7 art exhibitions to visit from the comfort of your couch

Uncertainty can be paralyzing, but one thing is certain in this time of COVID-19 – none of us know what will happen next. As a result, some art galleries, especially those based in universities, have announced that they will remain closed to the general public this fall. Others are open but with contingency plans if things go wrong. Luckily, many local venues have launched virtual programs including online exhibitions, artist talks, and even online concerts and film festivals to save the day. Some plan to keep exhibits online, even when they open their doors to on-site visitors.

Here’s a selection of a few deals that can be enjoyed from the comfort (and safety) of your own sofa. They include slideshows, videos, and even 360-degree guided tours. Yes, we know that seeing art on a computer has nothing to do with the power of seeing an exhibition in real life. Still, there are benefits. There is often more time to engage with the art, especially if you take the time to listen to the artists and curators explain their process and intent. Plus, no one will blame you for snacking while you watch!

Until August 9

Panel 12, 1955, from “Struggle: From the History of the American People” by Jacob Lawrence, 1954–56. (Courtesy of Bob Packert/PEM)

Jacob Lawrence created masterful paintings focusing on African American history and life. Today, in perhaps one of the most comprehensive local virtual exhibits, PEM features “The Artist’s Struggle: From the History of the American People,” depicting scenes from critical moments in American history.

Lawrence’s 30 panels chronicle historical events between 1770 and 1817 in the characteristic style he called “dynamic cubism”. Unlike the mainstream narratives we are used to seeing, this account of American history includes black people, women, and immigrants as active players. Lawrence’s Panel 27, created in 1956 with egg tempera painted on hardboard, is titled “For the freedom we want and will have, for we have served this cruel land long enough – a slave of Georgia, 1810”. It depicts a suppressed slave revolt planned by an enslaved Georgian man to free slave communities in Georgia and North Carolina.

Panel 12, “And a Woman Mans a Cannon”, from 1955, was inspired by Margaret Corbin who fought in the Battle of Fort Washington in New York in 1776. When the British killed Corbin’s husband, she took up duty loading and firing the cannon. This painting, along with the others, is shown in conjunction with related artifacts and artwork. Critical appraisals are provided for each piece by historians, writers and artists.

One of the coolest things about the exhibit is its 360-degree gallery tour that allows you to virtually walk around the space. You can also read an essay and view a video by EMP Associate Curator Lydia Gordon, as well as listen to a podcast and hear commentary from contemporary artists Derrick Adams and Bethany Collins, who were influenced by Lawrence and who are also showing the work in the show.

Lawrence called himself a “storyteller” and we can appreciate his art of telling stories that we might have otherwise ignored.

Until August 30

Jesse Draxler, "Living with a ghost," 2017-2020.  (Courtesy of the artist)
Jesse Draxler, “Living with a Ghost”, 2017-2020. (Courtesy of the artist)

What does intimacy mean in the midst of a pandemic? Is it lost, reinvented, or is something new bubbling up as we live our days in insolation?

This is the question posed in the digital exhibition that lives on its own website. Nine artists — sculptors, photographers, videographers and digital media artists — are paired with nine writers and poets. Matches trigger conversations of the kind that, before the pandemic, might have taken place among friends over a glass of wine.

New York artist Jesse Chun’s sound and video work is paired with Colombian writer Danilo Machado’s poem considering English and its dominance over other languages. Harlem writer Ladi’Sasha Jones writes a response to New York artist Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste whose interactive performance piece involves setting up a landline in his home and answering the call of anyone who wants to chat, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday for the duration of the show. It promises no answering machines, no caller ID, no call waiting. Jones reflects on how landline phones produce intimacy through the stillness they demand. It expands from there, connecting phone lines, homes, and cities to portals to intimacy and Black Lives Matter.

And there’s more. Every first and third Wednesday of the month through October, the BCA hosts “Lunchtime Listening Sessions” featuring artists of color who use their art to address the pain and anger of the racism, as well as attempts at healing.

Through the fall

Claude Monet, 'Grainstack (Sunset)', 1891. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Claude Monet, ‘Grainstack (Sunset)’, 1891. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Claude Monet was loved in Boston, as he was around the world. In honor of the museum’s 150th anniversary, the MFA had planned to exhibit its 35 Monet paintings for the first time in 25 years. This does not happen. But you can still get a glimpse of what the exhibit might have looked like by visiting the MFA online. Discover a sample of Monet’s works in the form of a slideshow and video. Watch a video by Associate Curator of European Paintings Katie Hanson and even listen to music inspired by Claude Monet. Contemporary classical violinist Lilit Hartunian plays three pieces by composers active in Monet’s time which she associates with works she found inspiring.

