Megan Arney Johnston
The Entanglement of Hope -- An essay on the work of Anne Labovitz "Beacons of Hope" exhibition.
In December 2020, the Washington Post asked readers to describe the tumultuous past year with one word. Relentless, lost, chaotic, surreal, and exhausting were some of the words offered. They also asked readers to say what they were hopeful for in 2021. Readers responded with “uniting the world,” “rebuilding faith in our democracy,” “solve some of the most pressing problems,” and “health for everyone.” Instead of considering these responses as altruistic, we could see them as expressions of humanity’s entanglement with hope and its generative promises for the future. The concept of hope is not ephemeral or whimsical, nor pedantic or simple, but a considered, serious response to the contemporary condition.
Today we find artists who are part of the political movement in contemporary art to resuscitate and facilitate relational dialogue through creativity. Hope as a relational construct is central in the work of Anne Labovitz. It is presented in her exhibition Beacons of Hope in multiple ways, conceptually, physically, and spatially. Through her work, Labovitz is asking something radical of the audience—use hope to engage and connect with others and oneself.
Hope as a Conceptual Construct
To start, we might consider the conceptual idea of hope. Immanuel Kant’s definition of hope is an “unexpected offering of the prospect of immeasurable good fortune.” He believed that the three primary objects of hope were one’s own happiness and moral progress and the moral improvement of the human race as a whole. For Kant and other scholars, hope is both cognitive and conative, that is, a theory of the mind and of value. Indeed, the philosophy of hope centers on two key sets of questions: What is the nature of hope? and What are the values of hope? Both ideas contribute to a complex understanding of hope. How do we analyze the nature of hope? How does hope motivate us? Is there only one type of hope? Consider the expression “hoping against hope.” According to Adrienne Martin, we hope when we highly value the object of our hope but do not expect it to happen. Yet we still hope. Considering the last eighteen months of the pandemic, along with the divisive election and civil unrest, it seems that disconnection and languishment are widespread. Engaging in hope is, indeed, a radical act.
The second question concerns the value of hope. Is it good to hope? Is there virtue in hoping? Hope is often contrasted with despair and fear, with the former indicating an absence of hope. But despair also includes pain and suffering. Conversely, can we logically extrapolate that hope includes strength and connection? Labovitz’s work asks us to engage in this possibility. The color-saturated sculptures grow from the floor, rising up to heights we can barely make out. We want to see the top, the entire work. We look up to see. We hope to see the work. There is tension in the sculpture, it twists and turns, hung by a thin, nearly invisible string. We hope it stays up—we know it will.
Radical Kindness Perpetuates Hope
Radical kindness is a mechanism that Labovitz embodies in her work, and it manifests itself in her affective use of color. Labovitz believes that color is a life force. Indeed, her use of color is highly moving for viewers who often lean into the work, try to touch it, connect with it physically and emotionally. This is intentional on the part of the artist, who pushes—demands—the audience to engage. For example, Labovitz’s “Hope Room” is an enveloping, color-saturated room. The blue gels on the lights heighten this emotive space. The room engenders an intense response; we are enveloped in color and light in an intimate space. We might recall the Rothko Chapel as a color-saturated place immured in hues and values of various colors. Or the abstract work of Jack Whitten, with his strong sense of movement and gestural mark-making. Here we find beauty and intensity, connection and engagement. Labovitz explains, “I make work that is interactive and participatory as well as unrepentantly beautiful.” She offers up to the audience an intense color experience as a gesture of radical kindness.
Yet while Labovitz is inspired by these artists, her practice sits in a unique space—the edge of abstract expressionism and the cerebral edge of conceptualism. In that way, her work is also about ideas, particularly through the viewer’s unique discovery and interaction. I see her connected conceptually to artists such as Hervé Tullet with her show Shape and Color at Albright-Knox Northland (2021), who believes in the collaborative and interactive experience. Or to Liam Gillick, who uses color to “provoke internal intellectual questioning and thoughtful discussion of the sociopolitical.” For Labovitz, there is an urgency behind the work. “For years I have examined and engaged through my practice the importance of human connection and its visual embodiment. Themes of connection, seeing one and other, community building, and relational exchange have been the driving force of my studio practice.”
The Physicality, Materiality, and Spatial Qualities of Hope
It’s worth unpacking Labovitz’s use of material as an alternative to traditional ways of thinking and making. The use of Tyvek, acrylic, grommets, and engagement are unorthodox materials, and the combination inverts conventional and traditional practices. We might recall the work of Marta Minujín, an Argentine artist whose colorful works are part sculpture, part painting and often sit in three-dimensional space on both the wall and in the gallery, obtrusively interrupting that space. Her show at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (1999) presented sculptural paintings hung directly from the ceiling. Patrick Heron’s “Three Banners” at the Chelsea and Westminister Hospital were also hung from the ceiling, poetically extended into the gallery space, where they quivered in the air movement created by the humans below. Like Minujín and Heron, Labovitz, in her exhibit at Concordia Gallery, presents both painting and sculpture. But Labovitz’s work is more like a visual vortex, a mass of whirling and circular motion that forms a cavity or vacuum. And in that way, they are more dynamic.
