Editor’s note: This is part three of a series in which artists and writers talk about life in the Covid-19 era.
Amy Ellingson. We must take this opportunity to reflect upon the ethics of an art world gone awry, with its excessive capitalistic impulse, the massive carbon footprint of art fairs, the homogenization of the museum experience, art-as-selfie-taking-opportunity and the zero-sum game of the mega-galleries. We know that there will be some kind of reset, but what will it look like? Right now, individuals and institutions alike are scrambling to assert themselves online. I feel, more than ever, that art must be seen and experienced in real life. There is no substitute—none at all—nor should there be.
I am used to working in isolation, and I thrive on being alone in the studio, but I have felt distracted during the Shelter in Place order. I’m worried about loved ones, about the loss of connection between people, and the politicization of this health crisis and its impact on democracy.
We are all interdependent. While I worry about the possible loss of beloved galleries and museums, I am perhaps even more concerned about the broader ecosystem of the art world: art teachers at every level, small non-profits, art schools, art writers, support services, fabricators and suppliers who contribute in so many ways. At the same time, I find myself fantasizing about a smaller, more intimate art world, one in which I can step into a gallery or museum, alone, to spend time with great works of art, without the excessive institutional interference that we’ve become accustomed to. I’ve been thinking about a trip to Italy, long ago, when I found myself half-astonished yet half-delighted by the casual, low-tech manner of displaying works of art. Shabby labels, scuffed walls, questionable climate control, no didactics, dim lighting, and no fancy cafes to be found! Just the work, effortlessly bridging the gap of time to meet me; and my eyes, mind and racing heart, striving to meet it.
I would love to return to an art world in which we must make an effort—a real effort—to discover, to see and to learn. One in which we must earn our right to be in the club—that tribe of dedicated diehards, that band of fanatics, scholars, wonks, and wild ones—who think of art neither as entertainment nor as capital nor as a lifestyle, but as a web of conversation and communion that defies time and space.
The truth is, if the art world and its economy shrink, we will all feel it in unpleasant, as well as pleasant ways. It will hurt, but perhaps we will be better for it.
Not surprisingly, the quarantine has affected my immediate professional plans quite a bit, resulting in truncated and postponed exhibitions and projects. For the past year, I’ve been making large graphite drawings and small glazed porcelain sculptures derived from the files I use to make my paintings. The sculptures are essentially embodied drawings. Working with 3D modeling programs, I wrap images around spheres and then model them. The modeling programs have the illusion of being incredibly tactile, even though I am working with a tablet and keystrokes. The forms are 3D printed in porcelain, then fired and glazed. In these sculptural works, the imagery from my paintings manifests as hybrid forms that appear organic and synthetic at the same time. I view the sculptures as ‘seeds’ that contain all of the data for the paintings, or as meteoric forms that represent the paintings as compressed, compacted objects. There is no perceivable evidence of the 3D printing process. They are really organic-looking, but they have a strange mechanical/digital quality, too. I am making three larger bronze versions for my forthcoming exhibition in Denver, at Robischon Gallery. They are about 20 inches in diameter, with a black patina.
For the Robischon exhibition, I will also be presenting the large diptych from my 2014 San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (SJICA) show. I feel like that painting has not been seen enough, and I wanted the chance to create an entirely new body of work around it. The show will include three new paintings and four large graphite drawings— all derived from the diptych. It’s really a re-imagining of the SJICA show, which was so important to me. It’s very strange for all of this to be on hold for the time being, but it gives me a little more time to live with the new work before it leaves the studio.
I’m grateful that we made our move to Santa Fe, New Mexico a year and a half ago. Spring has arrived here, and it is glorious to behold. The trees are leafing, pairs of birds are building nests and we are nurturing our early spring crops in the garden. It all reminds me that everything happens in its own time and in its own way.
What will this upheaval mean for artists? We will persevere, as we always do. So let’s get on with making the best work of our lives.
Brad Brown. Not much about my routine has changed since the lockdown order went into effect. I’ve worked hard to structure my life to have as much time alone in the studio as possible. Sheltering-in-place has always been a kind of goal. Most of the time, there’s no other place I’d rather be.
But that is not entirely accurate because everything has changed. The well-worn groove I established has gotten gummed up with uncertainty and dread. I know that anything and everything I experience finds its way into the work. And for that reason, I’ve tried to lead a highly curated life, designed to allow in only those things I find useful, positive and productive. But that, of course, is a fool’s errand. No amount of routine and structure will keep the world out. And for that, I’m ultimately thankful.
I continue working on The Look Stains, my decades-long drawing project. These palm-of-the-hand sized pages are diaristic accumulations of conscious marks and incidental stains. I consider the project a single piece that represents a collaboration with myself across time, beginning in 1987. The pages are packed with personal history and document a movement through time — my own. Since the lockdown, I’ve been working on several large compositions, slowly piecing the pages together in gridded fields. I can’t be sure what our current moment is adding to the spirit of the work, but I am confident it will become conspicuous at some point.
My library and my drawing table continue to be my power sources. However, my attention span has shrunk to the size of a peanut. I find myself mooning around the studio like a sad, caged animal, unable to focus on anything for very long. There comes a time every day when the floor beneath me seems to go soft, and I collapse into my studio chair. At that point, I realize the workday is over, and my mind drifts off to aimless speculation and woolgathering.
Reading has been difficult. Any attempt to start a new book has failed. Instead, I’m reaching for the familiar. Re-reading Cesar Aira has been satisfying. His slim novels pack a wallop big enough to shake me out of those troublesome feedback loops. I even managed to make a painting as a portrait of my enjoyment.
Samuel Beckett’s late “closed space” novels are relevant, but when are they not? I just re-read Ill Seen Ill Said. And speaking of closed space, the poems of Larry Eigner prove over and over how expansive containment can be.
Music helps, too. Greg Brown’s Hymns To What Is Left, and Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters have been hitting the spot. The titles alone are good enough reason to reach for them. Apple’s album, which was just released, is power percussion (drums, piano, barking dogs) paired with incisive and take-no-prisoners lyrics. The first track of her appropriation of a Yoko Ono vocalization hooked me. From there, she manages to conjure Diamanda Galas, Rickie Lee Jones, Joe Strummer, Nina Simone and Dory Previn in performances that range in style from chanteuse to a drill sergeant, often within a single song.
My niece, who lives in Athens, recently sent me the piano music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, an Ethiopian nun, that was new to me. The compositions are bluesy, but with complicated phrasings that are both energizing and soothing.
I’ve also been returning to Dylan’s Murder Most Foul since it was released a few weeks back. Like smoke off of our national wreckage, it feels like an unblinking history lesson from the end of the world. It somehow manages to be a story of the demise of our country, while simultaneously providing a clue to our redemption: art and music.
Every line feels like an appropriation— lifted from literature and political speeches, the bible and pop culture— fragments from our collective trash heap, strung together and fed back to us for…what? Healing? I’ll take it as that.
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Photos: courtesy of the artists.