“I can’t think of a better metaphor for our human construct of time than air slowly escaping from a balloon.”
-by Stephen Maine
Author's Note: The collective trauma that 2020 continues to inflict on us provides ample opportunities to examine how an artwork’s meaning might be inflected by dramatic shifts in the viewer’s circumstances. For this series of articles, I’ve been asking artists the following set of questions: In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, do you look at your personal collection differently now, and which works in particular? Is there one that especially resonates with you in this weird, frightening time? And does it take on new meaning?
Kathe Burkhart (Amsterdam, Netherlands): Kay Rosen and I have been friends since we were stablemates at Feature back in the early 1990s, first in Chicago, where we both showed before Hudson moved his gallery to the first Broome Street location in New York City. In paintings, installations, drawings, prints, and publicly sited works, Rosen flips the meaning of familiar phrases and reveals the underside of the text. The title of this lithograph, “Only the Lonely,” references the classic 1961 song by Roy Orbison. The work gains layers of significance and poignancy during the collective isolation we’re experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic. Rosen’s work traffics in the extraction of multiple readings and gives visual form to the text. She shows that meaning can be elastic, distilling its essence and semiotically embedding it into the visual form. In doing so, she treats the immateriality of language as a material. She turns it upside down, backward, or sideways, personalizing, politicizing, merging, expanding, or contracting it like a Slinky toy. In punning on the rhyme, in remaking the tune, Rosen breaks down the song to its lowest common denominator, drawing our attention to the Other, the only. COVID-19 is an RNA virus, like HCV and HIV, for which there’s no vaccine after 37 years. According to the World Health Organization, globally, in 2019, an estimated 38 million had HIV/AIDS, and 7.1 million of them didn’t know they were infected; 71 million had chronic HCV. Of them, the Center for Disease Control says three million Americans are infected, and up to three in four don’t know it. We’ve been here before… and we know what being a clueless asymptomatic carrier is. I was one once, and I’ll never know who I might’ve infected before diagnosis. Now everyone is a biohazard. Survivors who’ve endured disability, the greed of Big Pharma, stigma, lost loved ones, and the long-term side effects of antivirals already know that. This is the ‘new normal’, and what ‘learning to live with it’ really means. The flip side of cabin fever and its ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic violence is the ravenous skin hunger and loneliness of people home alone. There’s the isolation of partners separated by border closures and quarantines, of COVID-19 long-haulers, of those in ICUs, of the anxious and depressed, of the elderly marooned in nursing homes, or people with risk factors and pre-existing conditions who can’t travel or attend family funerals. We’re all on house arrest, doing time…Only lonely.