New York has started to slowly reopen after more than 100 days of quarantining from the coronavirus pandemic, but many of the city’s art galleries and museums still remain closed. Seeking to bring the therapeutic experience of viewing art back into the public consciousness, Public Art Fund in partnership with JCDecaux and NYC & Company has invited 50 local artists to create original works in response to Covid-19 for a massive outdoor group exhibition. Called “Art on the Grid” and on view until September 20, the initiative brings artworks to more than 500 bus shelters and screens of LinkNYC kiosks—spaces often reserved for advertising and important public announcements.
“The outdoors have been a relatively safe respite within the limits of social distancing,” Nicholas Baume, Public Art Fund’s director and chief curator, tells ArtNews. “We realized that we had a unique opportunity to help restore the cultural landscape of the city.”
As the show developed, however, the parallel epidemic of systemic racism came into sharp and painful focus as protests swept the nation following the death of George Floyd. Both crises now set the backdrop for “Art on the Grid,” which features an array of original works by Cynthia Talmadge, Elliott Jerome Brown Jr, and Rafael Domenech, among others. Each piece helps shape the current conversation around a traumatic collective experience, unpacking themes of healing and loss, community and isolation, intimacy and solitude, and striving for a more inclusive, equitable future. According to Baume, the framework of “reconnection and renewal” reigns supreme: “It’s something that we were, in a sense, all yearning for.”
Each artwork examines a cross-section of these themes. Reconnection and community shine through the work of Chase Hall, an artist whose radiant paintings often originate from street photography. He contributed A Great Day in Harlem, an acrylic-and-coffee rendition of a 1958 Art Kane photograph that depicts 57 jazz musicians gathered in front of a brownstone on 126th Street. It’s both an ode to the humanity of jazz and a “personal expression to an incalculable and insurmountable loss,” he explains. “Millions exist and disappear in the grips of systemic racism and have for centuries.”
Similar feelings of loss and uplift translate to the rising photographer Arielle Bobb Willis’s West New York, 2020, which depicts a sun-drenched snapshot of a lithe young Black man, limbs slightly contorted, looking away from the camera. “The countless killings of Black men, women, and children, the carelessness of our government, and the virus are incredibly triggering,” she says. “This work is just a reminder to all that we will never give up on the pursuit of peace and happiness.”
The Israel-born artist Doron Langberg, meanwhile, reveals the oil-on-linen Joe and Edgar, an emotional, glowing moment of repose shared between a queer couple. As the world finally ventures outside after months of spending time indoors, even though the pandemic has experienced a slight resurgence, Langberg’s intimate and atmospheric work offers “a source of solace and strength in the face of the unknown, focusing on our greatest asset—our love for one another.”
West New York 2020 by Arielle Bobb-Willis. Image courtesy of the Public Art Fund…
“Art on the Grid” opens in two phases: 10 artworks were unveiled at 100 locations on June 29, with the other 40 pieces by the likes of Nina Chanel Abney, Salman Toor, and Chloë Bass debuting at 400 locations on July 27. Baume aims for the show to offer a much-needed inkling of positivity during turbulent times: “It’s going to be an amazing gift for the city.”