Notes from New York

May 28, 2020

Drawing Year alumna Nell Brookfield has just finished her last term at the Pratt Institute in New York where she experienced both online learning and teaching. Nell talks about how quarantine has interrupted life as usual, its affect on her artistic practice and some recommendations for interesting ways to fill your time in lockdown.

There are smiles left in Brooklyn, you just can’t see them anymore; they are hidden behind our masks. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to communicate friendliness from six feet away behind a mask. Yesterday I attempted this by shouting at a stranger across the lemons in the supermarket, whilst pointing towards my covered mouth, ‘I’M SMILING AT YOU RIGHT NOW!!’. This was closer to a moment of quarantine hysteria, than social frustration, and I’m still not sure if the woman smiled or expressed fear, underneath her mask. 

Unfortunately drawing my nose and mouth onto my mask proved scarier than shouting at strangers, so I have resorted to a friendly wave or nod. 

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Nell Brookfield, Milk Run, 2020

Brooklyn, where I am writing from, has just been hit by a polar vortex, as well as a global pandemic, so things are feeling fairly surreal. Rather than falling into these strangenesses, however, I want to share with you some things I have found helpful and inspiring during this time, in the hope they might provide the same for you. 

Surgical gloves have been discarded everywhere here, and they are talking to me. Some give me the middle finger, others the peace sign, many just wave hello. A few retain the shapes and creases of the hands which were wearing them. I find them oddly moving, comical, and unexpectedly comforting. They are evidence that people are around. I made a video of some of the best ones, which you can look at here.

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Early in quarantine I saw a couple holding hands whilst wearing surgical gloves. This summed up the longing for closeness and touch everyone needed more than ever, but had suddenly been forbidden from in order to keep each other safe. 

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Nell Brookfield, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 2020

Just two days before the government advised us to stop touching our faces, I set myself a goal to touch mine daily. I started drawing touch portraits, self portraits drawn in response to touch, rather than sight. A week after I started this project I was asked to leave my studio. Suddenly I found myself in my bedroom, unable to work on anything I started previously. I was able, however, to spend an hour each day drawing what I felt under my finger tips. The outcome is always unexpected and strange, but as my bedroom walls became increasingly covered with my new creepy friends, I felt calmed and able to concentrate again. I made a tutorial of how to draw one of these here. 

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Nell Brookfield, Touch Portrait, March 2020

Listen to… 

Talk Art Podcast have released a ‘QuarARTine’ series where they speak to artists, gallerists and collectors about their practices and passions. Don’t miss Royal Drawing School alumna Somaya Critchlow, artist and musician Issy Wood, and the art critic Jerry Saltz being interviewed. 

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Somaya Critchlow, Mr Peanut, 2020, oil on canvas

I found it comforting to hear all the different reactions to our current crisis, confirming there is no correct personal reaction; it’s great if you are being productive, but it’s okay if you are not. Here are some mushrooms I grew out of sawdust and spore bags, it’s okay if creativity comes out in different places. 

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Ester Perel is a NYC based psychotherapist who concentrates on analysing relationships and the need for freedom within them. Perel has started a quarantine series addressing questions about how to adjust our relationships to confined spaces. If you are yet to discover Perel, I recommend listening to her being interviewed on The Knowledge Project about our ability to rewrite our own narratives.

Mamma Andersson and Jockum Nordström talk on the David Zwirner Podcasts: Dialogues. They are an artist couple who have been together for over thirty years, reflecting on their careers and relationship from lockdown. Helen Molesworth, Kalil Joseph and Karon Davis speaking about Noah Davis, following the extraordinary exhibition of his work that Zwirner showed in January 2020. 

The Great Women Artists Podcast speaks to Chantel Joffe about Charlotte Salomon’s exhibition at London’s Jewish Museum. It is a particularly moving episode in the series in which Joffe recounts Salomon’s life growing up as a Jew in Nazi Germany, explaining how Salomon furiously painted throughout as a survival mechanism, as if trying to out-draw death. 

Tracey Emin reflects on her career as an artist in the podcast How I Found My Voice speaking about the difficulties of going to art school after having left school at thirteen and describing her determination to do art as a faith. Emin explains that since the Me Too movement she suddenly noticed that her work was being taken seriously, in a way that it was not before, to which she comments ‘it isn’t about being political, it’s about being what we should be and being humans and helping each other. And if people are now starting to think of my work as political then they are just way behind the times of understanding what is right and what is wrong’.

Looking backwards... 

Whilst we have been asked to slow down, Vija Celmins' work seems more relevant than ever. In January 2020 I was lucky to see her retrospective at the Met Breuer. I was particularly attracted to her oceans, which freeze chaos in slow, specific, graphite drawings. Looking more widely at Celmins work, she often painted the objects which existed in her domestic or working space; subject matter we may all be currently turning to in our homes. Celmins, who grew up in Europe during WW2, drew newspaper clippings that reminded her of this traumatic experience, this process acted as a catharsis. 

On the fifth floor of the Moma there is a glass case of bowls made by George Ohr. I find them to be some of the most interesting objects in Moma’s permanent collection. Made in 1900 from glazed earthenware, they were years ahead of their time. They are recognisably bowls; but bowls that have been squashed, poked, prodded, and pushed into irregular shapes. The surfaces are metallic looking, smooth, and curving. These objects make me think about art in relation to their moment, and how difficult it is to process change whilst it’s happening. Ohr received no recognition in his life but was confident in his talent and expected he would be discovered after his death. Ohr began to become popular and valued in the 1950’s. Jasper Johns started painting Ohr’s pottery, and big collectors started buying his work. 

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George Ohr’s work in the Moma

If you feel the desire to escape our world, try entering Sanam Khatibi paintings. Below is a detail from her exhibition at PPOW gallery last year. Calm, tranquil, scenes filled with a gentle violence and strange ritual; challenging our understanding of traditional painting. 

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Courtesy of Sanam Khatibi and P·P·O·W, New York
Detail of Fantastic Beasts, 2019, oil and pencil on canvas, 180 x 230 cm

Looking forwards… 

If you haven’t already, take a look at Curated For Covid, an online exhibition curated by Beth Rodway and Rachael Neale raising money for Mind Charity and the Artists. 

@W.o.b.w.e, or the ‘Walk On By’ Window Exhibition is an instagram account where artists are displaying their work in the windows of their houses, for people to see as they pass by. 

Brooklyn Rail are doing daily lunchtime (EST) talks that can be found here. 

The Hay Festival Digital runs from the 18-31st May and is completely free to sign up to and watch or listen. 

A final list of things to watch, in case you haven’t already... 

Eva Hesse documentary
Lousie Bourgeois, Spiderwoman
Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present
Faith Ringgold on the BBC, Tell it like it is
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Alice Neel documentary
Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil
Philip Guston: A Life Lived
I Never Tell Anybody Anything: The Life and Art of Edward Burra
Joseph Campbell on Netflix
Lee Miller - A Life on the Front Line on the BBC 

I hope you all stay well! Please get in touch if you have any questions or if you want to share your touch portraits with me.

Contact me here with any questions or news: @nellbrookfield /