A room with brown walls and grey cement floors filled with headless female mannequins wearing various outfits for a range of seasons. The colors are primarily black and white, with a few yellow, brown, grey, and red garments.

Love Letter to Andrea Zittel

Andrea Zittel, A–Z Personal Uniforms, 1991–2002. Installation view, Andrea Rosen Gallery, 2004.

Andrea Zittel has been making work preparing us for a pandemic since the 1980s. In the high desert outside of Joshua Tree, her wagons stations nestle amongst the boulders. These pods, tinier than the teensiest tiny home, ask a question with their very existence: what do you really need to live? Zittel lives her practice, paring down the junk of late capitalism: plates, cups, a second outfit. All are expendable.

Zittel explores isolation, limitations, arbitrary restrictions. What they may give us, and what variety takes away. There is liberation in choosing limitations. Sometimes we get stuck in ruts. A meal or an outfit is the one thing that gives us pleasure. To force variety would make life harder, not easier.

When we all got trapped inside our homes, it was Zittel’s project A–Z Personal Uniforms (1991–2002) that kept coming to my mind. For years, she’d wear one dress every day for a whole season. One perfect outfit, until nature demanded something new. Thinkpieces spewed forth, insisting that getting dressed every day to work from home would save you from despair. Absolutely not. Zittel had taught me that the silliest—or even the most painful—limitations still have something to teach us. I picked a black dress from Target, faux linen rayon. It felt like the tunics I used to wear at renaissance fairs. Putting it on turned me into a resilient Viking, who shits without toilet paper and can bake her own bread. I called it The Garment. I wore it until it ripped in half.

A black and white photograph of Laetitia Sonami crouching, viewed from above and at an angle so Sonami's body fills the space from the upper left and bottom right corners. Sonami holds her left hand over her face, wearing a glove with electronic circuits and wires extending past the wrist like mechanical tendons. Her dark hair is messy and pulled back.

Love Letter to Laetitia Sonami

The final corner of the last year was about finding my voice and turning anger into euphoric creativity, which has allowed me to come into my own. Laetitia Sonami’s spoken word and sound piece What Happened (1989) comes together at the disintegration of a woman narrating her story (written by fictionist Melody Sumner Carnahan, and read by Sonami). The woman describes her life during a war—her anger and resignation over an unfaithful husband, her children, her lover, a cruel employer—as her voice is gradually distorted until it is unintelligible. The words dissolve like the way low clouds, fog, or snow can obstruct, from my window, my view of the outside world…yet, in these distortions and obstructions, contingency grows.

The woman’s disintegrating voice leads to music whose beats I describe as aural sparkles (borrowing from the lines and dots on old films being called sparkles) that give way to a chant. What Happened grows by constantly and consistently returning into itself, the way the woman’s narrative goes back and forth between tragedies and triumphs. At the end of the piece, a little of the distortion wears off but without diminishing the sparkles in her voice as she tells her listener “I’m happy though doing exactly what I want… Fortunately, I do not remember what I have suffered…” Listening to her story makes me want to reach out. Wouldn’t it be good, for a person who has endured much, to walk into another cycle, this time doing things on one’s own terms and, in a moment of grace, begin again?

A painting of a lounging nude woman on the backs of other canvas paintings aligned into a grid. The woman is depicted reclined on a chaise longe, propped up on pillows, with a small dog at her feet. The woman wears a mask made of collaged brain scans, and has the white and red cane often used by blind or visually impaired people at her side.

Love Letter to Katherine Sherwood

Katherine Sherwood, Blind Venus (For G), 2018. Acrylic and mixed media on recycled linen.
90 x 114 inches. Courtesy the artist.

I was introduced to Kathryn Sherwood’s work by my friend, the painter Sarah Cain, early last year when I told her about my recent struggles with chronic illness and how I had turned to disabled artists to help me make meaning of it. She urged me to look at Sherwood’s paintings. What I found there were images that felt simultaneously disruptive and generous, offering intimate attention to lives frequently neglected.

In the series Venuses of the Yelling Clinic, Sherwood bases her works on paintings of women that loom large in the art historical canon. While her paintings refer to reclining nudes by the likes of Ingres, Manet, and Titian, Sherwood pointedly departs from these vaunted depictions in one significant way: her subjects all have disabilities. They wear prosthetic limbs or braces, and some have a mobility aid within reach. The women’s heads take on a more startling and surreal difference, as their faces are collaged from detailed images of brain scans. They are, in fact, images of the artist’s own brain. In 1997, Sherwood experienced a cerebral hemorrhage that left her with paralysis of the right side of her body.

