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Decontextualize, or Art in the Time of COVID-19

“Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart!... there is victory yet...and the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius-”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Endurance

This is an excerpt from the introduction to my written thesis document,

"Synesthesia & Siphonophorae: a reflection on the liminal between abstraction and translation"

The headache exists in the dark somewhere behind my eyes, as it has for months.

I catch myself staring at my own face, framed in its tiny rectangle like some ill omen in a dream, like Narcissus through the pale lilies of the water, looking into my own eyes as they glaze over. Drowning. The professor tries halfheartedly to get us to respond to his question, but I have no idea what he asked. The topic of this seminar is “the Studio”, a place I have not set foot in since a hasty retreat in late March of 2020, my car stuffed with chaotic boxes full of supplies, sketches, and half-formed ideas. That night feels like a lifetime ago, though this class exists in the same calendar year. I try to conjure an answer, an anecdote, anything beyond the haze of the headache, something for my professor to launch his talk off of. Instead, I shut the lid of my laptop. I press my forehead against the cool silver of the computer. I’m shutting out the world, I think lamely, melodramatically, but no, it is not the world.

Just one more Zoom meeting in an endless succession.

The Studio. I never had a True Studio until I came to Columbus College of Art & Design. I made art wherever I could and however I could, stigma over the hobbyist artist discourse be damned. The Studio was an intangible construct, a luxury I made do without. I rarely think of my childhood fascination with drawing as Capital S Capital P Studio Practice, but those endless afternoons spent sketching ridiculously proportioned figures and characters have molded me as an artist in ways I have never truly reckoned with. The breakneck outbreak physical transition into my “home studio” boiled down to carving out a creative foxhole in my sister’s bedroom, drafting table shoved against the wall, my paints balanced on teetering stacks of my dad’s old sneakers. The glamorous life of le artiste. The lived-in studio is not an austere chamber of cold genius, but a state of perpetual flux, scattered with the chaos of the artist’s life and the lives of others in their orbit. I tried to make do. It is all any of us could do in this vortex of a year.

Despite my determination, nothing worked. Nothing was consistent, save for the headache. My eyes would water so aggressively from the screen fatigue my sketches were blotched with tears. I struggled to articulate my ideas. My hands refused to translate the image in my mind’s eye. Conflicting sentiments from critiques I endured over the past year vied for attention in my work. I discovered that the backdrop of a global pandemic is not the best circumstance in which to incept, write, draw, and render a full-length/experimental concept/high fantasy graphic novel, much to the dismay of my hubris.

What am I doing? Who am I doing this for? What am I trying to prove? The questions circled as I often fall into the snare of pathologizing my own motives. Why do you even make art? The answer was an unsophisticated one, something I have known since childhood, but had lost its meaning somewhere along with all the Capital A- Art philosophizing.

Art makes me feel.

It is at once as simple and immensely complicated as that.

The Studio Seminar crystalized much for me, even if I was too Zoom fatigued to appreciate the nuances of the readings at the time. Ann Lauterbach’s reflections in The Given and the Chosen are inspired and gave voice to the conflict I was ensnared in. Lauterbach’s writings on what identity and the self are composed of and how all these disparate elements reconfigure into one’s art or writing galvanized my thoughts around my practice. Lauterbach asserts that art is a melding of identity and subject, a fluid and shifting interplay between consciousness and influence. In that interplay, that liminal space, Lauterbach finds that the given and the chosen, the natural and the nurtured, the inherent and the appointed essences of ourselves, are not a distinctive binary. Simply existing, being a conscious being of agency and choice, is a push/pull of reciprocity and allotment. One can consider then how art can capture the intangible self and how the self can be conditioned by the given and chosen aspects of artmaking or writing. The vast why do I even make art question that was flapping around my head on dusty, tired wings was validated in the examination. Why do poets and artists, positioned against a slippery slope toward cynicism and entropy, still try and make and feel.

Lauterbach settles on a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson about how the process of writing about his grief resurrected his dead heart. Emerson’s genius, his given, intangible transcendental self, is actualized through his chosen medium of expression: poetry. Lauterbach’s chapter resonated with me as I drank in her words. My highlighter ran out of ink from my acquiescence to her phrasing. The struggle of authenticity and influence and the question of true identity are themes I found myself considering obsessively last semester. I titled my project, an artists’ book of my eclectic poetry and collage concerning the commercialization of feminine identity and commodified beauty, “Who am I this time?” I wondered: is this me? Where is this coming from? Is this what I want? Is this who I am? I had fallen into a chasm of binary thinking, not recognizing the given and the chosen as a liminal threshold rather than a game of tug-of-war.

