How are artists responding to the coronavirus crisis?

With creative support networks, paintings to aid food banks and stay-at-home pleas

Matthew Burrows’ The Seer, 2012
Matthew Burrows’ The Seer, 2012

The 16th card of the tarot deck, the tower, depicts a couple falling headfirst out of their castle-like home. It symbolises all reality, normality and structure being turned upside down. It’s a good allegory for a global pandemic, and artists are responding to the current situation with equally creative visual responses. 

Matt Ager’s Untitled, 2020
Matt Ager’s Untitled, 2020

British artist Matthew Burrows, who is represented by Vigo Gallery, has swiftly instigated #artistsupportpledge on Instagram. Artists can post up to five artworks for sale at £200 (which can be purchased by direct messaging each artist), on the promise they will buy another artist’s £200 work when they make £1,000. “In the build up to the Covid-19 pandemic, I could sense the likely impact on artists,” Burrows explains. “The art market is global and dynamic, yet art fairs and galleries were closing, which inevitably would impact on the movement and sales of artworks. I was sitting at my dining room table last Tuesday morning, having had to cancel forthcoming projects and income streams, when I thought of the idea.” 

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The response was fast; 9,800 international artists – from Italy to Brazil to New Zealand – posted pieces for sale within a week. In the UK, Royal Academy alumni Matt Ager has included pencil drawings of what look like bits of tool-shed hardware, and is donating 10 per cent of sales to his local food bank; while Berlin-based Robert McNally is adding new “pictorial fictions” to the mix. “There’s some incredible work available to buy,” enthuses Burrows. “And you know you are doing a good thing and supporting others, so they can do the same.” The scheme also encourages donations to charities such as Hospital Rooms, which commissions art for mental health units. Burrows and Turner Prize-winner Keith Tyson have now started a sister project, #isolationartschool, for adults and children wanting to make art. 

One of Issy Wood’s coronavirus-inspired paintings
One of Issy Wood’s coronavirus-inspired paintings

Other artists are selling work to make money for food banks. British painter Issy Wood, represented by Carlos Ishikawa, created two corona-inspired paintings – one of a toilet roll, the other of hands being washed – which raised £8,165 for the Trussell Trust network of food banks. Emerging artist Nicholas Cheveldave has collaborated with Emalin gallery to release a £200 print edition of one of his collages – pink spring blossom is covered with anarchist symbols and use-by stickers. Proceeds will go to the Hackney Foodbank.

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Some artists are using Instagram as a space to make more direct visual comments about the situation. For the past year and a half, Bedwyr Williams – who represented Wales at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and is represented by Southard Reid gallery – has been using the online space to satirically lampoon art-world types. In his current set of drawings, however, he turns his attention to the wave of second-home isolators, criticising them for spreading the virus to other parts of the country. And Wolfgang Tillmans, who has been using Instagram as a political forum since the Brexit vote in 2016, is now accompanying his stunning photographs with text works in multiple languages asking people to stay at home. As he notes: “You protect me. I protect you.”

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