Andrew Sendor, Reall_Nature: Fighting for Dominance, 2020, graphite on paper, 14 × 11 inches. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater.
When I saw Andrew Sendor’s drawings of photographs posted on Instagram during quarantine, I felt like he’d short-circuited the app. The strange, hallucinatory worlds Sendor developed in his earlier fictional paintings have earned him comparisons to Matthew Barney, David Lynch, and the Surrealists, but ever since I first visited his studio in 2017, I’ve also thought of him in relation to artists like Vija Celmins. Sendor’s meticulous renderings are, it seems to me, a way of fixing transient images, getting behind what they actually depict, and asking why we believe in images at all. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, Sendor had switched to drawing scenes from real life—albeit life that’s increasingly stranger than fiction. We spoke twice over Zoom to discuss his InstaCOVID drawings, currently on display at Sperone Westwater’s online viewing room.
Will Fenstermaker One of the things that immediately struck me about this project is that it’s a form of documentary, whereas your previous works depict elaborate, fictional worlds. What prompted this?
Andrew Sendor The COVID-19 pandemic prompted this! And, yes, this project is quite different from my pre-pandemic work. There are some similarities of course; but apart from being documentary, it’s also more raw. These drawings are part of how I’ve been processing the pandemic in real time, especially how we’re dealing with it through images shared on Instagram.
Sadly, this isn’t fictitious. People really are sick and suffering—those aren’t just images. The pain is real; the anxiety is real. I couldn’t fathom making fiction-based work in the middle of all that. In fiction, there’s this invisible contract between the creator and audience called suspension of disbelief. That’s just not relevant during a health crisis.
WF I wondered if it had to do with shelter-in-place restrictions. Your fictional paintings require elaborate productions: you cast actors, make films, and paint scenes from the films. Plus, you’re making drawings here whereas typically you paint, and the former is a smaller process in terms of the space it requires.
AS Well, we relocated from Brooklyn to Westchester County just a couple days before the shelter-in-place orders came down, and I didn’t have all my supplies, but that’s not why I started the project. In the beginning, I wasn’t thinking about making art at all. My partner and I were just focusing on keeping the kids stable and managing the daily tidal waves of fear and anxiety induced by the pandemic.
While I was obsessed with following numerous news outlets and data from sources like the CDC and Worldometer, I was also fascinated by what folks were posting online. Before the coronavirus really hit the US, I was WeChat messaging with friends in Beijing and Shanghai who were telling a very different story than what was visible in the US news and online. People here were still casually posting a lot of pictures about their daily life. As positive cases began to surface in the US, the images on Instagram quickly changed.
I was moved by the positive energy people were putting forward with fundraising campaigns, donating PPE, and helping getting food to others in need. I saw an increased level of empathy, which I found to be a step forward for society as a whole. Then suddenly it felt urgent to make drawings of other people’s visions, thoughts, and feelings—essentially drawings that would act as time capsules, as portraits of this unfathomable time.
Andrew Sendor, @nytgender. April 8 with @thegreatwomenartists, April 22, 2020, graphite on paper, 14 × 11 inches. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater.
WF What was the first Instagram post you drew? Some of the drawings have two images; how did you arrive at that?
AS The first was a drawing of lions, which was posted by this gory nature account called reall_nature before the pandemic, but I felt it spoke to the predator-prey dynamic of fighting the virus. It connected the moments before and during the pandemic, which is creating all these new visual signifiers. Regarding the drawings that have two images, I was thinking about the endlessness of scrolling in this vertical movement, which doesn’t really permit us to look at one image at a time; our register of an image is contingent upon the images that come before and after it. For example, the drawing with Louise Bourgeois and the Italian forensic doctor was a result of this mindset. There’s something about the resonance between their body language that I felt connected them.
WF They both have this Madonna pose.
AS Yes, that, and I find the doctor’s gesture to be rather noble. She exudes this feeling of leadership and strength, and I always thought of Bourgeois in that way—her influence is vast. I was thinking about how the pandemic requires an unfathomably large amount of care, and how so many of our healthcare workers are women. So in a sense, this drawing is paying respect to the invaluable contributions women are making during this crisis.
WF Your drawings also include Instagram’s interface, such as the share buttons and whatnot. In some, the icons are floating off or disintegrating, and you also repeat slivers of images and other visual glitches, which is something you’ve done in your work for years.
AS Yes, my paintings and also the drawings contain parts of the picture plane that are fractured, severed, skewed, and at times slip within their own visual space. In about 2012, when I started making my pixelated paintings, I was thinking about the instability of images: the speed they move at and the speed at which meaning has to be constructed. This, combined with how easily images can be digitally manipulated, makes for a slippery situation.
Andrew Sendor, andyhall16: #lifeinthetimeofcorona, March 24, 2020, graphite on paper, 14 × 11 inches. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater.
WF Instagram is one of our most popular public spaces, though calling it “public” is thorny. Yet it gives a visual representation of our desire to connect with each other, especially during shelter in place. It makes sense to want to document that, because one of the dangers of Instagram is that it isn’t very friendly to contextual information.
AS Exactly. I think this notion is magnified during the pandemic by virtue of folks being quarantined at home. It’s a combination of people needing to stay informed, as well as a desire to connect with others—to be seen and heard. A few years ago, if I saw someone opening up emotionally about the death of a close relative on social media, I would have thought to myself, “Is anything sacred anymore?” Now I don’t think that way. I wouldn’t leap to judgment.
WF Instagram might be the thing that makes images sacred, but that’s my private conspiracy. What an image actually depicts doesn’t matter in some ways because people take photos that already exist all the time. Just click on a tag or geolocation and you’ll see thousands of the same image. So it puts our images together and imbues them with a different kind of meaning. As you said, it reflects our collective anxiety.
AS Right, you and I have talked about this before in relation to Vilém Flusser’s writings on the enormous impact that technical images have on visual culture. Flusser was enamored by how photographs influence how we move through reality. If only he could’ve seen how things are now, specifically the rate at which we’re constantly bombarded with images and the insane speed at which images now spread.
Andrew Sendor, @carltondewoody, March 20, 2020, graphite on paper, 14 × 11 inches. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater.
WF Flusser thought we were becoming subservient to cameras—which reduce the world to images—and that this was creating a new order of imagination. I think one of the reasons Flusser wasn’t widely read in his time was that he was talking about photography’s future, which is our present.
But have you read Paul Virilio? I think he’s actually more relevant to what you’re talking about. He was a philosopher of speed. He thought that the faster image wins. On the other hand, slowing images down is a way to look at things and understand them. One way to slow pictures down is to draw them.
AS That was quite the prescient warning that Flusser cast! To take his theories one step further, one could say we’re now subservient to social media, and imagination is superseded by exhaustive gazing. I haven’t read Virilio, but I fully agree about speed, considering that I’m transposing a fleeting moment on Instagram into a meticulously rendered drawing. The laborious process of making these drawings is incredibly slow: each one takes between seventy to one hundred hours, which is counter to the speed at which these images are consumed.
I’m continually astonished by the alarming rate at which images and content are produced and disseminated, but this has been drastically accelerated by the pandemic. This makes for an almost unknowable challenge in terms of locating my subject. Laurie Simmons once talked about getting as close as possible to her subject, and that’s always resonated with me. But now my subject is a moving target. How do I get close to that? One way is to slow it all down, as you said. The act of drawing enables a protracted viewing experience with fewer images. And perhaps invites a reappraisal of how we interact with images and their effect on our communication’s environment.
Andrew Sendor’s InstaCOVID drawings are currently on display at Sperone Westwater’s online viewing room.