Caring for a Living: Aliza Nisenbaum’s NHS Portraits

November 10, 2021   •   By Jeanne Dreskin

Featured image: © Aliza Nisenbaum. Photo courtesy the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

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IN FEBRUARY 2020, Mexican-born artist Aliza Nisenbaum was in Los Angeles preparing to meet a community of hyperlocal British gardeners. She would fly to Liverpool that spring and spend three months with residents who maintained allotments in the city’s Sefton Park. As she developed personal relationships with them, she would paint them in situ, surrounded by their plots of cultivated land. The portraits would hang in a solo exhibition at Tate Liverpool later that year.

Immersion in Sefton Park’s lush horticultural world would have suited Nisenbaum’s formal sensibilities well. Her paintings often juxtapose sumptuously hued portrayals of people with equally kaleidoscopic renderings of botanical life. Her individual and group portraits are typically produced during extensive in-person sittings, focusing on people who assemble, live, and work in diverse community structures. The artist intimately and porously attends to her sitters as she paints, asks questions, listens to their histories, and shares details of her own life with them. The feelings of liveness and immediacy that irradiate her portraits also resound in her paintings of flowers and other plants. Each flourish of petals, cluster of leaves, and outstretched stem invokes a continual presence-in-absence, the way a tenderly arranged, hand-delivered bouquet from a friend might.

In early March, two months before Nisenbaum’s arrival in England, panic and uncertainty had begun to mount regarding the global spread of the novel coronavirus. Soon, travel restrictions and social distancing directives foreclosed not only her original exhibition plans but most occasions for physical proximity, which had become foundational to her portrait-making. For roughly 10 weeks, Nisenbaum and the Tate curator Tamar Hemmes calculated and recalculated the feasibility of mounting an exhibition at all. Meanwhile, the artist became highly attuned to burgeoning discourses around essential workers. Millions were sequestering themselves at home while these chronically undervalued populations — disproportionately nonwhite people and women — were assuming grave risk amid an abject scarcity of on-the-job protections. Spirited displays of gratitude for health workers bolstered their recognition, but such public affirmations still largely obscured individuals’ accounts of their own needs, traumas, and resilience.

With these growing disparities in mind, Nisenbaum reconceived her Tate Liverpool exhibition as a tribute to National Health Service (NHS) staff. In June, Hemmes and the artist issued an open call for portrait subjects, seeking interest from health-care workers across the county of Merseyside. After selecting participants, Nisenbaum traded personal histories and insights with them during hours of video calls scheduled in between their frenzied hospital shifts. The impressions she gleaned from these conversations, combined with photographs of each subject taken by photographer Dan Bentley, fostered almost half a year of continuous painting. In mid-December, her Tate exhibition, featuring two large-scale group portraits of medical teams from Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and 11 individual watercolors of staff and student nurses from Wirral University Teaching Hospital, The Royal Liverpool Hospital, and Edge Hill University, opened to the public.

Nisenbaum was well poised to engage hospital staff about the forms of entanglement and accountability that their work can entail. For nearly a decade, she has structured her own painting practice around the many-vectored economies and politics of care. She first developed this approach in 2012, when she was teaching courses in English at Immigrant Movement International (IMI), artist Tania Bruguera’s community space in Flushing, Queens. She chose to organize her language curriculum around histories of feminist art, a topic close to her own heart. As she became friendly with her students — predominantly women from Mexico and Central America — she learned that many of them were undocumented. A Mexican immigrant herself, Nisenbaum hoped to become better acquainted with them, eventually asking if she could compose their portraits. As she painted, she spent hours sharing conversation and physical space with each sitter. She also directly incorporated their input into her work, aiming to make visible their mutual trust and their shared vulnerabilities in her carefully layered pigments. Suffused with these intimacies, her canvases confronted rhetorics that sought at the time to monolithically depersonalize American immigration experiences.

It was through these relationships at IMI that the artist developed her highly absorptive and reflexive painting practice, predicated on earnest investments of time, resources, and affective co-presence. As a portraitist, she approaches the thorny ethics of the gaze through the work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose logics of empathy resist presumptions of knowing or grasping another’s interiority. Each deliberate brushstroke and blending of tones is an index of the artist’s receptive witnessing and deep listening. Her economic commitments also reflect an awareness of the complex power dynamics that envelop these encounters; she compensates subjects for each sitting and has built a structure of profit-sharing into sales of her work. The portraits resulting from this process are thus rooted in distinctly counter-hegemonic ways of seeing: they endeavor to speak not for, but in solidarity with, the communities they depict.

