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Artists Quarantine With Their Art Collections

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: As Michael Mahalchick describes below, a world unthreatened by COVID-19 “exists only in your head.” But promising preliminary results from coronavirus vaccine trials were reported this week, offering a glimmer of hope for an eventual end to our accustomed regimen of isolation and social distancing. Since those protocols were first implemented, I’ve been asking artists to contribute to this series of articles by responding to 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?

Robert Arneson, “A Hollow Gesture” (1980), lithograph, 40 x 30 inches (photo: Cindy Bernhard, courtesy Phyllis Bramson)

Phyllis Bramson (Chicago, Illinois): This Robert Arneson print, titled “A Hollow Gesture,” is reverberating even more than usual. It greets visitors to my studio, and it suits a wicked side of my personality. The gesture is directed toward the master printer, Jack Lemon of Landfall Press, whose caricature appears at the bottom right corner of the image.

Robert Arneson, “A Hollow Gesture” (1980), lithograph, 40 x 30 inches; detail of lower right corner, with artist’s signature and caricature of Jack Lemon of Landfall Press (photo: Cindy Bernhard, courtesy Phyllis Bramson)

However, depending on the news, this self-portrait might represent a form of toxic masculinity and gender menacing, like the conspiracy targeting Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan. At those moments, the face’s taunting seems to include me! 

Lately, though, l sometimes assume the attitude that Arneson’s facial expression usually seems to project — a sort of a “F – CK YOU” attitude towards life. His face urges me to keep going and doing… particularly in my studio. Regardless of the current difficult political and public health circumstances, l can’t allow myself to be undermined.

April Childers, “Untitled” (2015), acrylic on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches (image courtesy Michael Mahalchick)

Michael Mahalchick (Brooklyn, New York): Hanging near my dining table is this untitled work by April Childers from 2015. It is 12 inches square and depicts a candlelit table in a quiet Italian street. The image, appropriated from the top of a take-out pizza box, is lovingly hand-rendered on a wood panel that also mimics the dimensions of the pizza box. 

I’ve loved it since I first saw it. It hovers in that magical place where it is both exactly as it seems to be and absolutely not what it seems to be, a 100% genuine fake. Disarming in its humor, it dares you to take it seriously.

The image depicted in the work is a typical “Italianesque” illustration intended to underscore that you are eating Italian food. It’s a kind of imagery you are aware of but never really pay much attention to; it represents a place without being an actual place, a charming and romantic world of comfort and pleasure that is only accessible during the act of eating take-out pizza. 

Over the course of the pandemic, though, this image, like many other things, has acquired new, darker meanings. This romanticism of a quiet Italian street suddenly turned desolate as Italy became one of the first countries to institute lockdowns to fight the spread of the virus. The street’s emptiness felt ominous. The open table suddenly was no longer inviting, but abandoned. The Italian fantasy had become poisoned by a deadly virus.

As the virus took hold in the US, the meaning shifted again as fear of contracting it made simple pleasures like ordering pizza a potential vector for contagion, and the pizza box a carrier of a deadly invader. April’s image was now less of a joke and more of a warning: This could be you. 

Another shift in meaning occurred when we began to see the impact of the virus on the the livelihood and health of restaurants and their workers — the pizza box as a memorial to the lost. Lately, however, I have been seeing the work in a more hopeful light, representing a place of safety and comfort, a place that exists only in your head: a world without the threat of COVID-19.

Paul Anthony Smith, “Funeral Party” (2011), oil on canvas, 12.5 x 16 inches; in situ (image courtesy Anne Lindberg)

Anne Lindberg (Ancramdale, New York): Paul Anthony Smith and I have been friends since we met in Kansas City in 2008, when Paul was a student at the Kansas City Art Institute. In 2012, I purchased “Funeral Party” impulsively without seeing it in person. The quiet power of this painting grabbed me in a deeply emotional way. It gave me insight into Paul’s regard for his family and his heritage in Jamaica. After moving to New York State in 2015, I placed the painting high on a bookshelf where it hovers above eye level as a guiding force. 

