October • 8 • 2020
Caroline E. Giddis
Exhibition Review: Abigail Stevens's
The Year in 20/20: Keeping Perspective
Abigail Stevens, Confession, 2020, found objects and mixed media assemblage. Image courtesy of the artist.
Like many creatives, Abigail Stevens began rethinking the world around her while in quarantine earlier this year. In a time when almost every industry had to shut down, restructure, and reorganize for the future, it was inevitable that so many would begin to examine and even deconstruct certain aspects of their lives. For Stevens, this began in March with the sudden collision of her roles as a working professional, mother, wife, and artist, which became contained in the environment of her Victorian home in Savannah, GA. Her daughter Verity (age 2) attended virtual preschool while, just a few feet away, Stevens worked on virtual programs for children and families needing engagement activities as the Community Program Coordinator for the Savannah Jewish Educational Alliance and Federation. “I suddenly started to think ‘What is my job now?’ and I began to write down these ideas and thoughts about where my place was,” said Stevens. What started as a cathartic writing project quickly progressed into the full-blown art exhibition The Year in 20/20: Keeping Perspective, a collection of pieces that Stevens created in reaction to the events of 2020 that deeply affected her.
Abigail Stevens, COVID Fashion Statement, 2020, found objects and mixed media assemblage on fabric, image courtesy of the artist
Abigail Stevens, Curtain #1, 2020, house paint, puff paint, and paint marker on fabric. Image courtesy of the artist.
The pieces range from chaotic collections of thrifted objects that address the restrictive domesticity Stevens faced during quarantine to protest assemblages that recall the powerful emotions of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Stevens’s works in The Year in 20/20 can be described as a fusion of Betye Saar, Barbara Kruger, and Ashley Longshore, using words and juxtapositions to express reflective thoughts and challenges to the viewer. As Stevens explains,
I started jotting down little phrases and poems about this experience and COVID-19. I was trying to find a little humor in it for myself, while also realizing that it’s a very serious situation, I wanted to make light of it in a way that would resonate with other people, but not be insensitive. I was looking around and thinking about the crazy things that have happened this year and asking what has impacted me the most so I gravitated to certain issues. There were many more things that happened this year that I didn’t include in the show and the only reason for that was that I wanted to choose things that I felt were the most personal.
Stevens gravitated towards subjects such as the 19th Amendment centennial and the feminist critiques that come with living in a home built during the Victorian Age, an era during which women’s freedoms were restricted. Originally designed as a site-specific show within her home, the work creates a new context within the gallery, but the juxtaposed pieces still emanate the feeling of being in a domestic space. A number of works speak directly to current events, including RBG (2020), honoring the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Athleisure Luggage (2020), Confession (2020), Covid Fashion Statement (2020), and Curtain #1 (2020), which features some of Stevens’s poetic writing that formed the basis of the exhibition. The work reads, "Don’t quit your day job — just get used to doing dishes & changing diapers on the daily and be okay with swapping designer decor for dinosaurs." Of this particular stanza, Stevens said, “All parents can relate with the idea that the longer you’re home, the more your house gets destroyed.”
A work that functions as a powerful centerpiece of Stevens’s show is #MaskRequired (2020), an assemblage of face masks and beauty supplies applied to a thrifted cork wall organizer. The masks included are a disposable medical mask (now a notorious symbol of 2020), a cloth face mask, a sleep eye mask, a blue masquerade mask, and a cooling spa mask. At the top right above the masks are three strips of embossed labels that read, “Instructions: Choose the best mask for mommy.” The formal organization of #MaskRequired disguises the chaos that lurks underneath.
"It obviously came out of the idea of having and needing to wear a mask every day, but also this idea of masks in general and what it means to put on a mask,” said Stevens. “I asked, ‘How does a mask change your perception of you as a person?
Abigail Stevens, #MaskRequired, 2020, found objects assemblage. Image courtesy of the artist.
What does it mean to other cultures or religions?’ I’ve always been interested in the idea of masking, so I knew I had to do something to discuss it.”
