If anything connects the visual art that has emerged during the pandemic, it is that the work tends to be deeply, even desperately, personal. That’s a sudden change from just before the coronavirus arrived when so much art was conspicuously political.
The shift makes sense. At the beginning of 2020, artists and curators were obsessed with all things Donald Trump. During lockdown, when there was nowhere to go but in, they became obsessed with themselves.
This characteristic dominates the series of current exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, which are meant as a response to the past 12 months of global woe. Jaime Carrejo’s “Waiting Room,” in the MCA’s basement, opens with a re-creation of the artist’s own backyard. Rick Griffith’s “Tools,” up on the second floor, includes his private sketchbooks and diagrams that explain his critical thinking process; it’s a trip directly inside his brain.
Still, neither of those shows matches the intimate reveal of Maia Ruth Lee’s “The Language of Grief,” which is curated by MCA director Nora Burnett Abrams. Lee puts on public display things that many people would be unwilling to share with strangers — videos of her family in their home during quarantine, or actual letters she wrote to friends checking in on their well-being. Private stuff.
If you go
“The Language of Grief” continues through Aug. 22 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 1485 Delgany St. Buy tickets online; attendance is limited due to the pandemic. Info at 303-298-7554 or mcadenver.org.
In a sense, the sacrifice is warranted. Lee wants to re-create the grief she experienced during lockdown and separation. She felt it keenly, as it coincided with a family move from New York to Salida, far from her usual routine and regular friends, and into a place she barely knew. She felt cut off, even with a partner and child in tow, though her exhibition suggests everyone grieved over their own unique losses during the pandemic.
In being authentic about that, she lays out personal objects as evidence and declares them art. In one letter she posts on the MCA walls, addressed to a person named “morgan,” she confesses that “yesterday peter had to talk me off the ledge as i was miserable and clearly depressed.”
In another, she complains to a person named “sonya” that “somedays i wake up with cloudiness and pure sadness.”
She discloses personal politics in a letter to “carmen,” writing, “whenever i see a trump sign (everyday) i am still surprised. shocked that any decent person can support someone so depleted. so zero.”
Amid giving away her own secrets to the world, she discloses those of others. To a friend named “aine” she writes: “i also know and understand the sadness that you carry, despite the obvious joys in life, the sadness that never quite disappears. it’s an anguished soul, sometimes a misunderstood one, that can bring out rage anxieties doubts and dissatisfactions.”
As a viewer, I was uncomfortable about this self-exposure and grateful for it at the same time. It felt icky knowing what brand of hot sauce her family uses by watching the videos. TMI, as they say. Also, it seems a little unfair to air aine’s mental issues to the world.
But Lee pushes us to consider how we communicate with others at crucial times and to acknowledge that finding the right words to express ourselves is difficult, even when we have a common language and share something so deep as grief. The letters, written with an actual typewriter rather than electronic text, are full of typos, bad spelling and wrecked grammar. They go to great lengths to express joys, sorrows, and things in-between, and still they feel abrupt, often indecipherable.
And yet, there’s a poignancy to them that goes beyond the codes expressed through Western alphabets. It doesn’t matter what the words say. They’re symbols of suffering, and also compassion for others and self-care, in which minor details don’t really matter. You get their intent.
Lee has spent much of her career looking at language in this way, exploring its powers and shortfalls, the shapes and forms it can take. As she explains in her artist statement, part of that quest is personal. She was born in South Korea and now lives in a place where English is spoken and doesn’t feel particularly adept in either tongue. Perhaps that has given her an eye for the capabilities of unspoken, unwritten alternative codes.
The showpiece of “The Language of Grief,” is a three-dimensional piece titled “Dictation.” It’s a long, narrow section of canvas, maybe a foot wide and 40 feet from beginning to end, that is hung from the ceiling of the gallery, running along the wall and onto the floor.
Lee “paints” it with hundreds of black, store-bought adhesive bandages of various shapes that she arranges into patterns, creating a sort of new, written language. For some, it will evoke Egyptian hieroglyphs; for others, it might look like old-time stenographer’s marks.
It’s illegible, though it definitely tries to say something, and it tempts you to interpret it. That’s impossible, of course; no one speaks a language called Band-Aids. Yet it feels like a legit form of communication. There’s considerable freedom with this piece to decipher it as you see fit.
Lee has other codes. A piece called “Narration” turns the patterns of cords running through an electric blanket into a form of communication.
The exhibit’s namesake piece, also called “Language of Grief,” is a series of nine, raw white canvases upon which Lee has painted, in India ink, shapes that resemble cut-out sections of fabric patterns that have yet to be assembled together. There’s a suggestion that everything, even the clothes we wear, contain a hidden language of their own.
Ultimately, though, the exhibit “The Language of Grief” is specific to the time and place we live in now and our need to share the feelings of loss and despair we’ve experienced communally due to the virus. That may be the loss of loved ones or the loss of time, treasure or opportunity.
In one sense, this show acknowledges a universally shared narrative of the pandemic. In another, it recognizes that pain is internal, individual, hyper-personal. It simultaneously recognizes that it is difficult to communicate grief and impossible not to.
Don’t have the words to express your grief? Maybe, this exhibit suggests, you are already doing that without them.