The given and the chosen, the implicit, the hand-picked. I struggled with defining myself throughout my grad school experience. I am an illustrator. I am a fine artist. In the verbal minefield of critique, it felt like I was being forced to choose. An either/or without the option of a yes/and, no space between Thanatos and Eros. By very necessity, my identity had to shift and reconfigure into a protean being. I pushed myself away from drawing and illustrating my interior life. I felt the chasm widen and chose, temporarily, to try and be someone else for a semester.

I was marred by the cynicism Lauterbach felt as she absorbed the news headlines. I understood George Oppen’s anxiety over the erosion of the self as it tumbles through the undertow and is lost in the misplaced-intentioned effort of being too receptive. I missed drawing and the fluidity of my previous practice. I did not care for the labels imposed on me.

They left no room for the threshold. I needed to find that intersection again.

It is impossible to separate the work from the context in which it was created. The mundane trauma of a prolonged global pandemic, the constant simmer of anxiety present in my body since childhood, the outrage over America’s systemic injustice and racism, natural disasters, several other scrapped thesis ideas, family hospitalizations, unhinged insurrection, the bitter poison of loneliness, and the yawning maw of my own depression all coalescing into one final piece so different than how I imagined it a year ago.

Yet, the negatives given were not all that the year entailed. Yes, my thesis paintings hold in them the negative, and the moments of joy I chose to celebrate. The dizzy euphoria of life that exists along with the pain, the beauty that can cause us to step from that threshold into somewhere incandescent.

It was a long journey to my embracing the liminal. When I started graduate school, I was of a mind that a project needed perfection from the onset. In 2019 I bought a ridiculous amount of superfluous, aesthetic things in which to furnish my CCAD Capital-S Studio. String lights, matching stationery, lamps, and throw rugs- things I would never have here in my home studio, where even last year I did most of my work, this cramped chaotic room full of my father’s sneakers.

In my head, art school was an operating theatre. I knew I would have an audience to contend with and I needed to have an extension of myself as an Artist present in a place where I would be surrounded by people just as good as me or better. I wanted to look like I fit in. A kind of professional fake it until you make it, #girlboss Judith Butlerian performance. My own version of Bacon’s genius made manifest through his surroundings: here the perfect studio, Instagram worthy and resplendent. All the while no one is permitted to see the long nights stretched out on the hardwood, reworking my thesis over, back cramping as I draw the vanishing point of my image again and again with eraser shavings caught in my hair.

This is the truth The Studio Seminar imparted: the studio is not a curated trophy of pristine inspiration, but a chaotic atelier of anywhere and everywhere, murmuring into the dark try and try and try again.

I did exactly that, and that led me to Siphonophorae, my foray into the liminality of artmaking. It all burns down to a desire for control/escape/beauty. An image of beauty that holds beneath its surface the tension of memory. The whitehot void of emptiness I tried to fill with something vibrant, complex, and alive. A yes/and of all the energetic shifts of 2020. At the beginning of my last semester as a graduate student, I resolved to create work I would be passionate about, in the vein of Emerson’s hardened heart revitalized by his chosen expression. Lauterbach’s chapter was an affirmation of my resolution for my final thesis semesters. An answer not to the question of who I am (language could not begin to truly lacerate that Gordian knot)- but the question of why.

Q: Why am I doing this? Why do I make art?

A: To have my calcified heart revived.

Notes & References


“Endurance.” Ralph Waldo Emerson: the Major Prose, by Ralph Waldo Emerson et al., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015.

Lauterbach, Ann. The Given and the Chosen. New York: Omnidawn Pub, 2011.

“We are pressed, pressed on each other/We will be told at once/ Of anything that happens/And the discovery of fact bursts/In a paroxysm of emotion/Now as always… We have chosen the meaning/Of being numerous…”

Oppen, George. “Of Being Numerous: Sections 1-22 by George Oppen.” Poetry Foundation.


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