Lights in the Tunnel: Creating Art in the Shadow of COVID-19
Curated by Francine Weiss, Senior Curator
I have spent a lot of my time during this period “shelter in place,” catching up with friends by video, phone, and email. Having worked in the arts for twenty years, many of my friends are artists. Our conversations focus on health, well-being, and “the new normal.” And we also talk about “What happens to creativity in quarantine?”
The idea for this online exhibition originated with those conversations. Like everyone, artists are being affected psychologically, emotionally, physically, and financially by the pandemic. Artists are uniquely impacted as performances and art exhibitions have been canceled; galleries and museums have temporarily closed; freelance jobs have dried up; studios have become unaffordable or inaccessible; and teaching is now online. And yet there is still the desire to create art. For some artists, this is a period of time alone in the studio to make new work, continue past projects, or experiment. For others, studios are not accessible or are being lost, and art is being made at home, on a different scale, with new materials, or in pockets of “free time” while juggling family and work obligations. And still for others, this period of social isolation has been the raw material for art, and they are making work that explicitly comments on the pandemic and its impact on communities and families.
The world has also watched as artists have applied their unique skills to sewing masks and making other protective gear for healthcare professionals. I asked the artists in this show to talk about what they are making and how this current situation has altered their studio practice and art. This show features an array of artists working in various media, each responding differently to the current situation.
In the era of COVID-19, we can’t predict—or see—the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel,” but we do have glimmers of light inside it. For artists, it is the new work they are making. For the rest of us, it’s the art we are enjoying, often online.
This exhibition features works by: Rania Matar, Jennifer McClure, Kelsey Miller, Hadieh Shafie, and Jason Stopa.
As a Lebanese-born American woman and mother, Rania Matar draws on her own life and cross-cultural experience to explore issues of identity in her photographic work. Focusing on girls and women, she explores adolescence and womanhood both in the United States and the Middle East. One look at Matar’s portraits, and it is evident that her photographic practice depends on proximity, time, and connection with her subjects– developing a relationship with them before and during photo shoots seems paramount to making revealing psychological portraits. So what does an artist do during the period of “social distancing” when her work depends on social interaction? For Matar, the “new normal” led to a new project.
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In Matar’s words:
“Isolation and confinement offered me the gift of time at home with my family, and in the studio with my work. I had almost forgotten how precious both are. With time and space to re-evaluate what matters, I reached out to my friends and started visiting them and making their portraits through the window. A new project about ‘connecting across barriers’ emerged. It humbled me how many people were willing to be part of this, but also how important the human interaction we often took for granted, is. Despite the fact that we only communicated across a physical barrier, we really and truly made a connection.”
The same psychology comes through in these new portraits as in Matar’s previous work, only in these photographs a new formal language emerges. The windows and doors separating photographer and subject become framing elements for these portraits that begin to feel like the contemporary answer to the old painted portrait in oils. There is a great attention to space in these photographs, which makes sense because Matar began her career as an architect. Interiors are contrasted with exteriors, and yet also layered on top of each other to create complex compositions of reflections and realities. And isn’t this a brilliant visual metaphor for how we all feel during this period of social isolation– as if the boundaries between interiority and exteriority are melting away and becoming ever more complicated?
What new bonds might we make through the computer, the phone, windows, and doors at this time when we are craving human interaction and normalcy? Matar’s photographs give us a glimpse of life hereafter. During this difficult period, she foresees the promise of a new future. In her words: “It seems as if life went on hold those past few weeks – for everyone. I am always straddling two cultures and identities, as a Lebanese/Palestinian and as an American. It feels as if the news is always dividing us as ‘them vs. us,’ and now here we are a ‘we’: all in this together, in the same boat, with life at a standstill and reduced to the confinement of home. This virus is such an equalizer, making us all re-evaluate our shared humanity, our fragility, and our priorities.
When life goes back to normal, I hope we keep that empathy, kindness, interconnectivity alive in us.”
Photographer Jennifer McClure’s life and work changed dramatically when she became a mother at age 46. Of course aspects of new motherhood can feel isolating, but now the photographer finds herself literally and indefinitely isolated as she quarantines with her family in New York City. As she adapts to the new reality of parenting and photographing in quarantine, McClure is focusing her photographic work on her new family, in their home performing the quotidian familial routines of the “new normal.” In her words: “I’m photographing every day as a way to stay sane. If I don’t keep my hands busy, I’ll go crazy with anxiety and worry. My daughter is always with me these days, so she’s been my main subject. She’s twenty months old and she’s usually quite happy. I can’t help but have my spirits lifted when I focus entirely on her. I’m making photos about the objects and actions of the pandemic as well as how we fill our days.”
