Shizu Saldamando’s exhibit "When This Is All Over/ Cuando Esto Termine" captures the anxiety and depression of pandemic art
Over the past year, I've come across artwork that exemplifies what I would describe as a new genre: pandemic art. A significant number of emerging creatives are making work that displays a high level of anxiety and depression brought on by their isolation and a well-founded sense that their lives, plans, and ambitions have been put on hold. Shizu Saldamando’s solo exhibition When This Is All Over / Cuando Esto Termine, on view at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery until December 10 and curated by Amanda Krugliak, is yet another example of this distressed trend.
It's clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult for early career professional artists like Los Angeles painter Shizu Saldamano. Her diverse circle of friends, many of them Latinx and/or LGBTQ, represent a cross-section of young creatives eking out their existence in L.A.’s gig economy. Right now, they are pursuing their avocations—as musicians, artists, DJs, and the like—in the midst of economic and medical uncertainty.
They are the subjects of Saldamando’s large portraits.
Saldamando has painted her subjects competently enough, mostly sitting or standing in outdoor locations and at arm’s length, as required by pandemic protocols. Usually, when a portraitist situates a figure in the middle distance, her purpose is to place them in a physical or social context, but Saldamando has consigned her friends to a sort of featureless limbo. The figures are painted on unprimed plywood or, in three instances, meticulously drawn with colored pencil on plain white paper. Their outdoor setting is conveyed in a perfunctory way by flatly collaged branches and leaves cut from ornamental paper. The artworks are occasionally embellished with subdued craft flourishes in gold leaf, glitter, and small gems in a subtle nod to the artist’s Japanese-Mexican heritage.
They stare out at the viewer unsmiling, not hostile, but not engaged either. They seem … distant. Portrait of Taco Guillen depicts a musician Saldamando befriended at a punk club. In addition to his musical career, Guillen makes ends meet with his own cleaning company and as a vocational trainer for people with developmental disabilities, but the energy it must take to navigate his life is not in evidence here. He is in stasis, his eyes obscured. Alfonso (Fonsi) Gonzalez, the subject of Fonsi With Abolish Tee, is a visual artist and arts entrepreneur who uses signage and text to address social and economic issues particular to L.A., but the image on his T-shirt in this pencil drawing is gray and partially obscured. The most compositionally interesting of the six large portraits is a carefully observed colored pencil drawing on paper of the artist’s friend Erika, a librarian, teacher, and pop culture aficionado. Saldamando has given her some context, with a rather nicely composed still life of pandemic-related paraphernalia—a mask, wet wipes—on the table in front of her. Clearly, these are talented people with (formerly) interesting lives, cast up on the shore of social upheaval and unsure of their next steps.
There is something funereal about the title piece for When This Is Over. The artist, in an accompanying text, describes the piece as an homage to the trauma of families separated by incarceration. The mood of the piece seems nostalgic or melancholy, like a memorial wreath to be placed at the grave of a long-dead relative. The dilapidated chain-link gate with its artificial flower wreath conveys no active grief, just a pro forma expression of regret, or perhaps a tired acknowledgment that things haven’t gone well lately.
There is a second, smaller body of work in the exhibit—from the “before times” in 2013-2014—which consists of three pieces on found floral bedsheets draped over a line. Two of them are meticulous ballpoint pen drawings depicting couples of indeterminate gender. Notably, rather than being alone as are the subjects of her larger, more conventionally presented portraits, both sets of couples are embracing. The choice of the artist to situate them on bedsheets is ambiguous; it’s unclear if this is a reference to their physical intimacy “between the sheets,” or whether the floral motifs are meant to convey romance or nostalgia. The artist states that the couples are meant as a contrast to the later, single-subject portraits, yet the two couples, though together, seem isolated too, affectless and emotionally detached.
The central image in the series, a video of a large crowd silently dancing in a human vortex, is entitled Ourobouros Ceremony, Revolutionary Cycles, or Dancing in a Circle. Saldamando states that the dancers are engaged in ecstatic union but the faces are obscured, so it’s difficult to make out exactly the mood of the revelers churning in a repeating circle. Perhaps the subtext here is that the physical isolation of life during COVID-19 is only one kind of alienation. Could it be that the pandemic did not create, but only reveal some essential loneliness in her subjects?
Ultimately, When This Is All Over/Cuando Esto Termine is a heartfelt expression of emotional trauma and social dislocation, of lives interrupted. The artist strikes a hopeful note with her title, but the light at the end of the tunnel for this young and talented group of friends seems, right now, very far away indeed.
K.A. Letts is an artist and art blogger. She has shown her work regionally and nationally and in 2015 won the Toledo Federation of Art Societies Purchase Award while participating in the TAAE95 Exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. You can find more of her work at RustbeltArts.com.