We could all use a comical, joyously irreverent expression of pre-pandemic twenty-first century urban life right now. I’ve almost forgotten what the bustle of city life is like; I miss stores beckoning our entry, overflowing restaurants, and crowded Saturday farmer’s markets. Remember those jam-packed sidewalks, where you could actually see a passerby’s facial expression or literally bump into or touch someone without worry, let alone need to stay six feet away? Remember the days when a passerby’s cough in your general direction is met with a simple “that’s gross,” and not concern about getting infected with a potentially life-threatening virus? I miss the exuberant city life, with its myriad of eccentric, unique, and colorful people. I know it has only been five months but let’s be honest, these last five months have felt interminable. And as a way to cope with the barrage of information about our predicament, many of us engage in incessant doomscrolling.
So what is doomscrolling? It’s a new word I recently learned in The New York Times.  The definition, according to the NYT is bingeing on doom and gloom news. Yeah, I’m guilty. But in my own defense, all of the news is doom and gloom; it’s not just that I hand pick the most depressing, miserable stories. This is our life right now. I’ll just throw this one into the bin with all of the other pandemic neologisms: ‘flattening the curve,’ is a great one, as is ‘shelter-in-place,’ not to mention Coronaggedon and la rona.  But doomscrolling isn’t only about glomming onto the frightening stuff out there; it’s also about getting inundated with graphs and charts and numbers of cases and almost forgetting that these are human beings, each with their own lives and dreams. Our understandably intense obsession with the news, coupled with a lack of genuine, non-technologically mediated contact with those outside of our ‘safe bubble’ (yet another neologism) can create a deep void in our lives.
Being stuck in the midst of a pandemic is of course not new to civilizations and does not negate the idea that masterful, brilliant things can’t get done. Shakespeare wrote several of his plays, including King Lear, during infectious outbreaks. Actually, much of his life in the 1600’s was plagued by plagues, so to speak, including an outbreak of bubonic plague shortly after his birth. In the end of the tragedy, when Lear is wretched, mad and wandering out in the cold like a beggar, he grasps the idea that the lives of others have significance, unfortunately too late. There is transformation in his suffering, from an egotistical, petulant, childlike, approval-obsessed monarch (hmm… sound familiar?) to a caring human being.  And this tragedy in some ways parallels our current world. Emma Smith, in the NYT, states: “Maybe our misery now, like Lear’s, will help us to see the meaning in the lives of others. Maybe, like Shakespeare, we should focus not on statistics but on the wonderfully, weirdly, cussedly, irredeemably individual.”  What better way is there to distract us, yank us away from that addicting, time-hogging doomscrolling, and revive our sense of shared humanity and uniqueness than to turn to art? And Inliquid artist Ellen Lana Abraham reminds us of that teeming, electric, and exhilarating urban life, filled with those ‘cussedly’ peculiar, whacky, and wholly lovable humans.
Abraham’s Strapped amusingly shows us a crowded subway car, where two quirky, caricatured individuals from different corners of the universe might cross paths. The striking differences between these two individuals, who not only have to share a subway car but also have to share a decidedly intimate space as a result, is palpable. The fact that neither wants to be in proximity of the other, appearing indignant of the existence of the other, is comical yet emblematic of congested city life. We urbanites love the idea of energizing crowds yet hate the need for unexpectedly close contact. The painting is highly stylized, with bright colors, sharp angles, and caricatured features. As Abraham states: “The satire and cartoon imagery of my youthful artwork began to evolve as I grew more familiar with German Expressionism, American Social Realism and Abstract Expressionism…. My work is a synthesis of humor and fine art. I am quite serious about being silly. My goal is to create art that is sown from the depths of comic outrageousness, satirical observation and mild misanthropy.” The traces of German Expressionism are evident in the distortion of reality to exude emotional content, jarring bright colors, and gestural marks. It seems to embrace American Social Realism in its depiction of anonymous ordinary workers, and perhaps morsels of Abstract Expressionism in its hovering, non-representational, emotionally infused colors in the background of this and other paintings. And there definitely seems to be a nod to Archibald Motley and other similar artists of the Harlem Renaissance who utilizes the distortions, vibrant color palette, and the caricatures of German Expressionism in “raucous scenes of everyday urban life.”  On top of this fusion of historical art movements, we have Abraham’s own riotous, whacky signature style, culminating in a refreshing but astute commentary on twenty-first century urban life.