“Love letter” is the perfect term for what I want to write to Sherwood. Love, when it’s at its best, is transformative. It cultivates connection and care, giving us a tool for settling deeper into ourselves and often changing our conceptions of self for the better. While people with disabilities must navigate a world bereft of care for them, Sherwood offers a place for those with disabilities to gather, to commune, to see themselves represented with care. These disabled women occupy their own canon, and in the act of asserting their embodiment, work to reconstruct the larger cultural conversation around disability into one of love.

An abstract landscape painting with thick brushstrokes describing overlapping, rolling hills. The artist used ochre, pale pink, moss green, Kelly green, taupe, and vermillion for the different hills, with geometric highlights in white and pale yellow. Light blue hovers over the horizon, fading upward into pale yellow.

Love Letter to Bernice Bing

Bernice Bing, Mayacamas No. 6, March 12 1963, 1963.

One of my favorite aspects of the strict stay-at-home orders of March and April was the way that my Instagram feed became a portal into the inner lives of my friends. I spent hours looking at others reading, cooking, drawing, and lying in bed, seeing aspects of their creative and domestic lives that otherwise I would have never come to know.

The work of Bernice Bing (1936–1998) has the same effect on me. I think I can say I fell in love with her at first photograph: Bing on her stomach on a paint-splattered wood floor, legs crossed like she rolled into place accidentally, staring firmly at the camera, as though she was as curious about me as I about her.

But even more, it is Bing’s practically-forgotten, calligraphy-inflected West Coast abstract expressionism that captivates me. A Chinese-American lesbian, she defies abstract expressionism’s aesthetic white-hetero-male-ness, its pretense of representing the psyche stripped of context, by simple virtue of her biography. Bing makes abstraction a tool to interrogate philosophies of the mind and the self, ideas of interior and exterior, Chinese and US culture. At the same time, she breaks down the very duality of abstraction and realism. As her thick brushstrokes become ideograms—figures that mean something only after they generate an aesthetic response—she creates a new way of representing northern California, one in which the landscape opens up the inner worlds to which abstraction aims. “I am attempting to create a new synthesis with a very old world,” she said.

Bernice Bing’s work is what abstraction looks like when it is home alone, cozy, with no one watching.

A round woven basket seen from below. The basket is covered with intricate black and white beads creating a swirl pattern emanating from the center, which is a small circle of white beads.

Love Letter to Mabel McKay

A round woven basket seen from below. The basket is covered with intricate black and white beads creating a swirl pattern emanating from the center, which is a small circle of white beads.

I had never heard of Mabel McKay before I happened upon a small exhibition of her intricate, holy baskets in, of all places, Los Angeles’s Disney-esque Gene Autry Museum of the American West.

Tucked away in a discrete corner off the whitewashed version of history in the Autry’s permanent collections, I entered a space with jarringly different concerns. Almost three years later, I remember the smell of the room first: the sharp and delicate odors of the dried grasses that served as the raw materials for traditional Pomo weaving.

The baskets on display were handmade marvels of engineering, design, and patience. A wall text told me that most are so tightly and expertly constructed that they can hold water. I thought of what I know of the summers in the region now called Northern California—where the Pomo lived for millennia before enduring mass genocide at the hands of pioneering gold-rushers—and understood that to artfully conserve water in such a place is to live in deep harmony with your ecosystem.

But the baskets I liked best have no obvious purpose. The smallest are the size of a toddler’s fingernail and some, miraculously, even have minuscule beads rippling along their surface. It’s in their tininess that I imagined their maker resisting functionality and experimenting with the limits of her craft.

McKay, born in 1907 and the last speaker of the Long Valley Cache Creek language, was a shaman as well as an artisan, just as concerned with energetic healing as with materiality. Perhaps it is this obscurity that made me feel so hypnotized in front of her creations, as if I could obtain some of her power by concentrating long enough on their perfect navels.

A photograph of a square format spiral bound sketchbook with a sketchy drawing in black graphite. The drawing depicts a person bent over and walking through a crowded space. Perpendicular to the drawing horizon, cursive handwritten text reads: "A man in searching for his belongings between the..." followed by two illegible words. In the bottom right corner, the artist wrote "Jacques Francois Leroy" and crossed the words out.

Love Letter to Norma Cole

Norma Cole, Untitled, 2016.

October 30: You never step into the same river once. Hello. “What elsewhere can there be to this infinite here?” Samuel Beckett asks. Not be pushed around by this or that, but rather gently cajoled. What’s all this content? Do we get an occult trapdoor? Dailyness follows the thin-necked lady by the Seine, in the glooms of Notre Dame.

