What prompted you to create this series?
I made the images while quarantined in my apartment in Jaffa, Israel, where I spend the winter and spring months each year. The Israeli government was quick to respond to the pandemic and imposed a lockdown long before any stay at home orders were initiated in the United States. Moreover, it was a pretty draconian lockdown in that we were not allowed to go outside except to buy food and medicine … or to walk a dog or engage in some solitary exercise like walking. As regards the latter, however, we were restricted to a distance of 100 meters from our homes.
Confined to my apartment—and alone—I spent a good deal of time on the computer, devouring the 24/7 news coverage of the unfolding pandemic. Many of the articles, in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Haaretz were accompanied by fantastically surprising illustrations of the virus cells, often in vivid colors, like pink, orange, and turquoise. I was struck by the alluring shapes. The cells reminded me of the spiky sunflowers I had recently seen at a van Gogh projection art show. I downloaded some of the corona cells and combined them with photos I had taken of the sunflowers. I added other photographic fragments to the mix … to produce the above image, which I posted on Facebook and Instagram. It generated an enthusiastic response.
Shortly thereafter, I read an article in the Smithsonian Museum’s online magazine, which detailed ways in which past epidemics led to beneficial societal changes: the implementation of municipal waste disposal systems, the invention of household toilets, the development of methods for transporting medical personnel and supplies to remote places, the design of homes with more windows and porches, migration to the wide open spaces of the western states, improvements in personal hygiene, the creation of climate science, the rise of volunteerism and fundraising, and the expansion of journalism’s role in disseminating information and fostering discourse regarding health issues.
I was inspired by the Smithsonian article, and the positive reaction to my initial image on social media, to create these slyly subversive images, in which deadly corona cells float through gorgeous imaginary landscapes. My intention was to make visible that which is invisible and frightening, thereby rendering it less disturbing and to suggest that something positive might emerge from the current pandemic.
Has the Pandemic impacted on you and/or your work? Your energy, outlook, subject matter?
The Pandemic clearly provided me with subject matter. The mystery surrounding this merciless virus, its sudden appearance, and the dynamics of its evolution were a source of inspiration. The physical beauty of the cells stimulated my desire to create. Even the anxiety and loneliness I was experiencing impacted the work as is evident from the frenzied scribbles, squiggles and slashes that interact with the cells.
Have you found quarantine or isolation to be good for you as an artist? Devastating? Difficult?
Being completely alone, with no ability to go anywhere or have visitors, was challenging. However, long expanses of time without interruptions allowed me to work intensively and with concentration. The fact that I was able to produce this body of work suggests I benefited from the quarantine—at least artistically.
The images look like paintings. Can you tell us about your process?
I actually consider these images to be paintings; however, they are entirely photographic in that every element of the picture is something I photographed—except for the corona cells, which were taken from the Internet. The compositions are digitally ‘’constructed’’ by means of various blending, erasing, and transforming techniques. They are further altered by modifications to hue and saturation and by the insertion of appropriated imagery, gestural strokes, and/or other marks. After a photograph is selected for the base layer, the subsequent layers suggest themselves in an intuitive process of discovery. In this sense, I work in precisely the same way as do many painters.
Do you normally approach ideas from a scientific point of view?
I consider myself a ‘’science gal’’—and I’m definitely ‘’anti-spiritual.’’ In general, however, my work is not planned out ahead of time. This series, for example, though its subject matter flirts with science, evolved in a very spontaneous, organic way, starting with my purely aesthetic response to the virus cell illustrations.
Does place, geography or culture (Maine? Israel?) influence your work?
Very much so. I split my time between Maine and Israel. My Jaffa apartment is in the historically (largely Muslim) Arab neighborhood of Ajami, which is characterized by cobblestone streets and classic Ottoman architecture. The arabesques and pointed arches are deeply romantic and the peeling facades and faded surfaces speak to my love of texture, my need to rescue that which is damaged, and my attraction to the sensuality in decay.
While photographing in Jaffa is gratifying, I am equally drawn to the industrial neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, which though rapidly gentrifying, are still filled with street art and all manner of detritus. The corona images, like all my work, are replete with urban components in the form of paint, plaster, dirt, words (often in Hebrew), graffiti, or other elements appropriated from city walls and sidewalks. But if you look closely, amid the virus cells are flowers and leaves from the pastoral Maine landscape.
Do you consider this series to be political?
As noted, I did not start out to make a series about corona with any political agenda in mind. However, as with all my work, the visual language I employ is characterized by images that are simultaneously beautiful and bruised, like the two countries I call home. Both Israel and the United States are rife with division and conflict, but they also possess enormous richness and beauty. So in this sense, my images can be viewed metaphorically.
On a more personal level, without getting ‘’too deep,’’ my social and political concerns, as reflected in my art, spring from an early engagement with feminism and extend to a broader struggle against injustice. Coming of age in Dayton, Ohio in the 1950s, I was urged to marry and have children. If I were to pursue a career, it should be teaching so I could be home to take care of my children after school. Although this did not appeal to me in the slightest (I wanted to be a fashion illustrator), I did marry very young and had my first child at the age of 21. When I finally completed college at the age of 23, I placed my son in daycare and secured employment as an advertising copywriter and graphic designer. In 1969, five months pregnant with my second child, I was required by company policy to stop working. Frustrated and angry at having to leave a job I loved, I became active in the women’s movement and fought for a more egalitarian world—free of rigid gender roles. In further pursuit of that goal, I decided to go to law school. I practiced law for 36 years then, in 2013, after closing my practice and moving to Maine, I embarked on a three year MFA program in Media Studies/Photography.
It was during my MFA studies that I first started making ‘’constructed images.’’ Initially I viewed them as celebrating the poetry in the everyday world and asking the question ‘’What is or should be considered ‘’art’’—and therefore worthy of attention?” However, I came to appreciate that their scarred surfaces and counter-culture symbolism speak equally—if not more profoundly—to my lifelong struggle against feelings of helplessness in the face of injustice and my drive to rebel against a rigid system of gender roles and the pressure to conform.
Have recent events changed or expanded your point of view?
Feelings of helplessness and anger are certainly stimulated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They are, however, balanced by feelings of optimism and the belief we can fight and prevail, which is the positive message I hoped to convey. I made one last image, which depicts the virus cells diminishing in number and moving out of the frame … hopefully to disappear. But the center is still not holding. So my optimism is tempered with caution.
Image at top: Carol Eisenberg, Dangerous Beauty 01, ink jet photographic print, digitally printed with archival jet inks on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Metallic, 22 ½ x 30 in. (paper size), 2020.