Asian person, not the demon I imagined as a child. The long one up by the fuse box seems like Ciel was riffing on Michelangelo’s Moses? Or maybe just God. He seems pissed off — that’s what I thought in the ‘60s, and I think the same now.
The third masque is my favorite, and you can see that it’s damaged. My ex-wife threw it at me when the cops accompanied me to the apartment to retrieve my work before she could destroy all of it.
This masque definitely represents a demon, I think, and as a kid I thought it wanted to eat me and my sisters. But I found it very attractive. Now that it’s missing a horn, it seems even more charming.
Has it become more or less of something during the confinement? I think most times when I see the masques, I feel at home in the continuation of my family, and it heartens me during a long period of estrangement….