Online Art Exhibitions
You should write about one of these [online shows] since it’s such a bizarro time,” my friend, Chicago-based painter Amanda Joy Calobrisi, says in a message to me on Instagram. She includes a link to Fort Gansevoort’s online exhibition A cloud in a box. I can’t argue. It is an incredibly bizarre time for artists, museums, and galleries. Before the start of Illinois’ shelter-in-place order, I was in a museum or gallery space five to six days a week. Nowadays, my only opportunity to encounter art is through the sudden proliferation of online art experiences.
A cloud in a box is the first iteration of the contemporary art gallery’s weekly online exhibition series SEEING THROUGH YOU and is organized by Los Angeles-based writer, educator, and independent curator Terry R. Myers. Taking its title from a 2004 piece by Barbara Kruger, the series examines the role art has to play as communities worldwide redefine daily life, seek new ways to connect, and locate sources of mutual support.
I click through the 23 artworks featured in A cloud in a box at a rapid fire speed, squinting in an attempt to make out the details of the work through the grimy, fingerprint smudged screen of my MacBook Air. The exhibition includes work from Milly Barzellai, Chinatsu Ikeda, Peter Köhler, Vicente Matte, Jeni Spota C., Keith Tolch, and Pilar Trujillo.
Named for the 2016 Pet Shop Boys song of the same title, A cloud in a box connects these seven artists through themes of alienation, contentment, devotion, infatuation, joy, tragedy, and magic. Meyers writes in the exhibition’s description, “the Pet Shop Boys song tells the story of a magician with a cloud in a box— ‘a secret between him and the sky’— that he would display once a week. These seven artists, each in their own way, are doing the very same thing.”
Vicente Matte’s Taller, featured on the gallery’s webpage and in the press release, feels nostalgic and lonely, fitting for the millions of people self isolating during our current global health crisis. The painting depicts a solitary structure, which viewers peer into from a distance, getting a glimpse of what appears to be four figures dancing; the distance of the figures elicits a sense of voyeurism, like we are intruding somewhere where we shouldn’t be. I have to increase the zoom on my browser to 300% to inspect the work closer. The only figure facing the viewer has an expressionless, mask-like face. Feeling somber and unresolved, I close the image and move on.
I am drawn instinctively to the surreal compositions of Tel Aviv-based artist Milly Barzellai. Using modelling clay and pigments, he creates sculptural work that reminds of William Blake’s illustrations, particularly his 1808 watercolor A Vision of the Last Judgement. The oversaturation of visual information overwhelms me at first. I don’t know where to look, but I begin to gradually notice the minute details embedded within the painting.
Barzellai, describing his own work to curator Hila Cohen-Schneiderman, says, “seeing has a passive quality. Images assault you and you can’t forget them.” I understand what he means. I spent less than 10 seconds inspecting his work on my first visit to the site, but came back to them again and again over the following days. The landscapes of these paintings feel hellish and grotesque, littered with the visual suggestion of human skulls and suffering. Yet, there is also an element of serene beauty in how Barzellai creates lush natural scenes populated with flowers, rivers, sunsets, and mountains in Hill and Mountain.
Inspecting Jeni Spota C.’s densely populated painting Four Popes, her mastery over symmetry and meticulously ordered details feels transcendental and reverential. I briefly scour the internet for more information about her work. In a 2016 Artforum review of her exhibition at Brennan & Griffin gallery, writer Alex Jovanovich says, “one doesn’t just look at Spota’s paintings; one feels them. Their thickly encrusted oil surfaces—or rather, masticate—the orderly and elaborate geometry of the compositions.”
I find myself wishing that I could see the materiality of her painting and the work of the other artists firsthand. Their use of sculptural elements, embroidery, and impasto are suggested in the digital images, but are ultimately lost in the static, two-dimensional nature of the photographs.
The sudden surge of “virtual” exhibitions in response to museum and gallery closings worldwide due to COVID-19 makes it imperative to examine the art world’s shortcomings when it comes to presenting work online. For instance, more than a hundred lawsuits were filed in 2019 against New York galleries in whose images lacked alternative text for their images. Many of these lawsuits claimed the galleries were in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that businesses and public spaces accommodate people with disabilities. However, the law’s applications to the internet remain unclear—the ADA was signed in 1990, before the first web page went online—meaning its interpretation is ad hoc and enforced through individual lawsuits served to museums and galleries. Many galleries continue to opt out of providing alternative text for images, citing the costs as being prohibitive, disregarding the legal and moral imperative to make art accessible.
At bare minimum, galleries and museums should provide visual descriptions and descriptive audio captioning of artworks for blind and low-vision people using their websites. Writer Emily Watlington argues that removing these barriers benefits all audiences and offers an “exciting challenge to revive vivid visual descriptions as a core function of art writing.” Oftentimes, my greatest joy in writing about art comes from the agonizing struggle to craft compelling descriptions of art that escapes definition.
This bizarre time is an opportunity for us to be ambitious and to challenge our old ways of thinking and working. If we are going to examine the role art has to play as communities worldwide redefine daily life, seek new ways to connect, and locate sources of mutual support, that means we must engage all the members of our communities to participate and envision our future together.