#MaskRequired invites the viewer to consider the various masks they wear in life and in their various roles — masks that enhance beauty, cover insecurities, achieve relaxation, and support the safety of others. In this context, the mask takes on a new meaning.
A major part of Stevens’s process was the desire to include her daughter. “Instead of thinking about how it’s a nuisance to have a toddler there, I tried to incorporate Verity a little bit in my work every day and find ways that she could collaboratively work with me,” Stevens said. “I wanted her to see me in this role of mommy-artist and think of me in that way, so I thought the best way to do that was to let her participate.” Stevens noted that Verity, in budding artist fashion, “graciously donated some of her crayons, stencils, and attire for art’s sake.”
Almost all of the materials used in The Year in 20/20 were thrifted, found, gifted, or reused. Stevens made it a weekly challenge to create from what was already available in her house and encouraged the families in her JEA programs to do the same. She then asked everyone to post their creations online to share as a community.
Abigail Stevens, Athleisure Luggage, 2020, found objects and mixed media assemblage. Image courtesy of the artist.
Abigail Stevens, RBG, 2020, found objects assemblage. Image courtesy of the artist.
Stevens hopes that The Year in 20/20: Keeping Perspective will engender reflection and a willingness to find solidarity in community during these difficult times. “I want people to stop and think about some of the things that the show addresses, and think about their own reaction to COVID-19 and quarantine — if they have one yet — some people still haven’t processed or haven't had the time to sort out how they feel about everything.” Indeed, the pop-punk appearance and bright colors of Stevens’s work are instantly eye-catching, but the intensity behind each piece is worth absorbing for a longer period of time. According to Stevens, the solace she found during the day to create artwork helped to heal her from the chaos of 2020, and now she is sharing her work in the hopes that it might do the same for others.
Read her artist statement for the exhibition below:
Borrowing from the title of a long-running TV show, this is an installation examining the many phases that many of us have gone through in this one year alone. From parenting in a pandemic to witnessing a time in history torn apart by political debate and protests, to the literal movement from one phase of societal re-opening to another, we progress through the timeline of the past year collectively yet in a private manner. Here is my rather personal time capsule of thoughts and daily routines during the quarantine period of about three months. In that time, I was working from home remotely with a two year old. I was not aware of the many new roles I was about to take on in addition to just being a mother and wife. At a time that was utterly chaotic in nature and unprecedented, I found myself not only pivoting professionally but also personally.
The confinement of my Victorian Era house in downtown Savannah had me seeking out new ways to creatively stage my home — as if trying to stretch into every extra inch of space for me, my spouse, our toddler, two medium size dogs, and eventually two goldfish. In the shelter of our home, I found myself surrounded by vintage décor and thinking about the last pandemic and how very similar yet different our experience was to those who lived here in 1918 — in this very house and through the decades thereafter as survivors. I also wanted to incorporate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. Through the use of everyday items — a mixture of old and new-many re-purposed or recycled, I seek to merge the past and present, to explore the complexity of being a parent and an active global citizen in a not yet post-pandemic world — an act that almost seems rebellious in a way.
The Year in 20/20: Keeping Perspective is on view now until October 31st at the Jewish Educational Alliance Art Gallery in Savannah, Georgia.
Abigail Stevens holds a B.A. in Art History from Agnes Scott College and an M.A. in Art History from Savannah College of Art and Design. She currently works at the Jewish Educational Alliance and Savannah Jewish Federation. She currently lives in Savannah, GA with her husband, toddler Verity, two dogs, and two goldfish.
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Caroline E. Giddis graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2020 with an MA in art history, after receiving her BA in public relations and Spanish with a minor in art history from The University of Alabama in 2016. Her areas of interest include a broad timeline of medieval, early modern, and the long nineteenth century, with a focus on perceptions of women, feminist examinations, and intersections of visual and literary culture. Giddis curated a 2021 exhibition of recent acquisitions at the Delaware Art Museum as the 2020 Alfred Appel, Jr. Curatorial Fellow. Her recent research focuses on women of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.