Category Archives: Plague Faces

Wifredo Lam/200,000

"The Warrior (Personnage avec Lezzard)" - Wifredo Lam

The Warrior (Personnage avec Lezzard)
Wifredo Lam, 1948.  Oil on burlap. 

In a lecture given by abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell in 1949, he refers almost in passing to the American racism suffered by prominent Cuban surrealist Wifredo Lam:

The conditions under which an artist exists in America are nearly unbearable; but so they are everywhere in modern times.  Sunday last I had lunch, in a fisherman’s inn in Montauk overlooking Gardiner’s Bay, with Wifredo Lam, the Cuban and Parisian painter, who is half-Chinese, half-Negro; he has difficulty in remaining in this country because of the Oriental quota; I know he is humiliated on occasion in New York, for example, in certain restaurants.  He kept speaking to me of his admiration of America, asking me what American painters thought of this and that, and I answered as best I could; but a refrain that ran through his questions is less easy to answer, whether artists were always so “unwanted.”  I replied that I supposed that artists were more “wanted” in the past when they spoke for a whole community, that they became less “wanted” as their expressions because individual and separate; but since I had never had the sensation of belonging to a community, it was difficult for me to imagine being “wanted.”  This is not wholly true; we modern artists constitute a community of sorts; part of what keeps me going, part of my mystique is to work for this placeless community.  Lam and I parted advising each other to keep working ; it is the only advice one painter ever gives another.  — from a lecture given during symposium “French Art vs. U.S. Art Today”, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1949

I take Motherwell’s point about not feeling part of a community and therefore “wanted”.  But I wonder if he might have more easily imagined being a part of a community if he had been part of one that was “unwanted” by birth, rather than being the White son of a banker who put him through Ivy League universities.   

We have now passed 200,000 dead from covid-19 in the United States.  This persisting catastrophe is welded to another constant in this country:  the systemic racism that continues to shape our national outcomes.  Those who doubt or deny the prevalence or lethality of the pandemic must surely be insulated from communities of color, where the losses are outrageously high. 

Is it possible that at least a portion of these deaths do not constitute a crime against humanity, in the face of careless and, now we find, perhaps purposeful neglect on the part of the Trump Administration?   Will they never be held accountable for those lives lost?  

It is a long, long path, this journey out of our national racism.  Maybe we’ll never get there.  But along the way are the gravestones of now 200,000 Americans dead of covid-19, among them far too many people of color. 

"Plague Faces No. 12" - Carraher 2020

Plague Faces No. 12
2020.  Acrylic on canvas. 12 x 16 in.

I paint this series to recognize those who have died or suffered grave loss in this crisis, and, further, to accuse those who have knowingly, willfully, or carelessly pursued polices, actions, and inactions that allowed these deaths and suffering to happen and who continue to do so at this moment.

Negative Shapes

"Granite I" - Carraher 2020

Granite I
2020.  Acrylic on canvas, 14 x 11 in.

The work informs the work.  I started the “Granite” series this spring not long after concluding “Plague Faces”.  The crossover in technique is easy to see:

"Plague Faces No. 17" - Carraher 2020Plague Faces No. 17
2020.  Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 16 in.

I start by creating a complex surface (in both these examples largely with rollers), then use a single color to paint away everything that’s not the shape I’m foregrounding.  “Negative shape” painting, a common technique.  It can bring the work to a magical conclusion, but you have to have faith that it’s going to come together because in the meantime it doesn’t look like much.  I liked “No. 17” a lot, and found a way very soon to go there again in “Granite I”, a totally different subject.

Where the Plague Faces donations go

Half of all the proceeds from sales of the Plague Faces is donated for covid relief.  Where does the money go?

I paint this series to recognize those who have died or suffered grave loss in this crisis, and, further, to accuse those who have knowingly, willfully, or carelessly pursued polices, actions, and inactions that allowed these deaths and suffering to happen and who continue to do so at this moment.

Plague Faces: Outrun

Plague Faces No. 14Plague Faces No. 14
June 2020.  Acrylic on canvas, 10 x 8 in.

This project – the Plague Faces –  has repeatedly been outrun by events.  But the dead, which they memorialize, are outside of time.

In mid-May the nation was “opening up”, seeming, to my amazement, to believe it could just move on.  On May 21 I created the first of the Plague Faces paintings, and I finished the last on June 16 – not quite a month.  The paintings were rushed, roughly done – a kind of accounting that couldn’t wait for refinement.  I posted the first of the Faces on social media on May 23.  By May 27 there were already 100,000 dead.

On May 30, as the protests against police brutality swept the nation, I posted, “In the short time I’ve been working on this series, the ‘crisis’ to which I referred has been subsumed by national emergencies of almost every kind. Mourning those who are dying in the pandemic seems almost a quaint sidebar. But it’s not; it’s one more tragic, unnecessary face of our disintegration.”  The losses in the pandemic reflect the injustices that have been with us all along.

And now we are at 137,000 covid dead and counting.  The dead and those yet to die are already lost to history, while we are doomed to still live it, because we are doing the single worst thing we can do for them:  not learn from their deaths.   When I started painting the Faces I could not guess at the future because the present itself was unacceptable, beyond comprehension.  But that time just barely past, as spring moved into summer, now seems a faded relic too exhausting to recall.  We are no longer suspended in disbelief as we slide toward the unknown.  We are now fully in the abyss.  We are in the embrace of the devil.

I feel a new set of Prayer Flags coming on.

One way to help those continuing to suffer loss:  Half the proceeds of sales from the paintings of the Plague Faces will be donated for covid relief.

I paint this series to recognize those who have died or suffered grave loss in this crisis, and, further, to accuse those who have knowingly, willfully, or carelessly pursued polices, actions, and inactions that allowed these deaths and suffering to happen and who continue to do so at this moment.

Plague Faces No. 20 - Carraher 2020Plague Faces No. 20
June 2020.  Acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 in.

 

Plague Faces: Why

Plague Faces No. 16

Plague Faces No. 16
May 2020.  Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 in.

I want to be clear why I created the Plague Faces series.

By the time I’d returned home from the hike the four aspects of the project were forming in my mind:

  • bringing the faces of the lost before us
  • marking the ongoing loss daily by posting the faces with a statement on social media
  • raising money for covid relief
  • exploring artistically the potential of an initial vision

Whether the actual works are successful artistically is its own matter.  But I believe firmly in the need to recognize the loss and the culpability.  Silence — and evasion, and denial — is death.

If you need a real-life face, and a family with the grief and rage of avoidable profound loss, see the righteous obituary for Arizona covid victim Mark Antony Urquiza of Arizona.  (Edited to add:  The Urquiza family social media campaign is Marked by Covid.)

I will be donating half the proceeds of sales from the Plague Faces series for covid relief.

I paint this series to recognize those who have died or suffered grave loss in this crisis, and, further, to accuse those who have knowingly, willfully, or carelessly pursued polices, actions, and inactions that allowed these deaths and suffering to happen and who continue to do so at this moment.

Plague Faces: First Vision

Plague Faces No. 4 - Carraher 2020.  Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 in.

Plague Faces No. 4
May 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 in.

I was hiking in the National Park just a few weeks ago, brooding about…things, and an image came into my head, of faces. The faces of the dead, those lives wasted in the pandemic by the carelessness of our leaders. I realized later the faces of the vision were related to the archetypal faces we see in stone on Easter Island, but, really, the simple model is basic throughout human culture.

This is the fourth version I did based on that impulse, and comes the closest to what I saw in that first moment. I did not mean to leave it without texture or additional color, but when I got to this point I realized I was satisfied, and stopped. It is, like so many of the Plague Faces, pretty rough as an artwork.  For instance, the interior ears were painted with a different black pigment and don’t quite fit in.  I tended to leave these works to chance, and skip any refining – kind of like what life itself does to us, and our faces.

I paint this series to recognize those who have died or suffered grave loss in this crisis, and, further, to accuse those who have knowingly, willfully, or carelessly pursued polices, actions, and inactions that allowed these deaths and suffering to happen and who continue to do so at this moment.