The Next Big Thing shows crowds of people tied to their electronic devices, again in a crowded space. Who is in charge here, the people or those devices, that ensnare each of them in a maze of wires? Though the colors are more subdued, there is again a contrast between people, between colors, and sharply demarcated lines between them. Each person appears to be remarkably different from the next, in skin coloring or nationality or dress, yet they are all distracted, oblivious to those next to them, engaged in the same task: listening to music on their own devices. It seems as if, in this tight space, the devices and their wires become like a monstrous character composed of multiple tendrils that keep their human counterparts in a tight, tangled web of leashes. It’s as if the devices have become bigger and more powerful than this mound of humans. There is a sense of alienation from each other, as they are within close proximity yet not acknowledging each other’s existence. But they all seem so happily ensconced in their electronic activity that there is little negative emotion here. Perhaps the title, The Next Big Thing, is not so much about the advent of the iPhone and its headphones, but about a new way of being together yet not really being together. This is in ironic contrast to the pandemic world where we are not together but using technology to create the illusion of being together. It’s another astute observation of twenty-first century life. But what would you give to be in that crowd now, surrounded by an amalgam of people, without masks or social distancing or virus? Wouldn’t you take those confounding tendrils out of your ears and really look at those people around you? Wouldn’t you relish the freedom of being in a crowded public space, and take that opportunity to appreciate those breathing souls next to you, to take it all in? I know I would. It’s that old Joni Mitchell adage, “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got/Till it’s gone…”
Natural Blondes, like the other paintings, is a commentary on our pre-pandemic modern life, but most of all, they are silly and a bit cheeky. Natural Blondes depicts a grouping of various disembodied heads, all expressing natural differences among humans such as skin color and facial features, yet the only thing that is probably not natural in this picture is the color of their hair. The striking irony is comic brilliance. They are all blondes, likely unnatural blondes who may say they are natural blondes. For some reason, there seems to be some dubious status in being a natural blonde in our culture. And Abraham’s images deftly, colorfully, play with this commonly perceived notion. There are strange, foreshortened angles in the windows of the background, making the space seem more surreal, more flattened, as if they are all crammed into a tiny room just for our visual enjoyment. There is a tiny but discernable misanthropic bent mixed in with the silliness, as if somehow these people are being (lovingly) mocked for lying about their true hair color. And such an ironic take on this trivial topic, one without real gravitas, certainly makes me forget our current circumstances and just laugh with blissful abandon.
Art, whether it’s visual art or film or literature or music, has the capacity to wrench us away from doomscrolling. Just taking a closer look at art can be invigorating and enlivening and may even be just what the doctor ordered. Abraham’s work captures our jam-packed technologically mediated twenty-first century urban life, and in these works she rewards us with splashes of humor and caricature and even some pearls of wisdom. Art of all forms can do more than simply entertain us. That even goes for a tragedy written four centuries ago. Emma Smith eloquently calls Shakespeare’s King Lear, written during a period of quarantine, a “narrative vaccine.”  Perhaps then, Abraham’s artwork, and those like it, might be ‘visual vaccines.’ These art mediated vaccines might protect us against the monotony and dehumanization of doomscrolling, remind us of the very human joy and tragedy around us, and perhaps fill a needed temporary void. They can enrich our currently downsized lives with added color, humor, and a sense of the interconnected humanness of our world. And there aren’t even any needles involved.
Ellen Lana Abraham’s work can currently be seen both online and at The Yard in an InLiquid exhibition entitled Carbon Snaps, running May 29, 2020-September 29, 2020