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McClure has to approach her artistic process differently under the circumstances. As she puts it, “I’ve learned to be entirely in the moment. I don’t have the luxury of planning elaborate shoots and taking my time to get every element perfect. I start with a basic idea and shoot as much as I can before my daughter loses interest. Or I simply keep the camera nearby and shoot her as the day goes by, without any plan at all. I’ve given up the illusion of control over just about everything these days.” McClure’s new photographs are intimate and tender, revealing parental anxiety and joy. They also highlight the simple pleasures and wonders in the world of a child, even at the darkest of times.
For Rhode Island based artist Kelsey Miller, this period of quarantine has meant more spontaneity in both the studio and the “classroom.” She describes her creative process as “more immediate and self-reflective.” Whereas she used to sketch out a print ahead of time, she now approaches a print with no concrete plans, making formal decisions along the way. Art-making for Miller, like so many other things during this time, is about “responding to the moment.” With so much uncertainty, planning is difficult, both for art-making and teaching. For some people adversity breeds ingenuity. Such is the case with Miller’s students, many of whom are inventing creative solutions for the scarcity of traditional art materials.
Just as she encourages her students to use the materials available to them, her own studio practice has relied on using what she can find and re-use. Her work has always been concerned with the environment, and her current project during self-isolation is no different. For the series “We Need Less Than We think,” the artist is making fifty prints about earth to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. While visiting a beach near her home, she collected trash that was discarded there. Using the beach debris as stencils and reliefs, Miller makes monoprints in her home studio. She also fashions the rubber soles of her shoes into relief blocks and uses plastic letter forms in her monotypes, all of which are printed on old lithographs by the artist that she has cut down to 9 x 12 inches. The end result is meditative abstract prints compromised of evocative forms in a subdued, elegiac palette.
View a video of Kelsey in her studio space, below.
Growing up in post-Revolutionary Iran, Hadieh Shafie read books as an escape, making notes in the margins to remember what she had read. Now an artist in New York, Shafie makes colorful sculptures from scrolls, which she calls “ketab” (Farsi for “books”). Her art-making process begins with a drawing that the artist has offset printed onto strips of paper. She then paints the edges of the strips of paper and handwrites, using a brush, the same text repeatedly onto the strips of paper. Although it may seem as if Shafie is referencing the Islamic tradition of calligraphy, she is instead claiming subjectivity and agency for herself as a woman artist with a free gesture.
Now in quarantine, Shafie works on several projects simultaneously. In late March, Shafie and her husband left their home in New York to spend time in her childhood home in Maryland. The artist quickly established a makeshift studio in the dining room, where she enjoys the natural light and views of nature from two windows. In addition to busying herself with studio work, Shafie goes on long walks to “keep [her] mind and body healthy,”renewing her interest in landscape, flower and tree forms. Recently, she discovered a field of buttercups, left to grow rampant during COVID-19 when the fields aren’t being mowed. In this vision of buttercups lies not only the raw material for new work, but a powerful idea found in nature: that there is the chance for something beautiful to flourish in the face of difficulty. There will be regrowth.
Writer and painter Jason Stopa creates vibrant abstract paintings. In recent installations, Stopa has hung these paintings, with their colorful patterns, gestures, and motifs, upon gallery walls also painted with colorful patterns. In these room-sized installations, Stopa’s paintings become performative. How would I describe Stopa’s work in existing terms? Perhaps it is Pop Art color meets Baroque theatricality meets modernist gesture and form. It is simultaneously playful and serious and fresh. He describes his endeavor as expanding and critiquing formal issues. Interrogating “painting’s status in relation to the wall and the architecture of the gallery,” Stopa is, in his words, “after a kind of pictorialism that opens up spatial concerns, where abstraction can be an image of itself. I use graphic color to create gradients, pattern and gesture. I make impasto marks, using paint squeezed straight out of the tube, to create illusionistic depth. I’m interested in how mark-making can create physical and atmospheric sensations that vie with sculpture and perform a painting.”
