Invisible Art

Art and the coronavirus: Reviewing an art show you can no longer go to see

On my way to Salem recently to review Capturing Power: Works on Paper from the Permanent Collection, an exhibit at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, I had a realization: I was going to write a review to encourage people to leave their homes and gather in a social space. Was that really a wise idea?

I said goodbye to my husband, who had hours before received word that his employer, Lane Community College, would be shutting down its campus to students.

“Be careful,” he said as if I was embarking on a dangerous mission.

The exhibit’s curator, Jonathan Bucci, and I had set up our meeting more than a month ago. Though I was well aware by the day of our appointment that people were being advised to stay at home if they could, I told myself that someone had to do the important work of looking at a show on the representation of power and writing about it.

I went to reception and asked for Bucci.

“He’s not here,” the woman at the desk said.

So I went upstairs to the Print Study Center, where the exhibit was on display, and looked at the art on my own. On the way up I couldn’t help thinking I’d gotten out of a close encounter.

Now I could talk to Bucci on the phone instead of meeting in person.

I looked at the artworks, an eclectic group of drawings, photographs and prints done by artists that included Jacob Lawrence, Henk Pander, Roger Shimomura and Jeremy Red Star Wolf. The emphasis of the show, Bucci stated in the introductory statement, was on “power and power relationships.”

Even then, the day after Gov. Kate Brown made her announcement banning events of 250 or more people, I did not comprehend the power President Donald Trump had been trying to wield over the message of the coronavirus, as if the virus were a political opponent. I knew his advice to people to go to work even if not feeling well was contradictory to the medical community’s. But not until the next day, after listening to the news more myself, would I fully understand, had we a different president in power — someone who valued expert opinion — we might have likely started taking precautionary steps weeks, even a month beforehand.

Leaving the show I passed a man walking hurriedly by.

“Are you Ester?” he asked.

And so I met Bucci. He apologized for his lateness; he had just found out his painting class was going online and had been trying to figure out how to do that. After referencing the videos of Bob Ross, we discussed how one might teach a virtual studio class. We talked about the show some, too, but the conversation kept going back to the news that Willamette University, home to the museum, had just announced it was closing its campus.

Is art that’s not seen still art? I asked this question to an art history professor of mine when I was in graduate school. We were talking about art that never got into the public sphere. For instance, if Vincent van Gogh’s paintings had never been seen by the rest of the world — which they nearly weren’t — would they still be considered art?

The professor’s answer was “no.”

He wasn’t speaking though about art in museums that are suddenly closed. Those galleries on campus, as well as the plays in Eugene and on Broadway or the shows in Las Vegas, will reopen. Whether performance or visual, the works will be seen and heard again.

Meanwhile Eugene’s First Friday Art Walk for April is canceled. And I got an email from the Hallie Ford Museum of Art: “We hate to close our galleries and cancel our programs,” museum director John Olbrantz writes, “but the threat of the spread of COVID-19 is too great to take lightly.”

As a contributing writer to Eugene Weekly I work from home. I have been to the physical building that houses EW exactly once. This last week, though, I’ve never been so aware that working from home is dependent on the idea that readers are free to gather in groups. Gathering around art gives it life, makes it real to a culture at large.

In touch with several artist friends this week, it seems the restriction to meet socially might result in an incubation period where artists forced to stay inside are coming up with more work to be shared at some later time in the future — when it’s safe.

This article was supposed to be a review on Capturing Power. Now it’s a message to the powers that be: Let’s listen to the experts.

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