This small work is housed in a deep-set black frame. Three women stand together, each in a black dress, and each holding a white piece of paper in both hands, nearly filling the picture plane with their thoughts, respect, and presence. Paul told me that these women are his mother, grandmother, and aunt. After living with it a few years, I realized that the painting began as a portrait.

Paul Anthony Smith, “Funeral Party” (2011), oil on canvas, 12.5 x 16 inches (image courtesy Anne Lindberg)

Paul’s grandmother is actually painted twice in this painting, as one of the three women, and as a larger portrait looming in the background. You can see the rounded collar of her shirt on the left side of the composition. This portrait of a family transcends the autobiographical. There is something mythic about this image of three women, a triad of support, the Three Graces. 

As the daily weight of COVID-19 cases exponentially grow, and we read wrenching descriptions of people unable to comfort loved ones who are dying alone, this poignant image of three generations of women standing together has become a telling representation of our times. For me, it has taken on universal meanings of loss as well as — through the suggestion that they are singing together — a way to connect with something larger than ourselves. Instead of attending a crowded funeral service, are these women gathered in their living room to sing in memory of a family member?

Giorgio Morandi, “Untitled” (no date), pencil on paper, 5 9/16 x 9 inches (image courtesy Kate Shepherd)

Kate Shepherd (New York City): I usually keep this Giorgio Morandi drawing under a cloth, both to protect it from light and to make looking at it more special.

Lately, due to a family crisis and the world’s slowing down, I’ve been going to the studio less, and have co-opted a table in our son’s unoccupied room. I’m teaching myself how to use watercolor, and how to do so in keeping with the spirit of my paintings. (Isn’t Instagram fun? — artists can safely post stuff that’s “not ready for prime time” to share with peers.) 

The night my husband got arrested for stopping traffic at a BLM protest, I uncovered the Morandi and rested it on the table. To the best of my ability, I tried to replicate it. Decades ago, I spent one day a week copying at the Met, either in the painting galleries or in the Department of Drawings. It was, and is, a way to truly understand and feel the spirit of another artist. 

I searched the apartment for just the right soft pencil. I tried to match quick hand motions of cross hatching, and figure out if the edges were drawn right to left or left to right, top to bottom or bottom to top. The magic of his work is how overlapping forms meld into one another so description is not at all obvious. I had to keep my hand from moving faster than my observation while not making stilted marks. 

Slowing down within the confines of Morandi’s contemplative state, I hoped, would bolster my own. Because my husband’s phone was taken away, I couldn’t contact him and I was worried. He returned right before midnight. I made him some noodles while I cried. He’d been safe with fellow protesters. The next time this happens, I promise to be used to it and maybe instead, I’ll copy a Peter Schuyff watercolor. 

MiYoung Sohn, “Rain-bow” (2011); push pins, Homasote, wood, paint; 10.5 x 10.5 inches (image courtesy of the artist)

Michael Scoggins (Kerhonkson, New York): I’ve always admired MiYoung Sohn’s attention to detail and her craftsmanship. Her work is meticulous and thoughtful, through the use of simple, everyday objects. The real beauty of MiYoung’s work, for me, is her ability to transform these common items into precise, architectural works of art. My wife (artist Alex Gingrow) and I are fortunate to have a couple of her artworks in our humble but growing art collection.

MiYoung’s “Rain-bow” hangs in our daughter Scout’s room, a gift on the occasion of Scout’s birth. This is a work that I see many times throughout the day, and it has come to have a much more personal meaning to me as this pandemic drags on. Its rainbow-shaped pushpins create a bright beacon of color and light during dark times. I have always enjoyed the strong conceptual and humorous nature of MiYoung’s work, but I have a new appreciation for the joy imbued in this piece, and that feels very important to me right now. 

