Analogizing a Pandemic
by Lester Strong
Analog: something that is analogous or similar to something else; analogize: to compare by analogy.
In a catalog essay for her most recent exhibition, titled Analog Time, currently on show at the DC Moore Gallery in the Chelsea art district of Manhattan, New York City-based artist Carrie Moyer writes: “This has been a year of doubt. Every day I wake startled to recall that my world has been completely remade in a confluence of two very different, but long-foreseen crises. Part suspended animation, part a galloping extension of the universe, it’s been all about negotiating the mobius of interior and exterior, micro and macro.”
From the COVID-19 pandemic to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, to the national election last November, to the storming of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC, on January 6 this year by followers of Donald Trump, the past year has indeed been a period of doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, and upset—a traumatic period unpleasant and difficult to live through. For Moyer, a professor of art at Hunter College in New York, it has meant a year of long-distance teaching via Zoom instead of in person at her college and months of confinement to the neighborhood where she lives and has her studio. “I became intimately acquainted with the 25 blocks between my studio and apartment,” she comments in her catalog essay.
Moyer used those months to explore through her art how the trauma we’ve all been living through has affected her personally, especially in regard to the COVID pandemic.
In regard to the psychological effects of COVID, the closest recent comparison, medically speaking, that I can think of was the early years of the AIDS pandemic, which for the gay community was certainly also a period of doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, and upset. AIDS too, like COVID, was politicized negatively, and by many of the same social groups that have been so problematic in terms of COVID: ignorant bigots so entrenched in their own fears that they are willing to sacrifice compassion, the lives of those stricken with the disease, science, and ultimately reason itself to promote their own mistaken views of the world.
But the differences between the two pandemics are very pronounced. Many people these days can relate to the sense of suspended animation COVID has produced. But AIDS produced no such feeling that I can recall. Instead, quite early on among the LGBTQ population, it led to a huge surge of activism, with the creation of organizations like GMHC, ACT-UP, God’s Love We Deliver, and community-based medical research organizations like ACRIA. Also early on it produced quite a visual response in terms of photography, drawing, painting, film. Just think of artists like Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz, or art groups like Gran Fury, General Idea, and the AIDS Names Quilt, who were in large part responsible for producing the images, slogans, and activist demonstrations that promoted awareness not just among the LGBTQ population but the general population as well of the devastation caused by the disease.
Carrie Moyer may not be the only artist to respond to COVID in her work, but she’s the only one to do so that I’m aware of, and quite a response it is. Her work is known for its vivid explosions of saturated colors and abstract biomorphic forms incorporating glitter and sand. My first reaction on visiting the show and reading Moyer’s catalog essay was to wonder how those elements could capture anything of this COVID era in a visual sense on canvas or paper. After all, as Moyer has stated: “I feel like color is basically a kind of joy. It’s magical” [A&U, April 20, 2017, p. 31]. COVID, on the other hand, feels more like a nightmare than anything joyful, and if it’s magical, more likely than not it’s a form of black magic. Then I recalled her words that living through the last year for her has “been all about negotiating the mobius of interior and exterior, micro and macro.”
In other words, the last year in terms of her art has been an exploration through her paintings on canvas and paper of how living through the pandemic has affected herself as an artist and as a person. She’s not out to educate anyone about the pandemic itself, as was the aim of so much art related to AIDS, but to discover how living with COVID has affected her in the innermost core of her being.
It’s clear that the art on display in Analog Time involves no sense of the “suspended animation” mentioned in her catalog essay. Instead it suggests the “galloping extension of the universe” she also mentioned. It’s agitated in regard to both color and design, providing the eye with nowhere to rest. This is hardly unusual in Moyers’ work, to which anyone familiar with it can attest. But the agitation in these pieces—all completed in 2020 or 2021—is different in a number of ways. For example, Rosewater and Brimstone by its very title suggests something sinister. And in the upper right part of the painting, there’s the suggestion of a woman holding a small child, with portions of both figures painted in a reddish-brown color suggestive of dried blood. Lower down on the right side there is what looks like the pointy end of a knife, also painted reddish-brown, ready to penetrate the serene blue of a vertical line. Certainly dried blood and a pointy knife are both suggestive of physical harm, perhaps even of death (by police murder? by asphyxiation via the COVID-19 virus? does it matter?). Not exactly images aimed at exciting the eye in a joyful way.
In her catalog essay, Moyer also notes another effect of the pandemic on her work: “Many of the paintings . . . are marked by a ‘down-shift’ in palette. Greyed-out hues slip in where sunny unadulterated colors once had been.” Analog #5, with its subdued colors, illustrates this effect very well. Moreover, the central figure, painted in a very subdued brown color, seems to be trapped in a tangle of vines or perhaps ropes painted in black, greyed-out blue, and greyed-out red and yellow. There is color and movement in this piece, but they feel neither joyous nor magical. Instead they convey struggle, surely one of the hallmark feelings the COVID-19 crisis has instilled in all of us. And, it should be noted, they also convey a sense of desperation many, if not most, of the black citizens living in this country must feel in the face of the possible police brutality they must confront every day.
Returning to the words “analog” and “analogizing”: The past year has induced in many of us feelings of both distance from our “real” lives and being trapped in a world of crisis that seems to have no end. Analog time. Art creates its own world, but in so doing analogizes the real world, which is the only source it can utilize for the colors, the emotions, and usually even the visual subject matter it needs to create its images. During her year in analog time, Carrie Moyer has managed to produce a remarkable body of work attesting to that difficult period.
DC Moore Gallery is located at 535 West 22 Street, New York, NY 10011; Analog Time runs through May 1, 2021.
Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe: Tabernacles for Trying Times runs May 22, 2021, through February 13, 2022, at the Museum of Arts and Design, located at Columbus Circle in New York City’s borough of Manhattan.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.