Since her time at IMI, Nisenbaum has retained a focus on individuals within assemblages of workers, families, or friends whose relationships to systemic class structures or labor hierarchies obstruct their social visibility. These assemblages often include diasporic populations. This was true of the NHS sitters, and in many of their accounts Nisenbaum heard echoes of generational histories and multinational ties that compounded professional and personal challenges during the pandemic. In response, she felt compelled to rise to the level of urgency dominating their lives, single-mindedly keeping long studio hours to complete her exhibition on time. Nevertheless, she deliberately avoided translating this feeling of urgency into her portraits, forgoing depictions that placed her subjects inside the maelstrom of an ambulance or a hospital ward. Instead, she situated them in private moments of stillness and quietude. This refusal to aestheticize her subjects’ work through conventional signifiers of “heroism” recalls scholar Elaine Scarry’s emphasis on the dangerous fallacies in assuming that emergency action must forgo deliberation and rigor. “Rather than emergency bringing about the end of thinking,” Scarry argues in her 2011 book Thinking in an Emergency, “thinking should bring about the end of emergency.” Nisenbaum understood the crucial significance of the breaks to think, decompress, and breathe in which she depicted her sitters. By buttressing their abilities to respond to a protracted state of emergency, these pauses were central to the sustainability of their care work more generally.

In their video-call sessions, sitters would invite the artist into their homes, showing her the rooms in which their breaks occurred — where they slept, cooked, laughed, played, and took other comforts. Before she painted each figure, she asked them for backdrop and framing suggestions, then collaborated with photographer Dan Bentley on formalizing their poses. This camera-based mediation was unprecedented for Nisenbaum; she had not heavily relied on photography before. Bentley’s study of her previous work, however, aided him in implementing her remote directives to simulate her paintings’ romantic and contemplative atmospherics. Unable to occupy sitters’ spaces with them, Nisenbaum constructed psychic spaces around the insights she gleaned through their personalities, anecdotes, and home tours. These served as raw material for the compositional decisions that she translated from Bentley’s camera to her canvases.

While the artist prepared her exhibition from July to November, daily new COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom roughly quintupled. The pandemic was shifting thinking toward the monumental and the visceral simultaneously: its pervasiveness felt inexorable and overwhelming, but its individual experiences were infinitely diverse. This was especially apparent among the artist’s sitters who worked directly with COVID-19 patients in positions frequently described as “frontline.” Mapping this kind of militarized language onto events of the pandemic (e.g., referring to the virus as an enemy to be defeated, or to hospitals as war zones) has become commonplace, but, as Nisenbaum learned, hearing care workers’ own words can throw its limits into stark relief. As theorist Cynthia Enloe has pointed out, the historical privileging of masculinities in war discourses feels particularly poorly suited to a public health crisis wherein women constitute two-thirds of the world’s health-care workforce, often while they also shoulder burdens of private, unpaid domestic labor. Indeed, nearly three-quarters of Nisenbaum’s 25 sitters were women, and many of them shared with her their challenges of taking care of themselves, their patients, and their families simultaneously. The artist’s compassion for these circumstances meshed easily with her own feminist idiom, which, in the lineage of portraitists such as Alice Neel, Sylvia Sleigh, and María Izquierdo, maintains an acute sensitivity to relational, expansive, and manifold ways of being and being seen. Responsive to her sitters’ multifaceted and multidirectional caregiving, Nisenbaum knew that their representations demanded articulations of embodied interdependence.

“Team Time Storytelling, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital Emergency Department, Covid Pandemic,” 2020. By permission of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery. © Aliza Nisenbaum. Photo courtesy the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

These qualities become exceptionally palpable in Nisenbaum’s two group portraits, which feature members of an Emergency Department medical team from Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. Both depict “Team Time,” a series of gatherings organized by consultant physician Lalith Wijedoru and consultant clinical psychologist Jo Potier de la Morandiere wherein staff members shared stories of their pandemic experiences with each other. On the left side of Team Time Storytelling, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital Emergency Department, Covid Pandemic (2020), Wijedoru sits barefoot at a table covered with a laptop, file folders, and a colorful drawing on paper. The table tilts upward at an uncanny angle and its volumetric bulk appears out of place for the outdoor courtyard setting in which it stands. Housekeeper Sue Dewsbury echoes the table’s angle in her own posture as she leans against a green ledge with her legs outstretched. The ledge swoops into the lower half of the picture, flattening impossibly against the canvas before disappearing out of frame. It reappears (covered in more drawings rendered by sitters as part of Team Time exercises) above the picture’s bottom edge, then stretches leftward, providing a seat for Emergency Department Secretary Sarah Jones and Senior Pediatric Nurse Jodie Walton before receding back into the foreground. The picture’s mosaic of textural planes and subject positions refuses to coalesce in its shallow depths of field. While the curiously tabulated figural elements claim their own areas of the canvas, they still gently hold space for one another.

Nisenbaum considers these fractured perspectives and configurations as being akin to those of a theatrical tableau or stage set. In the vein of early practitioners of antifascist Dadaist photomontage like Hannah Höch, she sees representational forms in her paintings as existing within a matrix of political relations, hierarchies, and narratives, all apt for recombination and realignment. Infused with this spirit of collage, her group portraits operate as disjointed history paintings. Their fragmentary spaces eschew any grand, linear narrative, instead remaining attuned to how the communities that she paints form, unform, and reform their own social contours. It’s within these ephemeral spaces — both on and off the canvas, inside and outside the capitalist structures in which she and her subjects live and work — that seeds of revolutionary thinking, what Nisenbaum calls “casual moments of resistance,” can germinate.