November 1: Take an object’s thereness to heart, being with/in the world today. To realize each thing’s uniqueness while registering our collective predicament is radical. I imagine Norma Cole’s love language. Very Wittgenstein.

Without you, bird-on-coaster, what am I? Funny in general. How especially pleased I am by daily interaction unnoticed pre-pandemic, our relative solitudes. Mind and matter, as ever together. To animate the inanimate keeps you and me alert. Togetherness is human, social, no, universal, cosmic. Relief to be knit with you, surrounded by our memory-makers, memory-containers. A little clock falls on my head as I sleep I realize its metaphysical power.

Bill Berkson reminds: “The priest in the pit says ‘Everyday life is hell’” (Start Over). Yes, but the drawing changes this, makes it partial. I bounce a ball along symbols, considering relation. Receptive to what may come, one is impartial, all here. Holding to certainty of anything breeds protection, defense, of what?

November 8: Stoned Bernadette Mayer epiphany: a poem or drawing needn’t be “informative” but true, requiring neither trust nor belief. The drawing urging justice for murdered Black people, is surely now as Bill’s Hat, remembrance of a whole history, what is radical about love.

November 11: Ali Smith reminds: “Simultaneity doesn’t just conjure a constant present or confirm a continual, always colourful state against all the odds—it also gestures toward cancelling the timeline altogether.”

November 14: My heart’s heavy, Norma Cole. Your drawings are light, I emerge different.


Norma Cole — Drawings is available from Further Other Book Works.

A marble sculpture that resembles a benign, almost blooming flower, but the pointed tips of the spiraled corolla mimic fingers pressed together to quickly, sharply pursue an object. Finally, above the base of the piece, there's a small hole.

Love Letter to Yoko Kubrick

A marble sculpture that resembles a benign, almost blooming flower, but the pointed tips of the spiraled corolla mimic fingers pressed together to quickly, sharply pursue an object. Finally, above the base of the piece, there's a small hole.
Yoko Kubrick, The Capture of Persephone, 2020. 32x 20 x 20 inches, statuary marble of Carrara.

Western culture loves Greek mythology. We retell their stories in countless different ways, from literature to Hollywood movies. But what if a deity or its associate lesson were portrayed as abstractly as the element of life and nature they chaperone? San Francisco sculptor Yoko Kubrick meets this challenge through her transformation of narrative archetypes into symbolic figures of stone and marble.

Myths entice through their description of the gods’ paradoxical combination of super human power and very human nature, complicating what defines a human. It’s risky to lose the reality of our limits, but we mortals cannot help reimagining ourselves. By not explicitly depicting her subjects, Kubrick extracts from the viewer the longing to be greater than what we are.

Her sculptures seem as though they’re infused with potential energy, imbued with a sense of being in the process of morphing from one thing into another. They speak not only to the enduring relevance of Greek mythology, but to a truth about humans: we are creatures of change, always moving even when we are not.

I see this in her piece The Capture of Persephone (2019). The sculpture resembles a benign, almost blooming flower, but the pointed tips of the spiraled corolla mimic fingers pressed together to quickly, sharply pursue an object. Finally, above the base of the piece, there’s a small hole. Though the sculpture’s referent isn’t immediately apparent, the title provides its Greek inspiration, hinted in a flower for Persephone’s domain or her ensnarement, and the hole, which may symbolize the portal between the Underworld and the earthly world. Kubrick’s sculptures satisfy the looker, while still giving more to imagine.

Two photographs displayed site by side in thin, cobalt blue frames. Both are identical black and white portraits of a woman, but the left image is negative and the right image is positive. Shown from the shoulder up, her body is perpendicular to the camera and her face turns toward the camera. Her arms cross in front of her body, with her right hand placed over her left shoulder. Her right hand is raised to cover most of her face, and holds a cigarette.

Love Letter to Natalie Krick

Two photographs displayed site by side in thin, cobalt blue frames. Both are identical black and white portraits of a woman, but the left image is negative and the right image is positive. Shown from the shoulder up, her body is perpendicular to the camera and her face turns toward the camera. Her arms cross in front of her body, with her right hand placed over her left shoulder. Her right hand is raised to cover most of her face, and holds a cigarette.
Natalie Krick, Negative / Positive and Positive / Negative, both 2020.

Natalie Krick recently replaced her signature color, Kodak yellow, with Yves Klein Blue. The new hue signifies a shift in Krick’s style, one transitioning from photography to collages about photography.

