Our long breathless moment

Leonard Pearlstein Gallery presents Lastgaspism: Art and Survival in the Age of Pandemic

5 minute read
An orange, white, and black collage of thumbnail images and typed and written text from an online meeting's chat and notes.

Remember when we didn’t think about breathing? The 21st century has transformed the automatic, effortless process into an obsession, thanks to police chokeholds, suffocating wildfires, and a deadly respiratory virus. Just reading the news tightens the chest and constricts the airways. That’s why Lastgaspism: Art and Survival in the Age of Pandemic explores connections between breath and life at Drexel University’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery.

Based on the book Lastgaspism, the exhibition was curated by editors Anthony Romero, Daniel Tucker, and Dan S. Wang, all of whom are artists and educators. Romero, a professor at Tufts University, documents artists and communities of color; Tucker is associate professor of socially engaged art at Moore College of Art & Design; and Los Angeles-based Wang is resident artist at Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center and recently completed a commissioned work for Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative.

Though the exhibition includes several artists, it leaves a unified impression of daily life in the early pandemic, when the familiar became forbidden, and the routine was fraught with danger we couldn’t see and didn’t understand. Many works on view appear to have taken shape in lockdown cocoons, especially those of Alicia Grullón.

The new heroes?

In multiple self-portraits, Grullón, a performance artist and photographer, inhabits workers who gained visibility when the world ground to a halt, the ones whose work was suddenly recognized as essential by the rest of us.

The portraits have headline-ripped titles. In May 8, 2020: US Postal Service warns coronavirus pandemic threatens its survival, Grullón smiles at the camera in the guise of an unmasked letter carrier. She’s holding a Priority Mail package and wearing what could pass for a USPS uniform: baseball cap with white logo, light blue shirt, navy hoodie, and white sneakers. But your carrier wouldn’t enter your living room and pose with your books and dog.

And a bike messenger wouldn’t pedal a takeout order into your kitchen and stand astride her bike at the sink. Grullón does, though, looking stressed in her helmet, mask slung low, holding her chin like a hammock, as she embodies May 4, 2020: We call workers ‘essential’ – but is that just referring to the work, not the people?

Questions of home

The Milwaukee Beautiful Questions Project: Always Home (2021), a video featuring residents answering questions about themselves over the telephone, is one of several works on view from TimeSlips, a project founded by scholar and theater activist Anne Basting to engage artists and caregivers.

In the film by Michael Snowden, Jacklyn Kostichka, and Robert Knapp, we hear Ernest, Philip, Gerta, Alice, and others responding, backed by music, as scenic city views are shown. Their voices have the texture and directness of age: these people know what they’re about. Asked what makes Milwaukee special, one says simply, “It’s my home.” When naming favorite places, they identify the kitchen, living room, or garden, but one woman responds, “bed, because it’s where I sleep, and sometimes I have fantastic dreams!”

Always Home captures the secret world of seniors and people living with infirmity, which quarantine revealed to many: life limited to four walls, but still containing joy. Watching it is like propping the telephone on your shoulder as you look out the window and settle in for a chat with a favored grandparent. The grounded voice is right in your ear, helping you see you’re not alone, and maybe things aren’t so bad.

The Zoom lens

While confined to home, tech worker and artist Cheryl Derricotte cooked up Pandemic Bookkeeping (2020-21), a print series juxtaposing divergent views of womanhood. Derricotte combines cut images from Mrs. Beaton’s Book of Household Management (1861), inventories from her own cupboards, and blank pages from a journal owned by Clara Barton (1821-1912), noted Civil War battlefield nurse and American Red Cross founder.

The mix can be mind-bending, as when Pandemic Bookkeeping 1: Modern Bedroom, 2020 shows perfection: coverlet as smooth as new snow; crystal atomizers arranged atop a starched bureau scarf; and no errant garments—presumably all freshly laundered and put away. The 19th-century caption instructs, “There are no unnecessary shelves or mouldings on which dust might collect.” Perish the thought.

The “invalid trays” in Pandemic Bookkeeping 6: Caregiving Trays, 2020 are laid with folded linen napkins, china, silver, and temptations that include beef tea, baked custard, and Milanaise Soufflé. Probably not what Covid caregivers were setting outside bedroom doors.

“Derricotte transforms these elements,” gallery notes observe, “into a plague journal of her own time: a Black career woman in 2020 stuck working from home, the space she is nevertheless expected to keep presentable and proper.” And ready at any moment to join an unexpected Zoom meeting.

Cultivation, liberation, organization

Erin Genia of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, centered in the Dakotas, devised a Cultural Emergency Response Kit (2021-22) containing items key to Indigenous heritage: wild rice grown, harvested, and owned by native people; instructions on planting a native meadow with conservation seeds; single-serve packages of dried buffalo meat; and British peppermint tea, which could signify either a native remedy or colonial takeover.

Liberation (2020), a display of pages from a graphic novel by Chicago visual artist Damon Locks, follows characters speculating on what liberation requires and where to find it.

Design Studio for Social Intervention goes a step beyond artistic interpretation to develop a better way to meet social emergencies. Materials related to its proposal, the Social Emergency Response Center (2017-ongoing), are on display. The centerpiece is an organizational schematic listing common needs to be addressed, to varying degrees, in any emergency: Food, Shelter, Healing, and Information. It’s a useful framework to organize community-wide responses and coordinate from what can be a disjointed array of government, civic, private, and philanthropic entities.

Breathe and persevere

During the pandemic, Drexel’s Writers Room pursued a similarly cooperative approach, knitting together a community consisting of students, alumni, faculty, staff, and local residents. Views from Home, a selection of works germinated in online get-togethers, open mics, stoop sits, porch visits, and grocery drops, show how members stayed close and creative despite physical distancing.

Which perhaps is the message to be taken from Lastgaspism: until breathing is easy again, breathe any way you can.

What, When, Where

Lastgaspism: Art and Survival in the Age of Pandemic. Through May 25, 2022, at Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, Drexel University, URBN Annex, 3401 Filbert Street, Philadelphia. (215) 895-2548 or drexel.edu/pearlsteingallery.

Drexel’s current public health guidelines are available here.


Leonard Pearlstein Gallery is a wheelchair-accessible space, with sufficient clearance and emergency exits. Visitors who have questions or need assistance should contact the gallery at [email protected] or call (215) 895-2548.

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