We are currently in the midst of a pandemic. I am also currently in the midst of a body of work that I was hoping to show in December 2020. This work began as a variation on previous work that had considered social changes that have been evolving since Trump took office. I had been thinking about how this work would be on exhibit after the 2020 election and whether I would need to anticipate a new administration or a continuation of the current administration. I have been rendering mostly animals acting out human activities as gouache works on paper. Now in the midst of this pandemic I have decided to continue rendering animals acting out human activities, but see things differently. Now I see a complete tension between the human and animal worlds. It is a view larger than national politics. It is now about a greater existential struggle as a species, within a mute parallel world that we thought we had left behind, thanks to the promise of technology. Moving through our current crisis, many of us can see the issues that we had addressed in the past coming to the fore in an immediate way. A backwards/forwards/cyclical non-linear vision of trauma and violence as human activity is a big vision that many of us feel can now be understood by many, and more than before.
From February 14 to May 9, 2020, I painted in a 60-page sketchbook. The start date was of no significance other than it was time to start a new sketchbook after completing a previous one. As the Coronavirus began to spread, my sketchbook began to feel its influence. By the time I completed filling this sketchbook I realized that it contained a visual diary of sorts that captured imagery that expressed for me, some of the anxiousness and anxieties I was feeling, as things were initially dismissed, gradually became lethal and then finally became full blown. My ongoing imagery morphed and new motifs were added and transformed by it.
Then one Saturday while checking in on Zoot Coffee in Camden, my favorite coffee establishment/exhibition venue, I got the idea to create a small window box for them to display my sketchbook and to accommodate future artists during their planned summer-long curbside service. Their interior space had been rendered inaccessible to patrons. The Pandemic Sketchbook currently on view, for an undefined period, can be changed to display one of the nearly 60 drawings it contains, each day or according to the whim of the proprietor. The whole setup is viewable through the street window as patrons queue up for coffee outside.
One fall, a few years ago, I photographed a fallen Hermit Thrush found in my yard. In early spring 2020 I began the painting Fall of Icarus as news of a virus was spreading in Asia. Once completed, I found myself in a pandemic and realized that the painting was a metaphor for what was yet to come.
During this time, I had been delving into the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1560, attributed to Bruegel was so enticing. It gave meaning and title for my work. In a parable from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Icarus takes flight to escape the Cretan labyrinth he was trapped in. Icarus’s father, Daedalus, creates a new invention of artificial wings, which will “alter the natural order of things,” that both father and son don for escape. Icarus ignores his father’s warnings, flying ambitiously too high, and is scorched by the sun and cast down from the heavens. The parable can be seen as a metaphor for human pride and excessive ambition. Pride comes before the fall. A warning against the misguided belief that one can transcend the natural limits of the human condition.
My painting tells a version of the Fall of Icarus that acknowledges the brutality of life with the element of malevolence missing. Death becomes a component of life. I have always been attracted to the idea of being able to fly, to be able to launch into the air on my own volition, and to sustain flight like a bird. Flying high would be a welcome escape from present reality.
The idea for Tower of Babel came to me during the first month of sheltering in place this spring. After experiencing many different feelings, one of the strongest was a flight response which I could not act upon. Next, I delved into the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which provided many examples of metaphors for storytelling. Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel, 1653, provided a decorous Old Testament example of the dangers of miscommunication. The biblical story is about the construction of an edifice and a city of unprecedented scale, a man-made attempt to build a ladder to godliness in order to reach heaven on mortal terms, resulting with the fall of a once successful kingdom. Visual affinities differ in both Bruegel’s and my representations from the Genesis 11:1-9 narrative. My interpretation of Tower of Babel rips the tower from the earth launching it towards the heavens in an attempt to escape present reality. The overbuilt structure is assisted by angels but potentially doomed by its weight, its future unknown.
Here is pandemic-inspired art done by an artist with angst, over the uncertainty of the times. I wash my hands, wear my mask, and am alone in my studio. I have hung the prayer flags and I continue to struggle to maintain my equilibrium.
Working in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve discovered a narrative depth to self-portraiture that is inspiring and grounding as things unfold in chaotic ways.
I also had my right/dominant hand in a brace for a while. Working “lefty” added the depth of beginner’s mind to my practice—the slow, deliberate, deep looking, and careful mark-making that stops time and establishes flow. The ample time available due to sheltering in place made this meditative work possible, and brought me home to my first experience drawing with charcoal, years ago.
The insidious proliferation of coronavirus contrasts with the joyous reemergence of spring flowers. The medieval figure of the grim reaper stands in juxtaposition to the image of a modern healthcare worker in personal protective gear. Superstition competes with science. Neither provides the certainty and comfort we crave during this pandemic.
Image at top: Kenny Cole, Transmission, gouache on paper, 52 ½ x 53 in., 2020 (photo: Kenny Cole).