Many of us are walking around with raw nerves and tired minds these days. People have become entrenched and partisan, unwilling to listen to each other. We’re all now isolated in our pods but still very susceptible to the outside noise of the world: I am guilty of this. Sharing an artwork with Scout and seeing it from her perspective gives me hope. Having this precious object that was gifted to my daughter by a dear friend makes my world a better place. 

Sheldon Berlyn, “Untitled” (2010); screen-printing ink on aluminum sheet over plywood with artist’s aluminum frame; 36 x 24 inches (image courtesy Russell Floersch)

Russell Floersch (New York City): 

Dear Shelly,

This is a letter that reached you too late. These are thoughts and recollections about a

relationship that helped shape who I am, as an individual, artist, and teacher. I think the most treasured works we own are those exchanged between teacher and student. We are lucky to have some minor works by famous artists, but the works by my many supportive teachers are lasting reminders of the generosity of spirit I was so fortunate to enjoy during the six years I lived in Buffalo — a city that embraced me, and tolerated the many mistakes and growing pains of a very young student artist.

During the worst of the pandemic, when I forbid Wendy to even cross the threshold of our small apartment for almost three months, I would often mutter to myself: must call A, must contact B, must check on C through Z. Doing a casual internet search in late April, I discovered that you had died a couple of weeks earlier. Just about the time I began worrying and muttering.

I didn’t get to speak with you once more, or even send an email to inquire how you and Diane were faring in your beautiful home in the Finger Lakes. That home Wendy and I finally visited several years ago when you offered me “any painting.” You were an extremely sensitive yet bold colorist, but it was the black on aluminum work that struck us most. We have never second-guessed our choice. In our small home, the works almost crowd us out — many lean safely against a wall or piece of furniture. Your painting commands the wall above our bed. The metal surface reflects the morning light, and alters how the work appears throughout our day.

Thinking of you,

Russell & Wendy

Carrie Mae Weems, “Jim, if you choose to accept, the mission is to land on your own two feet.” (1989), gelatin silver print, edition of 50, 16 x 20 inches; in situ (image courtesy Letha Wilson)

Letha Wilson (Craryville, New York): This Carrie Mae Weems gelatin silver print is from an edition to benefit Artists Space, dated 1988-89, a year or two before she finalized her renowned Kitchen Table Series. I remember so clearly the first time I saw this piece back in 1998, and immediately was in love with it. I find it beautiful, poignant, touching, filled with layers of meaning and information, historically important, culturally and personally rich. I worked at Artists Space for seven years, and as my going-away present in 2005, I chose this print.

During COVID-19 quarantine we began some home renovations, so I temporarily took it off the wall and placed it on the mantle above the fireplace where it has remained since. I quite love it in this location at the center of our home, above the warmth of the fire, and surrounded by sentimental and random objects I have collected and kept. 

Carrie Mae Weems, “Jim, if you choose to accept, the mission is to land on your own two feet.” (1989), gelatin silver print, edition of 50, 16 x 20 inches (image courtesy Letha Wilson)

The work speaks to struggles – political upheaval, personal tragedy, systemic racism, a global pandemic, financial strains, an unclear future. The mission is there, even if impossible: to get through this experience intact, to persevere in spite of what the world throws at you. To have the stamina to continue following one’s convictions, working toward goals. And it is so clear how ahead of her time Ms. Weems was in creating this work. 

However, I can’t help but find it hopeful. As if the person is on the precipice, summing up the courage, through sips of wine and the haze of cigarette smoke, to take the next step, though it may be a tough road ahead. The white glowing orb of the kitchen lamp is so engrossing to me. It provides the way out, perhaps? Centering the scene, soothing, inviting, steady.

It’s funny how art can contain so much on its own, and also be wrapped up in how it arrived in our lives, or when it first awoke us to its meanings. I have appreciated this exercise to reflect on my own relationship with this particular piece, and how art can be a part of your life in so many ways, and change over time with you.

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