A few weeks after we all went into restricted movement, I noticed I started to paint abstracts rather than more realistic pieces.
Everything was so chaotic. Was the virus a hoax? Was it just like getting a case of the flu? Could you get it more than once? Should we take hydroxychloroquine or drink disinfectant?
The chaos in my brain began spilling onto canvases covered with blotches of color with no sense of form or cohesiveness. A month later, I have quit doing any pieces. Instead I’ve started creating illusions in my house: barn doors that don’t lead to anywhere or serve any purpose, vintage Mexican pieces made from pressboard and sheetrock.
COVID-19 has been compared with the Spanish influenza of 1918, and I began researching the impact of that pandemic on artists. I learned that the outbreak magnified the turmoil of those times. World War I and the flu, combined with political upheavals (such as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of newly-formed communist governments) and social issues (such as gender and income inequality) created a perception of the universe as chaotic and hopeless.
A sense of meaninglessness spread, and people started to lose faith in their governments, existing social structures and accepted moral values. Everyday life felt ridiculous. The art movements that came out of this period explored this hopelessness, tried to fight against it and showed the ways in which everyone was trying to cope.
To some artists dealing with the horrors of the time, abstraction was a way to escape reality. Abstraction reflected how the world felt at that time: red for blood, black for despair, amorphous shapes reflecting the dissolving of norms and the craziness abounding.
The Dada movement seized on this absurdity as inspiration. The Dadaists wanted to create a new form of art, one that could replace previous notions altogether. Collage became a popular medium at the time and many artists dealt with the modern era and the horrors of war by cutting, reassembling and remixing; a good example of art imitating life.
Dadaist George Grosz painted “The Funeral” in 1918 as a protest against “a humanity that had gone insane.” It’s a nightmare of dehumanized figures whose faces reflect alcohol, syphilis and plague.
Just as the 1918 flu pandemic was an inescapable part of the sense of the time, the coronavirus pandemic has become so today. Though we might not know exactly how COVID-19 will affect art and art movements to come, the visual culture has already shifted.
As a result of the quarantine, nude selfies have become high art. Much of the new work being produced now reflects the isolation and fear we are all facing. Some artists, confined to their homes, are creating smaller, more personally-revealing pieces and are finding inspiration within their four walls. Even graffiti artists, forced to abandon the streets and stay home are using their own walls to make social commentary.
It’s been interesting to see how my personal artistic journey over the past few months of quarantine is really a reflection of what happens in the art world when there is global turmoil. I’ve done abstracts, painted on my walls but I draw the line at nude selfies.
(Jo’l Moore is the president of the Belen Art League Gallery and Gifts. Contact her at [email protected] or call 861-0217.)