Social isolation has changed the way that Stopa feels and works. Whereas before he could go to his studio multiple times a week, he now goes once a week. He describes his mind these days as an “echo chamber” of feelings and ideas amplified by the isolation. The current situation has made it harder for him to focus. Still his initial creative process is the same: “I draw till I find a form that feels hard, unknown to me, and strange. It’s very difficult to get away from what you know, and I think that’s a goal. I don’t think I have the attention span and frequency to make a painting at this moment, but I’ve generated a number of ideas that I plan to get to soon.”
View a video of Jason explaining how his artmaking has changed, below.
Behind the Exhibition
Footage: Marley Reed, Music: Miles Schelling, Editing: Kelsey Miller.
A short documentary focusing on the practice of the visual artist; Hadieh Shafie. The artist talks about two inherent aspects of her work, it’s relationship to the embedded text and the use of color.
Directed by Maximilian Homaei
Born and raised in Lebanon, Rania Matar moved to the United States in 1984. Initially trained as an architect at the American University of Beirut and at Cornell University, she studied photography at the New England School of Photography and Maine Photographic Workshops. Matar began teaching photography in 2009 and offered summer photography workshops to teenage girls in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps with the assistance of non-governmental organizations. She has won many awards, including a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2017, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art (TX) presented a solo exhibition of Matar’s work. Matar has photographs in numerous permanent collections at museums around the country and has published three books. The Newport Art Museum was honored to present Matar’s work in a solo exhibition “A Girl and Her Room” and in the group exhibition “The Shapes of Birds: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa” (2018). The Museum also owns three works by Matar. Rania Matar lives outside Boston and is represented by Robert Klein Gallery.
Jennifer McClure is a fine art photographer based in New York City. She uses the camera to ask and answer questions. Her work is about solitude and a poignant, ambivalent yearning for connection. The Leica Gallery in Boston will present a solo show of her work in April 2020. She was a 2019 and 2017 Critical Mass Top 50 finalist and twice received the Arthur Griffin Legacy Award from the Griffin Museum of Photography’s annual juried exhibitions. Jennifer was awarded CENTER’s Editor’s Choice by Susan White of Vanity Fair in 2013 and has been exhibited in numerous shows across the country. She has taught workshops at PDN’s PhotoPlus Expo, the Maine Media Workshops, The Griffin Museum, and Fotofusion. Her work has been featured in publications such as GUP, The New Republic, Lenscratch, Feature Shoot, L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Photo Review, Dwell, Adbusters, and PDN. She also founded the Women’s Photo Alliance in 2015.
Kelsey Miller was born in Antigua, West Indies, and now lives in Portsmouth, RI. She is a multi-disciplinary artist whose practice is rooted in printmaking and expands on its inherent qualities of repetition, accumulation, and layering. Miller earned her M.F.A. from the University of Connecticut in 2018. Since then, she has taught drawing and printmaking courses at the University of Connecticut, University of Georgia Study Abroad Program in Cortona, Italy, and is currently a Visiting Lecturer in Studio Art at Wellesley College. She has been an Artist in Residence at Proyecto ‘Ace in Buenos Aires, Argentina and has been selected as a participant for the 2021 Arctic Circle Residency in the International Territory of Svalbard. Miller is a 2019 recipient of the MacColl Johnson Fellowship from the Rhode Island Foundation.
Hadieh Shafie was born in Tehran and came to the United States when she was fourteen. She holds M.F.A. degrees in imaging and digital art from the University of Maryland (Baltimore County) and in painting from the Pratt Institute (NY). Shafie has received many grants, including one from Kress Foundation, and was shortlisted for the Jameel Prize. She has exhibited her work at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University (CA); San Antonio Museum of Art (TX); Victoria & Albert Museum (England); Institute du Monde Arabe (France); and Casa Arabe (Spain). Shafie’s work is in many collections around the world including The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY) and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (CA). In 2018, the Newport Art Museum featured her work in “The Shapes of Birds: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa.”
Born in 1983, Jason Stopa is a painter and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He received his B.F.A. from Indiana University and his M.F.A. from Pratt Institute. He is a contributing writer to Art in America, Hyperallergic, and The Brooklyn Rail. Recent exhibits include “New Skin” at Monica King Contemporary in New York and “In Pursuit of a Meaningful Mark” at Mindy Solomon Gallery, Miami, FL. Stopa is represented by Monica King Contemporary.
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