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Amid the virus, NYC visual artists take refuge in their work

September 4, 2020 Sigal Ratner-Arias Associated Press
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An apple reflected on a lamp. A clock where time seemed to have frozen. Nurses dressed more like astronauts on Mars.

Irene Pressner keeps “flashes” of her experience after contracting the coronavirus. The conceptual artist and photographer from Venezuela was close to death in New York City. After suffering severe pain and fainting a few times, she was finally admitted to a hospital. A few days after her hospitalization, her husband was also admitted. Only she survived.

Now in recovery and mourning, the artist continues experimenting to see how the virus changes her art. But in her case, she knows it won’t be dark: “My works have light, but now will also have the burden of what I lived.”

Affected by the pandemic, many visual artists are taking refuge in their work in search of sense and solace. Some have suffered the horror, the sickness and the loss firsthand. Others are channeling their anguish and their fear, their feelings of loneliness.

Pressner has tried to make some sense of the whole thing. Art is helping her to heal, like it has many other times in her life. First she took on photography. Then came painting, with subjects including an apple reflected on a lamp in her apartment — the first thing she saw after she fainted once, while battling the coronavirus. More recently she created a series of angels in tribute to those “angels of flesh and bone” who came to support her.

Brazilian artist Flavia Berindoague posed with her artwork in her Brooklyn apartment on Friday. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

Pressner said the art she is making now may not be representative of her career, but that it’s what is coming out in this period of self-discovery. She notes that a series of photographs she did shortly before she got sick, “We Are Not Islands,” gained new meaning during her isolation.

“The other works are transitional, like I have not found myself yet,” said the artist, who has been recognized in her home country and the U.S., including at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, where her award-winning “Felix” is part of the permanent collection.

In Brooklyn, photographer Lara Alcántara dealt with the anxiety of having her husband on the front lines as an anesthesiologist — while taking care of her house and her two daughters, 12 and 7 — creating a fantasy world in images she publishes almost daily on her Instagram.

They are carefully staged self-portraits. Some reflect her fatigue humorously: She appears stuck in a washing machine, ironing her head or buried in a pile of toys. Others show her passion for fashion — in one image she hangs from a hanger between the clothes in her closet — or art and literature, with nods to the “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” “The Last Supper” and “The Little Prince.”

“Photography has usually been the way that I express any distress, anything that is going on in my life, and I think that now it was extra important for me to go out to this creative world that I invented,” said Alcántara, a Venezuelan in New York who also works in public relations and as an actor.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Berindoague was forced to do her work in her Brooklyn apartment, repurposing her living-room into a studio space. Photo: John Minchillo/AP

“The escape of photography was completely necessary,” she emphasized, noting that the news, and the stories that her husband would bring home, overwhelmed her.

Lately she has taken her art outdoors. In a composition created at the beginning of August at a beach in Florida, four different images of her surround some sort of grave made out of seaweed. The title is “The Rebirth of the Artist Within.”

“I feel that many people realized that time is very valuable, but that we don’t always use it to achieve our happiness. I feel that I found myself in this process and I hope to have inspired others do the same,” she said.

Not far from her house in Brooklyn, Brazilian painter Flávia Berindoague was having a productive period as well, albeit a lonelier one. The artist, who teaches in public schools, suffered from anxiety the first week in quarantine and soon realized she had to rethink her relationship with her space. “Suddenly this place became my working space and I needed to refigure it and find a new way to enjoy it,” said Berindoague.

Her first works were drawings with repetitive strokes in which she imagined herself writing letters to her loved ones. They were “very anxious drawings, automatic drawings” that she called “Taciturn Writings.” With more time on her hands, she also resumed painting, creating abstract pieces in acrylic over canvas that resembled maps, using only dots and lines.

This photo illustration shows a composite of self-portraits by artist Lara Alcantara taken in her home in Brooklyn. Photo: Lara Alcantara via AP

Among other pieces she created is a series titled “Geographical Distancing,” representing the current impossibility of being close to her family in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where she was born. She also made a “Blood Map,” inspired by the death of George Floyd.

The concepts addressed in her work were similar to what she had been doing before. “But the way I was applying it was more based on personal experience,” she explained. “Previously I was more interested in the collective memory of events happening in the world and mostly in Brazil. After COVID, I was more focused on myself, in how I was dealing with the experience.”

Peruvian artist Fernando Otero not only has seen his production pick up but also his sales, something he attributes to a new relationship with space.

“There has been a reappreciation of the domestic space,” he said from Lima, Peru. Art lovers want “this lock-up to stop being a lock-up and be a pleasant cohabitation or domestic experience” with “an object to accompany them, to talk to them a little.”

While before the pandemic, Otero, a multidisciplinary artist, was going through a period dedicated to abstract symbols or geometric painting, the works that flourished during his confinement have been much more specific: A coffee pot. A balloon. Objects that surround us.

“Curiously, the objects that I am painting now are containers. After us being so contained and for so long, they are all black containers,” said Otero.

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