Pandemic, Postpartum, Post-Urban

more than everMy life as I knew it ended on Thursday, March 12, 2020, though I didn’t know it or expect it.  I took the subway to work for the last time, a nearly two-hour journey from my home in Brooklyn to the Evander Childs campus in the Bronx for a walkthrough of their AP and pre-AP English classes with Shoshana from the superintendent’s office and the school’s principal and assistant principal.  I grabbed a mediocre second breakfast for the last time at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Gun Hill Road, and ate lunch with Shoshana for the last time at the Cherry Valley Marketplace across the street from the school.  It was an utterly ordinary day that started like many others in the past four years of my career, but the signs were already there: Shoshana and I had offered, earlier in the week, to cancel or reschedule the visit as schools began to tremble with rumors of COVID-19 infection; she drove me home, insistent that I shouldn’t be on the subway anymore considering that I was thirty weeks pregnant.  Rush hour in midtown Manhattan looked like an early Sunday morning, nearly devoid of both pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

I view my calendar for mid-March and I can see life ground to a halt: the book club meeting scheduled for Friday, March 13 was cancelled, as was the West Village Chorale’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil on Sunday, March 15.  After that, the calendar just empties out, dotted only with doctors’ appointments and reminders to water my plants.  I can look back and see my friend Daniel’s daughter Sophia’s Bat Mitzvah the previous weekend, and laugh, quietly and bitterly, at the memory of bumping elbows and ostentatiously availing myself of hand sanitizer while we sat cheek by jowl with two hundred or so folks at Beth Elohim (indoors!  a house of worship!  how naive we were!).  A little further sees a reminder of our babymoon in Mexico at the end of February (airports!  restaurants!  vague reports of some virus out of China on CNN out of the corners of our eyes while we waited for our flights!  it boggles the imagination); a little further than that and there’s the last show we saw on Broadway, To Kill a Mockingbird starring Ed Harris as Atticus; a little further than that and there is the ultimate forbidden treat, a professional haircut.  It is who I was: urbane, cultured, sociable.  It is hard to believe that I was any of those things, harder still to believe that I still am any of those things after three-plus months of YouTube-ing and Zoom-ing into church and book club and cutting my own bangs with too-large scissors and gritted teeth before my bathroom mirror and, now, nursing a baby according to her weeks-old whims.  Any day I manage to put pants on is a classy one.

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Take Me to Art 11/16/19: Postwar Women at the Art Students’ League

What is the case for exhibiting women artists as women artists?  Postwar Women, at the Art Students’ League through December 1st, unites the visions of women artists in the later twentieth century in such a way as to both pose and answer questions of how women artists see, and to make a case for collecting these visions in one space that tells a story across painting, sculpture, and mixed media.

Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold both look into the past, in some cases the very distant past.  Catlett’s “Standing Mother and Child” and “The Door of Justice” both recall African mask traditions (I am not an expert, but for me they evoke the Dean gle of the Dan people of Liberia) in the stylized but steady faces…

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“Standing Mother and Child” and “The Door of Justice,” Elizabeth Catlett

…while Faith Ringgold recontextualizes the famous remains of “Lucy” as those of a beloved ancestor by placing a miniature skeleton in a gold coffin, surrounded by flowers and colorful fabric.  The scale is intimate and familiar, the notes in block printing on plain white paper, bringing Lucy out of the museum and into a setting that feels funereal, reverent, and joyous all at once.

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“Lucy, the 3.5 Million Year Old Lady,” Faith Ringgold

Catlett and Ringgold both look behind to look forward, reaching into the past to bring dignity and tenderness to depictions of people of African heritage.  The explicit embrace of African history and artistic traditions reminds me of El Anatsui or Yinka Shonibare; the affection the artists radiate towards their subjects brings to mind Kehinde Wiley.  But ultimately, the modest dimensions lead to a different interpretation, distinct from Shonibare’s irony or Wiley’s grandeur: Catlett and Ringgold, by way of the familial and fond, draw the viewer’s attention to the ways in which people of color have been dehumanized and embrace them with seriousness and profundity.

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