Talking about COVID 19’s possible impacts on art galleries, Phil Anderson, Executive Director of Gallery 1313 said: “Art is usually described as a mirror of time and society so in time we will no doubt see how artists record these times through their art.” Missing the gallery and shows that used to change every two weeks, along with the social life of crowded opening receptions, Anderson reached out to artists and friends to find out how they are coping with this new, sad world. He posted a call for submissions for COVID 19 Portraits through social media and reached out to people he knew in Germany, Italy, France and Japan among other countries. Artists answered the call and sent their work, not only gallery members and friends but artists outside the province and even outside the country. Then he curated the online shows and Mikael Sandblom organized the portraits into wonderful Portrait tableauxs with pulsating images that give the illusion of life.
COVID-19 PORTRAITS I
We may never know what caused the pandemic. Could it be military research for a biological weapon that went wrong and leaked out of the laboratory? The Earth reacting to overpopulation by eliminating the elderly? The guessing goes on – but it doesn’t really matter now. What does matter is our reaction to it, how our governments are handling it and how we, as individuals live through it.
Many of us had the same reaction at the beginning of our isolation: it’s not so bad now as we have time to do what we want (write an article in my case), create more artwork, read, watch all the movies we planned to see but had no time for before. We have also come to know that time is not everything. Personally, I finished my article in early May about the Sarah Sze’s show I saw in late February. I was very enthusiastic about it and collected all the material I needed, but the desire to write it just wasn’t enough. Somehow, I think we’ve all become discouraged. We are social animals, and isolation is hard. We cannot go to galleries, can’t discuss our ideas with friends in a cafe or over a glass of wine – using Messenger or Skype is just not the same. So, we didn’t do that much at first, stayed in front of our computers, got stressed out by bad news, overwhelmed by tragedies and deaths happening all over the planet. But deep inside we still had the strength to overcome those difficulties and continue to do what we believe in, what we love the most – and so we did.
COVID- 19 Portraits II
Even though they say they work in isolation most of the time, artists are creative creatures who must show and share their work. The portraits that are exhibited online are wonderful manifestations of art itself, how artists can survive anything to fulfill their mission in holding mirror up to all the times, good and bad. Most of the participating artists accompanied their image with a few, meaningful words – so the exhibition became more than a portrait gallery, it became storytelling, documenting their feelings, thoughts and lives under these unusual circumstances. Ramona Pavilionis, thinking of the spirit of life, quotes Henry Miller: “There is nothing wrong with life itself. It is the ocean in which we swim and we either adapt to it or sink to the bottom. But it is in our power as human beings not to pollute the waters of life, not to destroy the spirit which animates us.” Good Spirit is what we need now and those artists who sent their work in, have it for sure — they even have enough to share with others.
People reacted to the treat of the pandemic in different ways. I think at first, we feared the illness itself, — the danger we knew from our history with plagues and the Spanish Flu — and the fear of all the unknown ways this novel virus would impact us. These portrait exhibitions reflect the current times in many ways: the anxiety, the fear, the sadness, the unspoken.
Eva Lewarne compares the darkness of the pandemic to the plague in Plague I. The figure is dressed in dark clothes, even her head is covered with a scarf, with only one eye and the surrounding skin visible. Is she already infected or are these just precautions like wearing masks are now? Mikael Sandblom in his short video recalls his dreams of the city buildings being disintegrated into smoke and water – giving voice to our fears that our living spaces will never be the same again.
Eva Lewarne, Plague 1
Mikael Sandblom, Dream, video still
Nika Belianina in Dare to Grasp portrays herself at the entrance to a deep cave. In other times it might have been an invitation to new adventures, but now it represents danger. As the artist writes, “I tried to escape reality only to be confronted by the unknown forces.” It is so beautifully photographed that we tend to forget the scary circumstances, even if just for a moment.
Nika Belianina, Dare to Grasp
Physical Distance 3, a manipulated photograph by Lois Schklar, transforms burlap covered bushes into figures that remind us of the statues on Easter Island. As the stone figures are lonely there, these burlap sacks seem isolated too, powerful and vulnerable at the same time. The “positive” side of social distancing is more space for all of us — almost too much space — so Phil Anderson can photograph himself in the middle of a totally empty Lansdowne Avenue, where, in normal times, standing there would mean certain death.