Through the fall

Jean‑Michel Basquiat, “Hollywood Africans,” 1983. (Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Jean‑Michel Basquiat, “Hollywood Africans,” 1983. (Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Also at the MFA, “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip Hop Generation” looks at New York in the 1980s as graffiti on subway cars turned into artwork on gallery walls. Jean-Michel Basquiat was at the center of the action, but a host of others energized the scene, creating paintings, sculptures, drawings, videos, music and fashion, including artists like A -One, ERO, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Keith Haring, Kool Koor, LA2, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Rammellzee and Toxic.

In the online version of the exhibition, you can view an excerpt from the “Style Wars” video documenting the links between graffiti and facets of hip-hop culture such as breakdancing and DJing. You can also take a closer look at Basquiat’s painting “Hollywood Africans”. Also included is a selection of music that inspired and lifted New York’s post-graffiti era.

Until September 8

John Lehman, "Well done, Cutty Sark, pages 554-555," 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)
John Lehman, “Weel Done, Cutty Sark, pages 554-555”, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

“As above, so below” is a phrase attributed to the ancient Greek author Hermes Trismegistus. Long before COVID-19, Tufts students chose this phrase as the theme for this year’s thesis exhibition, capping two years of work in the university’s graduate art program. Although the exhibit hasn’t happened, it’s all online, eerily prescient in its recognition that our individual lives are governed by larger forces beyond our control.

Each of the 17 artists participating in the exhibition has a dedicated web page. Browse an online catalog and take a virtual tour of the show. The school promises a physical exhibition at some point in the future, but no one makes any promises as to when.

Until August 29

Sophie Ainslie, "untitled (Travel)," 2019. (Courtesy NAGA Gallery)
Sophia Ainslie, “Untitled (Voyage)”, 2019. (Courtesy of Galerie NAGA)

During the pandemic, artists have continued to create. The NAGA gallery shows us what its 41 artists have done. From graphic paintings by South African artist Sophia Ainslie to textured meditations by Martin Kline in New York, nearly all of the works on display are new, and some of them, according to the gallery, are still drying in the studio.

Joana Vasconcelos'
“Valkyrie Mumbet” by Joana Vasconcelos at the MAAM. (Courtesy of Will Howcroft/MassArt)

MAAM opened and closed in the blink of an eye, thanks to COVID-19. Even so, the new museum is making its presence felt, at least virtually, through what it calls “MAAM From Home.”

You can watch videos of artist collective Ghost of A Dream (a collaboration of Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom) who transformed the lobby of MAAM into a site-specific installation titled “Yesterday is Here” made from 30 years of remaining MassArt exhibition catalogs and artist invitations. Another project involved making a rainbow flag out of hundreds of bags of cash the team salvaged from the bankrupt Trump Plaza Casino in Atlantic City. It is, they say, “a statement about Trump’s failing businesses and his lack of respect for the LGBTQ community.”

If you noticed a theme, you understood the schtick of Ghost of a Dream. Everything they create involves the detritus collected in pursuit of a hope or a dream.

Also at “MAAM From Home,” a video of Mohawk multimedia artist Skawennati and his avatar “xox” takes us on a tour of his virtual world as part of the “Game Changers” exhibit exploring artists working at the confluence of contemporary art and video games. Another video available for viewing is of Portuguese artist Joanne Vasconcelos discussing the inspiration behind her large, colorful installation Valkyrie Mumbet at MAAM.

In addition to videos, “MAAM From Home” has DIY art projects and even a free background for your next Zoom meeting.

Final Thoughts

One of the benefits of visiting virtual galleries is that you are no longer limited to visiting local sites. If you are ready to travel, at least virtually, visit the Whitney Museum in New York, the Guggenheim or MoMA and the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Thanks to the power of the Internet, you can even travel abroad. Visit the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, the Vatican Museums in Rome, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the MASP in Sao Paolo, the British Museum in London, and the Hauser & Wirth Gallery with locations around the world.

In 2020, culture is where the couch is.

William E. Bennett