Art and Hope at the End of the Tunnel
USC Fisher Museum of Art, los angeles
Through December 9, 2021
Written by David S. Rubin
When total lockdown was coming to an end, museum director Dr. Selma Holo invited art critic and KCRW commentator Edward Goldman to visit Los Angeles artists’ studios to select work for an exhibition of art created during the time of Covid. As part of his methodology, Goldman asked each participant how the pandemic affected their art practice. The artists’ responses, along with their short statements about the exhibited works, appear on the exhibition labels. Although a handful admitted to being hermits whose modus operandi did not change very much, the majority responded that the period had been a time for reflection, for rethinking such things as methods, purpose, or the meaning of life. Many acknowledged that they became more experimental, while others explained how they adapted to working under new rules. The latter situation was particularly the case for figurative artists and photographers who work with models. John Sonsini, who is widely respected for his sensitive paintings of Latinx day workers, restricted himself to painting only the man he lives with, who previously sat for him more than 200 times. Ken Gonzales-Day, whose art projects usually involve considerable research in archives, libraries, and museums, no longer had access to these venues. So, instead, he took photographic portraits of creative professionals and friends, but practiced mask wearing and social distancing, and went through “no small amount of hand sanitizer.” For street photographer Brendan Lott, there were no longer any potential subjects on the street. Limited to photographing from his home, he produced an exceptional suite of photos of people seen through the windows of the building across the street. The resultant images are voyeuristic, mysterious, and evocative. Alfred Hitchcock would have loved them.
As Goldman points out in his introduction to a printed handout, the exhibition is something of a microcosm, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, of the true diversity of Los Angeles. Although the same may be said of the range of mediums and styles, there are some significant overriding themes that do emerge. The portraits by Gonzales-Day and Sonsini, for example, reveal a commitment to championing the strength and endurance of the human spirit, something that is essential if one is to survive the dangers of a pandemic. Gonzales-Day’s Brenda, arts administrator shows a proud, smiling, resilient woman who trusted the artist (and presumably the vaccines) enough to remove her mask while being photographed. In Sonsini’s portrait Gabriel, the subject’s direct gaze and upright head position suggest fortitude, while his varied skin tones and textures convey a toughness that is achieved through the artist’s masterful manipulation of the brush. A compassion for humanity is observable in Lawrence Levy’s Victor, a stirring fresco featuring a man’s face viewed up close such that the artist is reflected in the sitter’s eyes. Empathy for people connecting is also seen in Chaz Guest’s She’s Got His Back, a touching painting based on a 1940s photograph of an African American girl holding her brother close to protect him. John Nava’s portrait of a young migrant man with “porvenir” (future) printed on his T-shirt is both dignified and hopeful, while Pam Douglas’ mixed media work Maybe She’s from Syria depicts a confident refugee woman who carries her belongings on her head in a burlap sack.
Empowerment of women is also a theme that connects the works of Alison Saar, Lezley Saar, and Karen Amy Finkel Fishof. The Saar sisters turn to storytelling as a means of celebrating fictional heroines, as in Alison Saar’s representation of a torch singer who traditionally sang songs of protest. Lezley Saar’s subject is a haunting woman who peers towards the viewer through a mesh curtain, waiting to charm a male visitor. Her allure is accentuated by gallery light shifting over the fabric that sheathes her face in mystery. Finkel Fishof’s photograph Hands Off. Shomer Negiah recalls Wallace Berman’s Verifax collages in its use of negative images and its repurposing of the Hebrew language. Here Finkel Fishof recontextualizes an Orthodox Jewish tradition of opposite sexes refraining from touching with a dramatic image that calls attention to the current “me too” movement.
Expressions of faith in the continuity of time and belief in the principle that everything is cyclical provide encouraging reassurance in works by Gajin Fujita, Mark Steven Greenfield, and Manfred Müller. Fujita paints a contemporary mythological narrative to highlight how an inner city street corner, once the site of a thriving residential community, eventually evolved into a consumer zone. Greenfield depicts plague victims from historical times, but with a spiritual interpretation achieved by mimicking traditional altars through the application of gold leaf and by showing them as saints. He also has included his characteristic energy bursts that act as visual mantras, reminders that pandemics are only specs in the vastness of the space time continuum. In Müller’s photograph Explorers from the series Sub Agua, mountain climbers spot lit amidst a field of ultramarine blue bring to mind the Von Trapp family fleeing the Nazis in “The Sound of Music.” Like the scene from the film, the imagery is a poetic testament to our instinctual will to survive.
In a time of crisis, imagery that imagines a better future is a welcome antidote. To their credit, a few of the artists offer up paintings that can soothe and inspire. In Annie Lapin’s Night Opening, a dark brooding landscape is interrupted at its center by a tunnel of light, a motif that suggests the Leonard Cohen lyric “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Kelly Berg examines the same concept in her meticulously rendered Earth Awakening 2, where pyramids representing rebirth and renewal rise up from rifts in the earth. Andy Moses, whose poured paintings often read as pure abstractions, veers towards representation in TMA 1002, where the imagery suggests windblown patterns in desert sands and calming ocean waves. Taken together, these paintings are eye-pleasing reinforcements of the age-old adage, “This too shall pass.”
USC Fisher Museum of Art
823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90089