On January 4, 2020, we took a jaunt to take in Yayoi Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water and to explore the Toledo Museum of Art. We’d been to the museum a few years prior for the Kehinde Wiley exhibition and it’s truly an impressive place, worth the trip for the modern room alone. Seriously, when it’s safe to do so, hop in the car, drive to Toledo, walk straight to Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s Kitchen and stand in front of it long enough to realize what’s happening and you will transcend the understandings you have habitually held about art and then turn around and watch it happening to all the folks around you.
Starting the year in an infinity room, in retrospect, was necessary and appropriate considering what was headed my way (and our collected way, obviously) over the course of the year. I stuck my flag in art on January 4 and set up shelter there. I didn’t know then how ideal that site would eventually be for withstanding the weather.
So here, in no particular order, are many of the arts that fattened me up for the haul, that kept me lubricated and rolling through every harrowing or demoralizing or even just irritating moment of the past year: The Ecstasies of 2020.
Midnight Gospel / Duncan Trussell Family Hour I came for Pendleton Ward’s whimsy and dynamic use of color, stayed for Duncan’s existential spright party. Duncan’s genuine curiosity is incredibly appealing, and his bald vulnerability has helped me stare down some of the ghastliest demons that have bubbled up from my long buried denial graveyard this year. Most merciful, perhaps, has been his gift for eroding certainty. Hare Krishna, sweeties!
As Is / Nick Cave Cave taught me to allow myself to be inspired by a thing without scrutinizing it, to follow what pulls me without needing to know why. As someone who has historically not written a story until I think it all the way through to its conclusion before I even begin, this was the owl pellet that contains the seeds of freedom. And who doesn’t need more freedom.
While I tended to rely on old favorites for music footholds for sanity, Susumu Yokota’s Sakura came across my radar — mostly likely resulting from my obsessive cycling between Brian Eno records — and was immediately comforting. Likewise RTJ4, a love at first listen.
Old Favorite Music Footholds for Sanity included The Breeders’ All Nerve, a record I am in the mood to listen to at any time of any day, Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, which lowers my blood pressure, Fugazi’s End Hits, which raises it but I don’t even care.
While I’m intentionally shying away from filling this list exclusively with things to watch because it’s not as though we don’t all have a surfeit of recommendations from everyone around us all year telling us to watch everything they liked, Homemade was the first content I watched in 2020 that was created in the context of the pandemic and the lockdowns. A collection of short films made by famous and amateur directors all over the world, it was surprisingly comforting for film/tv to come into the dystopian present, as early on in the pandemic watching content in which folks were gathered together gave me psychic vertigo. Because there has been a glut of stuff to watch this year it seems Homemade has gone largely unnoticed, but it stands out in my memory as a powerful moment in art this year.
OK but taking into account what I said about not making this list all YOU HAVE TO WATCH, but you really have to watch Pen15. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle have achieved something courageous in its strangeness, monumentally loving, and skin-crawlingly funny, a feat of both vision and execution.
Actual Collaborations with Other Human Beings. Talking to other artists about process and inspiration. Connecting with others finding their footing in building something independently. Supporting and being inspired by rather than comparing myself to the work of other artists. Practicing, coming back to the work over and over again even when it shames or doesn’t yield.
Early in the first lockdown Chafe told me about a conversation with a longtime friend of ours who has consistently made their living as an independent fine artist. They were saying they’ve given up a lot of material excesses and sometimes comforts in that pursuit but that every time they assess that decision they wind up back in the same place: “I’d rather be an artist.” The fear and pain and isolation of this year was balanced, at every turn, by art. Whatever it means, I’d rather not stare into the void to see what I might be without it. I’d rather be an artist.