I love art about photography, especially when it’s not photographs. Krick’s You As Me As Joan (2020), a collage of blue paper cutouts, appeals to the same parts of me as Letha Wilson’s Death Valley of Fire Concrete Bend (2020). Krick’s Blue Fragments (2020), a five-panel panoramic scene of c-prints and resin, gets me goin’ like Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s Lighting Lesson (University of Michigan Extension) (2018). These works exhibit such a mastery of the medium to such a degree that their form isn’t relegated to it.

Krick’s previous series Natural Deceptions and Rhymes of Confusion both incorporated elements of collage and investigated the medium of photography, but her newest works combine those two characteristics like never before. Positive / Negative (2020) and Negative / Positive (2020) exemplifies this new fusion. The diptych collages monochromatic prints—a departure from Krick’s perennial use of saturated polychrome—and overtly investigates photography’s capacity for manipulation via reproducibility. It reminds me of Robert Rauschenberg’s Factum I and Factum II (1957) in that both images were generated from the same photograph, with one image inverted to produce the other, and neither gives any clues as to which was created first.

Krick has been one of my favorite artists for years now. I love the new works because they’re my favorite type of art, and they show a clear progression from her previous series. But this transition is just why I love them. The new blue is why everyone should.

A video still of a recording of Ron Athey's performance "St. Sebastian." Athey is suspended by ropes hooked into his flesh, another person wearing latex gloves inserts a long, thin metal rod into his bicep. Athey has an expression of entranced semi-consciousness.

Love Letter to Ron Athey

A video still of a recording of Ron Athey's performance "St. Sebastian." Athey is suspended by ropes hooked into his flesh, another person wearing latex gloves inserts a long, thin metal rod into his bicep. Athey has an expression of entranced semi-consciousness.
Ron Athey, St. Sebastian, 1999 (performance recording still).

I met Ron Athey while volunteering at the 2014 performance art group show No Pain, No Gain in London. Athey wasn’t performing, but his presence left me speechless when my teacher introduced us. After that first encounter, I wrote about Athey’s work almost every year, forever returning to the body in pain and all the things it tries to say.

As a site of politics, protest, and fraught histories, of finding a way to live and love in private and public, the queer body exemplifies the fact that the personal is political. Athey’s art was caught up in the 1990s culture war when he performed Four Scenes From a Harsh Life (1994), with blood bags hanging above the audience. It led to a deluge of accusations that Athey exposed his audience to HIV, even though the blood was from an HIV-negative donor. Despite the spectacular nature of his work, its power extends beyond the controversy. His work exists in between discrete, contradictory states: pleasure and pain, good and evil. His St. Sebastian (1999) takes the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and turns into something vital, embodied. He smuggles the image of Sebastian out of paintings, and into the real world, made of flesh and blood.

Athey’s art still feels dangerous. It’s difficult to watch, but harder to look away from. His performances were engulfed by the ’90s conservative panic over the National Endowment for the Arts financially supporting the work of radical queer artists. The dispute was less about rule breaking and more about the politicization of iconoclastic bodies, and the moral panic around HIV. In a way, Athey himself became a saint; a crystallized image of an obsession with the holiness, power, and limits of the queer body.

If I meet him again, I think I’ll know what to say.

Love Letter to Bean Gilsdorf

Bean Gilsdorf, HC, 2018, polyester, wood, paint; approx. 61 x 36 x 30 in.

A veritable pile of wrists! Or else a sunken tripod. Fabric caricatures of political figures with enough slump, bulge, and dip to render them under-recognizable. Leggy indexes of history (illegitimate), where “history meets spin” and everything that is in and of earth animates from within.

Bean Gilsdorf’s work is animation’s “squash and stretch” principle embodied: raising the dead by infusing life, translating fleshliness into motion. Except, in Gilsdorf’s case, the freedom from formal or accurate representation infuses the materials with a savvy, strategic stiffness. Making visible the irony of infusing a symbol as such, Gilsdorf assails principles of representation—a mockery of the gravitas that would ordinarily accompany US history.

Indexicality begins with graphic representation, or a visual allegory in lieu of the real thing. Records of natural movement—consider footprints—index/trace motion as a graphic representation. Cartoons, on the contrary, allegorize by design. Consider the gag: cartoons punish their protagonists for their commitment to rational thought and realism. 

Gilsdorf’s business of gags defamiliarizes and recontextualizes images, but not merely to resuscitate them as such. Gilsdorf reminds us of the infinite capacity images have for resuscitation. In the words of Johanna Burton, who expands on this notion of defamiliarization: “If there was or is critical promise inherent in destabilization, it is most usually understood as always already counterbalanced, capable of serving or producing subtle ‘cynical reason’ or overtly catering to capitalism.” Gilsdorf literalizes the always-already counterbalanced; what better way to commemorate than with floppy satire?