Lois Schklar, Physical Distance 3
Phil Anderson, Self portrait
While we can go out occasionally as long as we practise social distancing, we’re mostly supposed to stay at home in isolation and that’s the most difficult part. Steve Stober portrays himself safe in the distance, wearing a scarf for mask and standing outside his building with a cardboard sign like those usually held by the homeless begging for money, saying: I AM BORED. For sure, he is not alone in that feeling.
Steve Stober, Self portrait
Locked inside we do things that we would otherwise ignore. Lisa Anita Wegner’s Madonna of Debris: Junk Drawer Icon shows an open drawer that reveal all the treasures we forgot, leaving them to became junk. Some will curl up in despair as Tae Ess Uxmal painting demonstrates or study their gloved hands endlessly like Lilianne Schneider does and turn the documentation of it into artwork.
Lisa Anita Wegner, Madonna of Debris: Junk Drawer Icon
Tae Ess Uxmal, Reigniting Passion
Lilianne Schneider, Moving hand with latex
Social distancing and isolation also mean staying away from family members and friends. Maybe that is the part that has hit me the hardest. Walking and talking 2 m apart is no big deal. Keeping contact with relatives and friends when geographical distance is involved is more complicated, since we can’t travel now. Marie Estebanez tells a wonderful story about friendship. Three of the black and white photographs shot by homemade pinhole cameras were made in April in Paris with the same building in the background. The portraits depict the gestures of Estabenez’s friends, as they sit at a café table. Her own “portrait” without a figure, shows a different building, more likely here in Toronto, with an empty bed. All the images express the passing of time and melancholia. Estebanez was worried that the pandemic might end her relationship with her friends but, on the contrary, it became even stronger through this state of emergency. John Hryniuk brings to our attention that the pandemic has no prejudice. He depicts a gay couple as warriors fighting the virus together with all their combined strengths.
Marie Estebanez, Milena (left) and Marie (right)
John Hryniuk, Couple
Even when we have to cover our faces with masks, we look for ways to meet the impossible challenge of keeping our unique identities. In his drawing, Sadko Hadzihasanovic wears a scarf with Che Guevara’s smiling portrait printed on it, titled Che Against Corona, suggesting that the political hero would stand up against all wrongs. Kat Hz, who lost her full-time position as an art teacher because of the pandemic, still gets up at 7am each day and continues to make art. Honestly, I admire her dedication.
Sadko Hadzihasanovic, Che Against Corona
Kat Hz, Self portrait
Many artworks address the state of the artists’ mind and the complexity of their feelings. Shohreh Edalat expresses her confusion well both in her artwork and words: “I’m full of wondering, fear, sadness, anger, dull, hope, calm, dialectic, patient, stress, … strange mixed feelings… I’m in the blind vision.”
Polat Canpolat, from Turkey, creates a portrait that is all artificial, titled Freeky. An altered gasmask covers her mouth, another papier-mâché mask hides her face with metal slots for the eyes, her head is covered with something a scarecrow would wear with rug ribbons replacing the hair. A smiling face on the gasmask tries to add some fun, while the word ‘freeky’ is written on it – and indeed, freaky it is. Churls Mitchell’s piece is the most beautiful. Fabrics of all colors and patterns turned artfully into mask, headdress and what seems to be a warm coat with a hood. It is much more than what a cold spring day calls for. It is a royal outfit for an indigenous princess, a wonderful product of folklore and artistic fantasy. Time well spent in making it.
Polat CANPOLAT, Freeky
At the end of the day our last hopes are for the professional caregivers, the doctors and nurses. Christina Damianos, an artist and a nurse, quotes Florence Nightingale, comparing art making to taking care of the living body, “the temple of God’s spirit.” There are portraits of overworked, dead-tired nurses with red eyes, leaving the bedside of one patient who has just died to go on to care for the next one (Kimberley Whitchurch, New York City Nurse). These healthcare workers can’t be thanked enough for the unimaginable hardship they’re going through; they are the heroes and heroines of these sorrowful times.
Christina Damianos, Nurse
Kimberley Whitchurch, New York City Nurse
COVID-19 Portraits are very meaningful online exhibitions that we hope will generate an ongoing dialogue. As Anderson wrote, “Not sure what that might look like with social distancing and Covid-19 protocols but I am ready to adapt and embrace the future.” Aren’t we all?
Images are courtesy of the artists and Gallery 1313.
*Exhibition information: COVID-19 PORTRAIDS I, II and the recently posted III are online exhibitions, to see all images please go to Gallery 1313’s website: