DENVER — Words promise clarity, commitment, and explanations, all of which are essential for a critic adrift in exhibitions on art in the time of COVID. It is hard to escape the zeitgeist. But the artist Maia Ruth Lee argues grief erodes the certainty of language, clouding choices and meaning. Lee’s five artworks in The Language of Grief, now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver as part of a group exhibition on art made in 2020, push us to decipher unfamiliar marks as mournful dialects of our time.
We all picked up a hobby last year: baking bread, planting gardens, maybe sewing. It’s unclear if the silhouette portraits of unassembled garment patterns in Lee’s “Language of Grief 01-09” (2020-2021) are waiting for their maker to transform them with a hem, or if they’ve been torn apart and are preparing for a resurrection. The India ink on raw canvas presents like charcoal rubbings, streaks stacked like books which transform the illegible cuffs and collars into a shrine that is flat and easy to hold.
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Among the relics of pandemic projects are the routines of quarantine. Meals, games and laundry at Lee’s home waft through the small frame of “Homevid” (2020) like peering through the windows of a doll house. The intimate images, captured on a nanny camera, run on a loop a few feet from a long scroll dramatically cascading from the ceiling. “Dictation” (2020) is inscribed with dark candlestick-like characters built from Band-aids instead of ink. Both works read like a fragmentary novel, building a story of a family over the course of a year through mundane bits and extraordinary pieces.
“Grief is a cruel kind of education,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, an experience that teaches us about the failures of condolences. Lee attests to this sentiment with “Letters” (2020) an epistolary work crafted on a typewriter after the artist moved to Colorado from New York. Her passages swing from affirmations, congratulating the recipient for accomplishments witnessed from afar, to diaristic divulging of passing concerns. Expressions of doubt linger across so many letters that when “who put me here[?]” casually arrives on one it is unclear if Lee means her location, occupation, or something else. The words on the page seem to flip; the relationship in limbo is not with the pen pal, but the author.
The Language of Grief has no homeland, cadence, or clear translations, but it fulfills language’s most critical contribution: a record of a moment we may all eventually forget.
Maia Ruth Lee: The Language of Grief continues through August 22 as part of Colorado in the Present Tense at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (1485 Delgany Street, Denver, CO). The exhibition is curated by Nora Burnett Abrams.