THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by K. A. Letts
Every time I write about art these days, I find I have to start with a disclaimer: “I have not seen this work in person, only online.” And here I am once again. What follows is my review—or perhaps it’s a book report—on The Plague Review, a new project from Detroit’s Rotland Press. Today it’s exclusively a virtual literary/visual art journal suitable for viewing online. The publisher, printmaker, media archivist and social commentator Ryan Standfest, promises that a physical edition of the publication will be available when “the scourge of Covid-19 has lifted.” Whenever that is.
Standfest includes interviews, sketchbooks, comics, and poetry by a like-minded cohort of contemporary artists, printmakers, and graphic artists in this first online edition of The Plague Review. The contributors share a deeply held worldview that privileges humanist values and environmental concern over the prevailing late-capitalist system, which they express in a variety of styles and artforms. A number of the contributors, including Standfest himself, also exhibit a distinctive nostalgia for vintage—and often low-brow—cultural media such as taxidermy, sensationalistic penny dreadful-type stories and illustrations, political satire and comics. This international group, many of whom are regular participants in other projects by Rotland Press, can only have been assembled in the age of the Internet, when creatives from all over the world can form a virtual global village of shared values.
The cover design by Detroit illustrator Stephen Schudlich neatly conveys the content to be found within the pages of The Plague Review. Fred Stonehouse’s dapper—and rather cheerful—skeleton with the word SORRY stamped on its (skull) cap, informs us that we are about to get a therapeutic dose of what Standfest describes in his artist statement as “absurdist humor, gallows humor and satirical absurdism that … give[s] form to collective trauma.” He describes his motivation for this project: “There is a more general pathology of despair that interests me now, a place between optimism and resignation with a greater social struggle towards finding resolution.” Standfest and his fellow contributors have been mining this particular line of thought since 2010, but our current predicament has now caught up with his perspective, making The Plague Review particularly timely and topical.
Ryan Standfest’s opening editorial introduces us to the Review’s perspective with a description of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald (Since I was reading the review online, a photo of the Altarpiece was only a mouse click away, but when the publication is released in a physical edition, it’s not clear if there will be an accompanying image.) He draws parallels between the psychology of suffering depicted in the painting, created during the era of plague in the 1500s, and our anxiety and grief response to the COVID-19 crisis of 2020, a grief that is especially felt in Detroit, where the virus has hit the African American community with particular ferocity. His conclusion: while the externalities of a pandemic change, the psychology of suffering remains the same.
Left: Stephen Schudlich, The Plague Review, Issue 1 cover. Right: David Shrigley, The party, we were all having fun and then, The Plague Review, Issue 1, page 11. Images courtesy of Rotland Press.
Salted throughout The Plague Review are cartoons and illustrations that share a sensibility, if not a style. David Shrigley, a British visual satirist, illustrator, cultural critic and weekly contributor to The Guardian’s Weekend magazine, contributes a couple of his faux-naïve drawings, which deftly encapsulate our flat-footed astonishment at the arrival of doom. Chicago-based artist Chris Capoyianes, whose black and white drawings are often organized around actors within a theatrical proscenium, captures the poignancy of an empty theater with Intermission (In Quarantine). Oregon-based cartoonist and printmaker Chris Cajero Cilla and Chicago’s Paul Nudd share a creative approach that owes something to the gleefully grotesque figures of Jim Nutt’s early work. Detroit artist Ivy Manska’s creatures with attendant parasites recall the multi-figural, monster-infested landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch.
Christopher Cajero Cilla, The avalanche of your own guts!, 2020. The Plague Review, Issue 1, pages 20-21.
Image courtesy of Rotland Press.
Ivy Manska, Passenger, The Plague Review, Issue 1, pages 34-35. Image courtesy of Rotland Press.
Martin Rowson, a British editorial cartoonist who contributes regularly to The Guardian and the The Daily Mirror, has contributed some comic verse entitled, “The Enemy Within: A Paranoid Round in a Time of Pestilence.” It’s a neat parody of hypochondriacal anxiety’s circular thought.
The Plague Review also features two thoughtful interviews with artists Joanna Eberstein and Sue Coe, whose distinguished and longstanding art practices are having a moment of particular relevance in light of the pandemic.
Left: Chris Capoyianes, Intermission, The Plague Review, Issue 1, page 8. Image courtesy of Rotland Press.
Right: Sue Coe, Maga Doctor, The Plague Review, Issue 1, page 36.
Ebenstein, a Brooklyn-based photographer and connoisseur of death’s culture and customs, is best known as the co-founder with Tracy Hurley Martin of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, a “death-centric” museum that operated in Gowanus, Brooklyn from 2013-2016. The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, edited by Ebenstein and Colin Dickey, predates the museum and contains essays and illustrations by many scholars, artists, and writers working at the intersection of anatomy, culture, and mortality. More recently, Ebenstein has created a new volume, The Anatomical Venus, which describes life-size—and life-like—18th century models of the female body for use in medical study, and through that meditates on beauty, sexuality and their relation to death, among other things.
The interview in The Plague Review updates Ebenstein’s thoughts on mortality through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic:
“We have had the immense good fortune to live, for many years, in a time when we had the luxury of seeing death as something exotic and other, something that would happen to us after a long, full life. I think on some subconscious level, we felt that our technology insulated us from the natural world, and from death. What is happening now is a brutal reminder that this is not so, and that life is not a promise—it’s a temporary gift.”
Coe, a printmaker, illustrator, painter, and animal rights activist, describes herself as anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian. Now her passionate 40-year mission against animal cruelty has found a time uniquely suited to her talents. The public is suddenly starkly aware that the coronavirus has jumped from animals to humans because of the inhumane treatment of animals in China’s wet markets. Western factory slaughterhouses are likewise in the spotlight at this moment, not only for their brutal treatment of animals, but also for their callous attitude toward the workers in the facilities where the virus is spreading. One can imagine that current events will provide Coe with plenty of inspiration going forward, although, as she points out in this interview, she has previously made bodies of work that expressly address zoonotic infections.
“I have been consistent in fighting speciesism and for animal liberation. It’s always been crystal clear to me: it can happen here, and it did happen here. The crystallization [of public consciousness against cruelty toward animals] has to happen for the mass of people for there to be structural change.”
This may be that moment.
The first edition of The Plague Review ends with a brief commentary by Standfest acknowledging Italy as a fellow sufferer in the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured is an illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti of a de Chirico-inspired figure in close combat with the Corona-monster. The painting appeared on the cover of Robinson, a cultural supplement to one of Italy’s daily newspapers, la Repubblica.
Stephane Blanquet, Dessin soir: March 12, 2020 and Comme de rat: March 22, 2020, The Plague Review, Issue 1, pages 26-27. Image courtesy of Rotland Press.
Standfest seems more energized than depressed by the grim facts of the pandemic and its accompanying economic depression. Perhaps he senses that this inflection point in human history presents an opportunity to rethink and reorganize society in more humane ways, and a chance for us all to work in support of the environment rather than against it.
In the time it took to write this review of the first edition, a second iteration of The Plague Review has appeared, as has a new series of the single-page online publication Detroit Sequential, described as “inspired by the oversized four-color comic strips that once graced the pages of America’s Sunday newspapers.” It is available free weekly by subscription, and I highly recommend.
K.A. Letts is a working artist (kalettsart.com) and art blogger (rustbeltarts.com). She has shown her paintings and drawing in galleries and museums in Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and New York. She writes frequently about art in the Detroit area and is the New Art Examiner’s Detroit Editor.
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