Contemporary artists have a propensity for creatively responding to their times, so it’s no surprise that the 46th installment of the Weatherspoon Art Museum’s “Art on Paper” exhibition series features several works directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a show that emphasizes straightforward drawing, Eric Hibit’s “Flowers and Textile Series” stands out for its directness and simplicity. An accompanying wall text notes that Hibit made these 20 drawings of flowers and Moroccan textiles while self-sequestered at his home during the pandemic’s initial year.
Leah Sobsey collected plant specimens while taking long walks during the same socially constrained period. From these specimens she extracted natural juices and applied them to the leaves, fronds, and other delicate plant components in her cameo-format “antholumens.”
These are essentially photographs made by placing the specially treated botanical specimens on photographic paper and exposing it directly to the sun. For the exhibition Sobsey has installed 18 of them in a grid titled “Lumen Love.”
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At least since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the recitation of victims’ names has become a standard mode of honoring those killed in mass-casualty events. Terry Berkowitz turns this tradition to artistic purpose in her multi-media installation “Notebook of the Plague,” another pandemic-related piece.
The titular notebook is filled with page after page of handmade slash-marks in groups of five — four verticals crossed by a diagonal. They’re neatly arranged in columns so that each page contains 1,000 marks — theoretically one mark for each individual COVID-19 death.
Displayed in a small vitrine, this sad document is accompanied by a video showing Berkowitz’ hand in close-up as she makes these simple, anonymous markings. On the audio track, her voice recites the names of the people these slash marks represent.
Although they’re not directly related to the pandemic, each of the show’s six small drawings by Winston-Salem artist Louis Watts is likewise composed of seemingly countless anonymous markings — in this case hashtag marks, so tiny they’re only visible at extremely close range.
While these coded markings are familiar from social media, the subjects of Watts’ drawings are all too familiar from daily experience in the modern world. Each is a precisely minimalistic rendering of a familiar advertising sign — the kind routinely elevated on tall, streamlined posts to mark the locations of gas stations, fast-food emporiums and other franchise businesses lining major roadways in all but the most remote regions. By removing the brand names and logos from these signs, Watts has subverted their original purpose, rendering them anonymously generic and raising questions about how we respond to commercial cues in the landscape.
Another North Carolinian, Eleanor Annand uses paper as a sculptural medium in two installations that can be viewed as metaphors for social conditions during the pandemic. The oval-shaped, cast-paper relief forms that make up her piece titled “Suspend III,” are painted in pastel colors and hung on 22 wall-mounted pegs that allow for myriad other configurations.
“Temporary Monuments,” is an installation of compact, 3-D, geometrically configured forms made of cardboard painted in shades of gray. Like the components of Annand’s previously described piece, this grouping is almost endlessly variable within its own limits.
Notwithstanding Annand’s installations and a few other works — including May Tveit’s two geometric wall reliefs made from precision-cut, corrugated box cardboard — the exhibition is dominated by drawings. In addition to previously discussed examples by Eric Hibit, the show features figurative drawings by Benjamin Degen, Harrison Haynes and Robyn O’Neal. Landscape is an essential element in all of their work.
Degen’s trio of big ink drawings present cartoon-style close-ups of a lone human figure — or parts of him — in three outdoor settings. Haynes’ smaller drawings, similarly stripped-down in style, depict seemingly random objects abandoned in the Florida swamp named in the series title, “Everglades 01-20.” An accompanying text notes the connection between these drawings and Haynes’ memories of a plane crash in the Everglades some years ago — a disaster in which a family friend was killed.
The only indication of human presence in O’Neal’s three drawings is the radiant tortilla hovering mysteriously in the sky at the center of “Everybody Loves Something (even if it’s only tortillas).” Otherwise these panoramic mountain landscapes — majestic if roughly rendered — might represent other worlds with no traces of human life.
More technically nuanced than any of show’s other drawings is “The One Time I Dreamed It, It Came True,” a visionary, mixed-media composition by Amaryllis deJesus Moleski. It depicts three versions of a voluptuous female figure undergoing a spiritual transformation, gazing heavenward with a conspicuously wide-open “third eye” in the middle of her forehead, while blue flames flicker at her feet and tiny cartoon ghosts ascend from the ground.
Other highlights of the exhibition include two other variations on lone human figures, each conveying its own messages and carrying its own particular associations. The one in Nate Lewis’ mixed-media piece titled “Probing the Land 9 (Charles Aycock, after the fire)” is based on a heroic bronze sculpture of a N.C. politician who became the state’s governor in the late 19th century. Often lauded for promoting public education, Aycock has faced increasing posthumous criticism for his outspoken racism.
The fire referenced in the title of Lewis’ piece is the conflagration that destroyed much of black Wilmington during a racist coup which overthrew the city’s legitimately elected, black-dominated local government in 1898 — a violently illegal action that Aycock supported.
Through the intervention of collage, Lewis subverts the statue’s heroic representation of the erstwhile governor. He depicts Aycock eviscerated, with his entrails torn from his body and glowing pink against the otherwise dark figural form — a startling visual echo of countless black lynching victims, the “strange fruit” of popular song.
In a formally related vein is Gonzalo Fuenmayor’s “Botanical Improvisation #4,” a large-format charcoal drawing that employs one of Robert Longo’s trademark figurative-realist drawings as a departure point. In Fuenmayor’s version, Longo’s physically contorted figure is almost completely obscured by the large, luxuriant leaves of a Colocasia or elephant ears plant.
The 46th “Art on Paper” also includes a mythologically referenced narrative drawing by Julie Buffalohead and striking, abstract compositions by Ivana Milojevick Beck, Al Denyer, Carmen Neely and Julia Rooney.