“Team Time Storytelling, Steven Gerrard Garden, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital Emergency Department, Covid Pandemic” (2020). By permission of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery. © Aliza Nisenbaum. Photo courtesy the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

The artist weaves flourishes of abstraction onto and around these spaces, animating the polychromy of her figures. A tessellation of angular green and blue polygons suggests reflective window surfaces in the upper-right corner of Team Time Storytelling, Steven Gerrard Garden, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital Emergency Department, Covid Pandemic (2020), her other NHS group portrait. To the left, an onion-dome-like form cascades down from the top of the canvas in strips of green, lavender, and periwinkle, spilling into the space of the figures. Here and across much of the NHS body of work, the artist reinstituted formal strategies stemming from her previous life as an abstract painter. These strategies appear most frequently in the backgrounds of her individual portraits, which contain fluid, mottled swaths of watercolor pigment that fluidly bleed and blend. Bereft of her recourse to in-person sittings, the artist employed these expressionist methods rather intuitively. She fashioned abstracted portions of canvas as vectors of her own communication, where more immersive, bodily responses to her subjects could materialize and where feelings of co-presence could emerge in spite of her sitters’ physical absence.

Thousands of miles away from Liverpool, pandemic-era social divides became exceedingly tangible from the artist’s temporary Los Angeles vantage point (Nisenbaum is permanently based in New York City). As she witnessed ad-hoc systems of mutual aid flourish across the city without larger infrastructural support, she perceived how, in the United States, the pandemic served to dampen empathy on a national level. In the words of late scholar Lauren Berlant, when the federal government “doesn’t conceive of itself as a first responder,” smaller networks localized in cities, neighborhoods, and workplaces will attend to need much more potently. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, the NHS launched sprawling campaigns calling for health-care workers to band together and quickly return to work to treat as many patients across the nation as possible. As her subjects relayed triumphant stories of lives preserved under these conditions, Nisenbaum also absorbed their feelings of exasperation with NHS resource-funneling. Student nurse Jessica Dawber explained that while she appreciated weekly cheers for health-care workers, a lack of commensurate remuneration exacerbated her difficulties. “As nice as the clapping was, it won’t pay the bills,” she said. Nisenbaum’s watercolor portrait of Dawber echoes this ambivalence: she lies on her back with a staid expression as a turquoise NHS lanyard drapes across her indigo-colored uniform. Her upturned hand rests just above her head, which could just as easily signal silent repose as it could imply utter exhaustion. Perhaps even more likely, it encompasses a dense admixture of both.

“Poppy Blooms and Jessica, Student Nurse” (2020). By permission of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery. © Aliza Nisenbaum. Photo courtesy the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

On her video calls, Nisenbaum could see and hear this exhaustion. She could feel the weight of the constant diligence and discipline NHS staff maintained at work and in their homes. This weight lingered with her, and she would frequently think of her sitters when she was outside of the studio, especially on walks around Los Angeles neighborhoods. Some days she would venture up and down a hill in Mar Vista that overlooked the entire city, studying residential gardens she saw along the way. When she relocated downtown, she visited flower markets and joined friends for hikes in public parks. She made watercolors of the California plant life that she encountered — poppies and spindly purple succulents, among others — considering them offerings to the people she painted. In Agapanthus (2020), wisps of pink make up an airless background that glows with a silky liquidity. Vibrant purple blossoms and leaves and stems of emerald protrude toward the viewer, fervently announcing their gratitude for care already given and gesturing to the promise of care to come. Like care work itself, these blooms find a hopeful poetics in imagining futures both tenderly shaped and collectively shared.

“Stephen, Orthoptist, and Agapanthus” (2020). By permission of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery. © Aliza Nisenbaum. Photo courtesy the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

The noun “care” stems from the Old English noun cearu, or caru, meaning distress or anxiety. To “be careful” is to carry concern for the stakes of one’s behavior, while “caring for” someone or something projects this concern outward, beyond the self. For those who perform care work — who make a living by caring for other living beings — the pandemic demonstrated in excruciatingly novel ways how decentering a vocation it can be, especially for those whose communities already exist at the margins. Nisenbaum strove to commemorate this labor by embedding her own care, and carefulness, into her work. The essential everydayness in which she attentively steeped her painting process strikes me, bringing to mind theorist Sara Ahmed’s characterization of living a feminist life. For Ahmed, a feminist life is defined not by prescribed behaviors, imposed ideals, or participation in discrete occasions, but by implicitly asking ethical questions about “how to live better in an unjust and unequal world,” “how to create relationships with others that are more equal,” and “how to find ways to support those who are not supported or are less supported by social systems.” These endeavors underpin Nisenbaum’s practice, and as her NHS portraits attest, they also underpin her sitters’ ongoing work. Melded into these paintings are both ordinary and extraordinary acts of care. Care as labor, care as occupation, care as art.

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Jeanne Dreskin is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles. Her writing and interviews have been published by ArtforumAperture, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as in exhibition catalogues and artist monographs.