Isabelle Frances McGuire’s Time Capsule of Pandemic Isolation

Installation view of Isabelle Frances McGuire's 'P**** B**** ARENA' at Et al. (Courtesy the artist and Good Weather)

Isabelle Frances McGuire’s P**** B**** ARENA (asterisks the artist’s own), which opened in Et al.’s Chinatown location on May 30, is shrouded in sickness.

The work itself was made under Chicago’s stay-at-home order, during which McGuire created a diaristic set of embroidered textile works, the date of each piece’s making stitched into its fabric. The show marks time: 50 days of making, 50 days of anxiety, loneliness, boredom and steady production. It’s a state McGuire sums up in an accompanying text as “Stressful Leisure Limbo.”

Viewed now, with the world still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, but within the context of a nationwide and urgent movement for racial justice, P**** B**** ARENA functions as a highly specific and already dated time capsule, documenting one artist’s experience of working alone in physical stasis, fashioning plush proxies for friends and garments for absent audiences.

Installation view of Isabelle Frances McGuire's 'May 3, 2020' above Union Cleaners and Et al. (Courtesy the artist and Good Weather)

To see the show, presented by the itinerant gallery Good Weather (originally a single-car garage in Little Rock, Arkansas) and hosted by Et al., viewers make an appointment for a 20-minute private viewing window. Gallery representatives wait outside while visitors have the run of the place—in this case, both Et al.’s regular basement space and an additional two rooms above Union Cleaners.

Just one item in P**** B**** ARENA preexisted the pandemic, but it too, speaks of sickness. Digesting Duck Entry Level Position is a figurative sculpture on all fours, its human body replaced by a cardboard box. Periodically, the sculpture vomits red wine out of its mouth and into a waiting aluminum bowl, resulting in a tang of tannins wafting through the air. This piece is encountered upstairs, on a stained red carpet, in a series of rooms with mysterious signs of activity and storage options. (A mirrored wall with shelf mounts but no shelves being the most mysterious.)

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Digesting Duck Entry Level Position started out as a party sculpture, its name a reference to an 18th-century automaton that mimicked a duck’s digestive system. When it was shown earlier this year at From the Desk of Lucy Bull, a table-top exhibition space in Los Angeles, viewers held their glasses beneath the sculpture’s mouth for drink refills. Without the party context, the sculpture’s kinetic aspect is now legitimately startling in those ghostly, desolate rooms.

Detail of 'Digesting Duck Entry Level Position,' 2020. (Courtesy the artist and Good Weather)

Downstairs, McGuire’s daily project offers an alternative to an in-person communal gathering like the one in L.A., this time imagined by the artist in their studio. A grid of folded garments on the gallery’s beige-painted floor could outfit dozens of people. Instead, eight stuffed animals (all ducks), face each other across the arrangement, recalling Mike Kelley’s Arena series, comforting and somehow “off.” In an additional nod to art historical antecedents, the textile works mark the days On Kawara-style, starting March 20 and ending May 8 (the previously planned opening date of McGuire’s show).

The varying level of detail in McGuire’s alterations offer a potential view into the artist’s emotional state over that time. Some days, the embellishment is just the date, almost offhandedly so. April 15, 2020 features red thread across the chest of a black Gildan tee—and its sizing sticker, which they didn’t bother to remove. But just a day before, their elaborate additions to a gray coat capture the experience of mindlessly scrolling through social media in a pandemic. Square images of teacup chihuahuas line either side of the buttons, and the phrase “now more than ever” repeats, stitched in different colored thread, across the garment’s bottom third.

Isabelle Frances McGuire, 'Touch,' 2020; 'Target,' 2020; and 'April 10, 2020,' 2020. (Courtesy the artist and Good Weather)

In P**** B**** ARENA, the loneliness of making art in isolation is echoed by the loneliness of viewing art alone. (The lack of a gathering to celebrate the show’s opening even made me miss the refrain “Let me know if you have any questions about the work!”) The ducks, made out of Wubby fabric (a kind of fleece), reversible sequins and pillows, bearing giant plastic eyes, were once stand-ins for artistic companions. Now they’re fellow gallerygoers.

Through repetition and the tally of days, P**** B**** ARENA marks time in a way that’s been lost to many during the pandemic. Weeks of sickness tend to blend together, the same goes for weeks of isolation. But in recent days, time has demarcations again, punctuated by rallies, reckonings and a critical need to see change happen.

The day after I visited McGuire’s show, Market Street bore the signs of the collective anger that fueled both peaceful protests and late-night destruction. Shattered safety glass lined the sidewalks and gutters; six-foot-tall “ACAB” graffiti repeated across boarded-up storefronts.

These are reactions to another sickness—America’s systemic, institutionalized racism. When I think of Digesting Duck Entry Level Position, the sculpture now looks like it’s vomiting in disgust, trying to purge the toxins from the very fabric of American society. But unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a sickness of our own making.

‘P**** B**** ARENA’ is on view at Et al. (620 Kearny Street, San Francisco) through July 11 by appointment only. Details here.