The first official case of coronavirus was confirmed in New York State on March 1, 2020. On March 20, the governor’s office issued an executive order closing non-essential businesses in New York City. Overnight, the country’s most densely populated megalopolis ground to a halt. Our museums, office buildings, restaurants, and streets emptied as residents were told to shelter in place and without any ceremony, the “great pause” began. As a resident of NYC, I remember thinking, “Wow, this quarantine is going to be hard on everybody.” As an artist in NYC, my second thought was, “Wow, this quarantine might be great for my art-making.”
I wasn’t alone in this consideration. A number of the students in my Conceptual Art Making workshop at the Art Students League had the same thought: the “great pause” might be a great moment for art. As artists know, art is a unique activity. Untethered to commerce, it requires time, reflection, and effort—all things that are usually in short supply in New York’s fast-paced, market-driven economy. Because it allows us to communicate intense, complex qualities, art is also uniquely positioned to speak in this time of uncertainty, mourning, and change. It enables us to talk to an audience across social and physical distance. Heck, it even lets us communicate across time and history, potentially facilitating communion with those who may not be present now but who may need our input in the future.
So, how have artists, our first responders on the cultural front lines, reacted to these unprecedented circumstances? What can the art we’ve made tell us about life in quarantine? In the spirit of inquiry, Hugo Bastidas and I embarked on curating The Persistence of Creativity: Art during the Great Pause at the Art Students League in New York City. A follow-up to the Life Under the Pandemic Moon exhibition curated by Bastidas, this show explores what appears to be a lull: the time between the onslaught of the great pandemic and the dawn of the great reckoning.
Apparently, creativity has persisted. Our call for submissions garnered hundreds of works, and we were overwhelmed by the response. The pieces we received comment on isolation, beauty, obsession, interiority, stillness, stress, anger, depression, and transcendence.
In describing Leslie Kerby’s Please Stand By, a work in which the artist depicts sixteen television sets in a grid-like format, Bastidas writes, “In both form and content, Leslie Kerby’s Please Stand By reflects the great pause we are enduring. The work consists of a repeated still of a TV screen showing conflicting and disjointed information/misinformation. This work reminds us that as we carelessly or carefully sift through information, it remains nearly the same every day. The captions are about our daily routines, which are noticeably amplified due to the self-confinement we endure for safety. Kerby’s reductive visualization of our complex state makes our condition even more painfully apparent; we’ve lost our illusion of independence and realized our strength in numbers and dependence upon each other.”
Another work exemplifying how many of us may have felt in quarantine is Margaret McCann’s Guest Room. Based on a painting by Van Gogh, McCann amplifies the work’s themes of isolation and confinement with humor and a deft ability to editorialize. Creating an overtly tiny domicile through a flattened extreme perspective, she suggests that our spaces have become smaller as our familiarity with each inch becomes painfully more noticeable. In Guest Room, the open window to the outside world is a small TV screen. With the slightest turn of the head, the painting’s protagonist watches uncomfortably from the bed. Besides the head, the only other viewable body part is an arm that concludes in a hand gripping a remote control. The discomfort of the scene seems to communicate the intense desire to push the button on the remote and be somewhere else.
Linked in the text here and represented by stills in the gallery, video works by Abigail He and Alessandro Paiano also stood out in the way that they utilized time-based media. Graceful in its pace, He’s Zoom capture video Cheers to the Uncertainty: In Response to the Global Pandemic rifts on the practice of the exquisite corpse. Using the theme of an interactive drawing the work both interrogates and illustrates an attempt to stay in touch beyond the screen. Despite the illusion of ease, the act must have required a high level of cooperation amongst the performers. What He achieves is the magic of virtual reality and the connection we share with others through ideas, art making and community.
Paiano’s hilarious M+E in “Do Something!” also deals with the magical aspects of suspended belief. The artist seems to ask “what happens when we are left with ourselves to work undistracted, without the concern of critical, curious, or intrusive eyes?” Using spot on timing, camera shots, and satire, Paiano shares his internal battle, and the almost universal artist experience, of being creatively distracted by our own distractions.
In making our selections for Persistence, we chose artworks that distilled the essence of our existence while sheltering in place. Produced in what may be our first and hopefully our last citywide pause, these works testify to the indomitable nature of artists and to art’s ability to communicate a spectrum of emotion that may be difficult to convey in any other modality. We are grateful for the support of the amazing staff at the Art Students League and to all the artists who submitted works. Thank you for collapsing our social and physical distance in order to share in this collective moment of pause.