Many group exhibitions lately have depicted “pandemic life” or had themes that “reflect on our current state.” It is no easy task to round up a selection of works that accomplish this on their own, as well as together, without disrupting their meaning and intention. “Context 2021” at Filter Photo pulls this off with a large group of artists from across Chicago and the United States. Curated by Patron Gallery director Juli Lowe, the wide-ranging subject matter, size and execution represented does not overwhelm, but instead offers a rich depth that is matched by the quality of the work. With each artist contributing a single piece, the exhibition functions as Filter Photo’s annual open call. “Context 2021” stands out not only from other pandemic-centric exhibitions, but also from past iterations of the annual group show.
Lowe agrees. “Artists always make work about things that are important to them, but now so much of it is directly personal,” she says. “I was really drawn to the work that I felt was about the pandemic, but not overtly or in an obvious way. I found it incredible how these artists are talking about the pandemic in such in-depth ways without actually saying ‘pandemic.’ It’s bigger. It’s about life in general and also this defining moment. The artists are talking about these universal subjects, but telling them in such personal, vulnerable, and beautiful ways because of what we’ve all gone through this past year.”
The subtlety that these artists employ creates a tenderness that is at times delicate, like in Sara J. Winston’s “From the Passing Measures,” which captures a bathing scene with three generations of women, and at other times concrete and foreboding, as in Rashod Taylor’s “It’s Complicated,” revealing a young Black boy looking down at the American flag he holds, the reflection of his father behind him. There are intimate details within each piece that the viewer must spend time with—moments of touch and connection that are more sacred than ever.
Themes woven through the exhibition include self-reflection and time with family, which may be expected but are by all means still worth portraying. What did surprise were the pieces in which the artist was able to take a specific feeling and miraculously transpose it onto an image through digital manipulation. How can a visual device or aesthetic embody the feeling of monotony or escapism, emotions felt strong during these quarantine times? In Kalee Appleton’s piece, “It cascaded and then it was no more,” she cleverly used the clone tool in Photoshop to take what appears to have started as a simple bush, and altered it almost beyond recognition. Mirroring the repetitive monotony of isolation, elements like flowers and leaves are repeated so much that we cannot tell where the original image begins or ends.
Much like Appleton, Jiatong Lu uses digital manipulation in her piece “The Secret Place with Nowhere to Hide,” but through digital collage. For Lu, the act of photographing allows her to go into her own world and separate herself from the moment—a coping mechanism she employed while experiencing abuse during her childhood. Her work depicts a tranquil surface of water within a dark landscape. Within this scene is a photo of a family member sliced into strips, fragmented like a memory dissolving. The artist is safe and away from danger, but the memory remains, the experience still happened. There are moments like this throughout the exhibition—haunting and ominous, yet with a bit of hope. The pandemic is still here; its residue stains our lives. And although the memory exists, the moment fades. (Christina Nafziger)
Context 2021, Filter Photo, 1821 West Hubbard, through May 1.