Albums of the quarantine: Self Portraits at Ursuline’s Wasmer Gallery
The digital exhibit Self Portraits: Artists Respond to COVID-19 is the result of an open call by Anna Arnold. As the director of the Florence O’Donnell Wasmer Gallery at Ursuline College, Arnold invited any visual artist to submit an image of themselves reflecting their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
About 100 works were selected for display from 72 submitting artists. The show features images by artists around the country, and in India, Sweden, Finland, Egypt, and Taiwan. However, most creators are immediately recognizable to Northeast Ohio art scenesters.
Many artists took the “self-portrait” prompt literally, depicting their personages in varying degrees of realism. A majority donned protective face masks. Scrolling through the Wasmer’s Flickr gallery, the immediate impression is a mosaic of wrapped faces. The PPE “uniform,” seen on so many people of different ages and backgrounds, in so many different artistic styles, inspires feelings of community. Many people, working apart from each other, are faced with the same unprecedented challenge. They are doing the small things they can to keep each other safe. The mask—normally, a cultural signifier of criminality or vigilantism—here becomes a flag of solidarity.
The masked self-portraits are varied enough not to be repetitive. Some artists wear plain, white, medical-style masks. Others, like Jacques P. Jackson and Douglas Max Utter, improvised with equipment from their artistic practices. They show themselves in paint respirators with large, visible filters. Karen Jewel-Kett dons a geometric-patterned bandana; Linda Zolten Wood hand-painted her mask with pink and orange flowers.
Samantha Carey displays one of the most original takes on the “self-portrait” prompt, and also puts the PPE masked-face to novel use. Carey’s own face appears nowhere in her painting’s frame. Instead, we see her arm reaching out a car window, grasping for a tray of drinks passed by a McDonald’s worker. Named only as “Essential Worker” in the painting’s title, the figure wears the chain’s usual uniform of gray polo and gray baseball cap, plus a mask, goggles, and gloves. Under the face coverings and baggy clothes, all bodily markers of gender expression (chest, hips, facial hair or the lack thereof) are hidden. Over the worker’s right shoulder, a cloud of red and green coronavirus microbes swarm like flies. None of the virus structures are quite close enough to land on the cashier; but they could make contact at any time.
The scene expresses the painful ambivalence which defines interactions between at-risk service workers and those with the luxury of working from home. Fear and disgust pervade the situation. Carey dares only to extend one wrapped hand towards the McDonalds worker, and imagines them standing in a miasma of pathogens. But there is also compassion. In choosing which angle to depict herself from, Carey excludes the possibility of showing her face. She hides her face, as if in shame of her fear. We can, however, see the worker’s eyes. Above their mask, they look straight towards both where we must infer the painter’s face is. The gaze also meets the viewer’s own face. The worker’s flesh is pale, whitish-pink, soft, and vulnerable. And their ambiguous gender expression makes them, potentially, a universal stand-in for any viewer. They are human and vulnerable in the midst of a plague. This is the condition of everyone in 2020, whether or not they realize it. But “essential” workers—who were already economically distressed and socially marginalized long before coronavirus—are especially vulnerable.
Carey’s “Essential Worker” could be said to be one of the more fanciful representational works in the show, or one of the more mimetic abstract works. Many of the “self-portraits” here are introspective, symbolist, or caricatures.
Using collage elements, paint, and pencil, Suzi Zimmerer created a journal entry for April 4 of this year. It depicts journey of a figure floating through a blue void. She reaches towards a crystalline torch ablaze with pink fire. Her world is dreamlike, detached from time.
In one of the exhibit’s few sculptures, Ron White takes up arms against the pandemic. His bust aims a bottle of Purell with one hand, and winds up to throw a cylinder of toilet paper like a Molotov cocktail. Using chalk-like acrylic colors on black paper, Tom Megalis depicts a more frantic state of mind. Megalis, labelled the “Big Ideas Man,” stands in a vortex of fantasies and memories. “Stay away from everyone,” intones stern, jet-black figure time-stamped April 2. A maternal figure in a white smock walks a swaddled infant into the water, as if for a baptism. Above her, a man sits and fishes with human bait tied up by the ankles. “He’s all grown up,” the fisherman says. The wish for “Rescue” sits in Big Ideas Man’s open palm. It stands on birdlike legs, and waves tentacles around itself. Big Ideas Man opens his eyes wild and wide. A deranged smile contorts his lips. Bernadette Calnon Buote shows us the inside of her body on microscopic scales. The forms of rivers, bubbles, tendrils, and flower buds are cast as veins, cells, neurons, and protein strings.