Restorative, communicative, and hopeful in a crumbling world

Struggling to find my voice as the country disintegrates. Not confident that I should write at all, as words seem futile in the midst of state-sanctioned violence. The attacks–both the direct brutality of uniformed thugs and the indirect aggression of massive leadership failure–leave me scared and angry. But what about the activity that I always turn to, what about the act of looking, what about artistic practice? Where does art making fit into this crumbling world? 

I have written about Nirmal Raja’s work previously, and now she is working on another really interesting project she calls Feeble Barriers. The work is intimate and ambitious, beautiful and wrenching. The creation of these new delicate objects has unfolded on Instagram and the entire body of work created so far is on view at the Grove Gallery during July 2020.

Nirmal Raja, Feeble Barriers

The artist has posted a short video about the current installation, and she was interviewed about the work by the UW Center for Design and Material Culture. The project is on-going, as Raja continues to gather thoughts from medical professionals across the globe who are working in pandemic response. As a daily practice, the artist stitches their words onto delicate face masks constructed of sheer cotton organdy. The individual pieces are ghosts of personal protective equipment, their fragile structure bearing the worry that pours from mouths that are hopefully shielded by more functional barriers. 

The resulting work is thoughtful and terrifying. So far, 75 masks have been made. There is desperation in the words from these frontline workers: they speak of racial inequalities, personal fears, and societal dangers. These are individuals who are committed to saving our lives, here they describe the personal, tragic impact of the pandemic.

The fragility of these masks suggests a profound contradiction: the very idea that protecting life takes only a piece of fabric. It is a humbling thing. So easy an action–wearing a mask–makes its refusal confounding. A small thing to ask, the fabric placed between you and me. There are people selling useless masks on Etsy–crocheted items that in their creation mock the deaths and losses the world is enduring. Such action raises the specter of what exactly is it that is feeble here? The sheer cotton organdy, the fragility of over-stressed medical frontlines, the actual PPE, or the fact that any controversy exists at all about the use of masks to prevent the spread of an airborne virus? 

Raja’s use of delicate handwork to represent healthcare workers’ personal experiences is powerful, yet it is frustrating in its existence. It is devastating that we need work like this. But in her choice of a close and time-consuming method like hand-stitching, this artist honors the dedication of the medical professionals who are trying every day to save our lives. This project demands attention to their (and our) plight. 

Nirmal Raja, Feeble Barriers

Another exhibit, at The Warehouse in Milwaukee, presents a different kind of connection during this period of isolation. On display into October, I Am A Story: Self-Portraits provides an opportunity to see a variety of faces, an activity that I found surprisingly refreshing after weeks of mostly online interactions.

Many artists are included. Carol Pylant’s representation of the intense stare of a tension-ridden younger self, and Richard Diebenkorn’s drypoint face made from lines that divide the plate into discrete areas like those in his landscape paintings, provide contemplative relief. Della Wells is represented with a painted and collaged side-glance self-portrait commissioned for the exhibit. Pat Steir inserts herself into art history as Caravaggio’s Medusa and Rembrandt in a Cap, and Ann Hamilton presents herself as gorgeously obscured.

This is a really nice show to visit, although with very little interpretation available the experience is limited to looking and responding rather than learning anything about these artists and their representational choices. But that’s exactly what I needed right now, a chance to see some new faces and think about something other than my four walls and the crumbling world.  

Restorative, communicative, hopeful. The physical experience of looking allows access to other people–through their handmade objects or their representations of self–at a time when distance is required for personal safety. Human connection is worth pursuing right now, and saving. Despite the terror, the anger, and the fear, we have to keep trying. It may be a struggle to get through every day, but acknowledging what we have and reminding ourselves what we fight for, continues to be a vital effort.  

An Ocean Spilling Over the Floor

Sarah FitzSimons is showing her magnificent Pacific Quilt at Hawthorn Contemporary here in Milwaukee. The exhibition is called Ocean Object, and features the enormous textile, in addition to related drawings and smaller sewn works by this Madison-based artist.

The exhibition at Hawthorn is an unusual opportunity to see this work. It flows over the floor, filling up the center space of a fairly large room. Basically a quilted bathometric map, the gallery describes the work as:

Pacific Quilt spans 21 ft x 24 ft with one inch representing 25 miles. In translation from ocean to quilt, varying shades of blue fabric convey underwater topography and sewn quilt lines extend out in organic swirls to describe surface currents.

The quilt can be seen in its entirety, as it is laid out on the gallery floor. It is envisioned by the artist as useable, despite being distinctly non-utilitarian, as it is very big (my museum background sent cascades of red flags: it will get dirty! how could such a large textile be cleaned! would it fit in my car?). Too large to be easily transported, too immense for any bed, and indeed most rooms. What would it be like to be wrapped in such a vast sea?

The Pacific Ocean defined my childhood and my young adulthood. A transplanted Californian, I still retain the (now problematic) habit of assuming that large water indicates a westerly direction. I played in that ocean, looked out over it, turned green with seasickness while out on it, almost drowned in it (saved by an unknown surfer), and have wandered along its wet sand from San Diego to Arcata. I have also sat on one of its beaches and looked east, towards a very distant home, marveling at the circuit my life had made, from conception to adulthood, across that expanse of water.

Maybe due to the recent disruption of moving to a new job and a new city, I wanted to locate something of me, of my experience, in this blue expanse on the gallery floor. I found myself walking around the Pacific Quilt looking for familiar spots–San Francisco Bay and Baja California—which are geographically distinct and turn out to be identifiable even at this scale. I walked around the entire blue, undulating ocean, from the Arctic, along Asia, to the Antarctic and up along the Americas. And on a quilted map of the Pacific floor, on the floor of a gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was able to find something known, a small connection to home, a confirmation of myself.

Vast, unimaginable, powerful, beautiful. Bathometry to bedroom, ocean floor on gallery floor. Traveling the circumference of the Pacific Rim, gazing over the depths and islands, bays and continents. Imagine wrapping yourself in the ocean blue. Pacific Quilt is on view from June 8 – August 23, 2019 at Hawthorn Contemporary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.