There is also an intriguing tension between time and space, things Labovitz is extraordinarily intentional about. The sculptures are paintings—the paintings are sculpture. Both take up space to challenge the preconceived notions of what we think those mediums should be and how they should be presented in a space. They are a direct challenge to the white cube while also sitting beautifully in it. The installation is powerful. Labovitz asks us to reconsider space and time by briefly suspending time in her works. We imagine them coming alive at any moment. We hope they do.
That hope is central in a contemporary art space speaks volumes about the artist’s confidence. Hopefulness creates confidence, which, if derived from the right sources, can lead to the virtue of courage. Indeed, Beacons of Hope is a courageous hang. The use of height and minimalist installation is expansive. There is a counterbalance to the intimate space of “Hope Room” and the activated space of the engagement walls.
Labovitz’s installations refuse to adhere to conventional curatorial constructs. All of the sculptural works are site specific, and she will never be able to replicate any of them. Labovitz engages with each site and its respective audience in bespoke ways because of the material and specific hanging requirements. These are not just paintings, not static sculptures. Rather, they move like organic—living—responsive beings.
I also see Labovitz’s work as political and connected to the idea of natality. Hannah Arendt introduces natality as a conceptual moment when one is born into the political sphere, where acting together can create the truly unexpected. According to Arendt, the natality of human beings allows them to make new beginnings in their actions and thus subvert the tendency of public space to disintegrate into routinized behavior. Therefore, natality is a precondition of genuine political action and a necessary condition for the possibility of hope. Labovitz explains, “I am interested in connecting my community and beyond, facilitating a better understanding of this complex world. Yet, I am conscious of the enormity of this endeavor.”
Hope as a Process of Connection and Engagement
Labovitz presents work that is responsive to the Concordia Gallery space and engaging to its publics. Embodying hope, connection, and solitude, she has created 200 6x6 inch squares for the public to engage with and co-create on. “The small paintings represent the audience and their connection to each other and the viewer/participant. I welcome people (students, faculty, departments, public) into the exhibition through discussions, collaboration, and participation within the gallery, classroom, or other sites. Then, when viewing the work, gallery-goers see and feel themselves as part of a larger, holistic community at Concordia St Paul.”
Hope facilitates human and creative agency in this exhibition. A surface understanding of cultural agency is the ability to engage with creativity. But Labovitz goes further and asks us to engage and reimagine through hope. Her’s is a call for cognitive dissonance: where we feel the belief in hope conflicting with the difficulty of hoping. Her confidence and request for hope from the audience extends to the engagement element in the exhibition. The participatory wall is a recurring theme in Labovitz’s exhibitions and socially engaged practice. The offering of small works on paper to the audience, who in turn create their own intimate works, is a gesture of radical, optimistic kindness. The process in the shared galley space usurps the idea of artist-as-genius and enables co-creation, energy, and participation. The audience becomes an active agent, or investor, in the creative process, which is where real creative agency happens.
There is strength of conviction and a plethora of intense emotions reflected in the exhibition, but it is the confidence in these works that exude hope most of all. Through color, urgent mark-making, engagement, and challenging spatial relations, Labovitz asks us to engage in searching for hope. In art and in life, Anne Labovitz challenges the viewer to engage in hope against all odds.
Megan Arney Johnston is an independent curator, museum specialist, and educator who uses socially engaged curatorial practices centered on fundamental questions about art and its display and mediation. Arney Johnston is a noted specialist in social engagement, having coined the phrase slow curating in 2011. She received her PhD in Museology and Curatorial Practice from the University of Ulster, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Curatorial appointments include institutions in Europe and the United States, where she has produced more than 330 exhibitions over her 25-year career. She has written dozens of exhibition catalog essays and articles for academic journals in addition to presenting on social practice and radical museology at numerous national and international conferences. For more information, please see slowcurating.com.
 Eliza Goran, Shefali W. Kulkarni, and Kanvakrit Vongkiatkajorn, Dec. 18, 2020, “The Washington Post Asked Readers to Describe 2020 in one Word or Phrase.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/lifestyle/2020-in-one-word/. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
 Claudia Bloeser and Titus Stahl, 2017, “Hope,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/hope/. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
 Adrienne Martin, 2014, How we Hope: A Moral Psychology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
 Adam Grant, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing, New York Times, April 19, 2021.
 Ross Tilden Millner, Martha Sullivan, and Chris Pritchett, 2016, “Liam Gillick: Color Usage in Conceptual Art.” https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/rossmillner/design-thinking/color/liam-gillick-color-usage-in-conceptual-art/. Retrieved August 13, 2021.
 Hannah Arendt, 1958, The Human Condition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 247.