4 Artists on Expressing Love Through Their Work

Shannon Lee
Feb 10, 2022 6:49PM

Felicita Felli Maynard, Jean in the Garden, 2019. © Felicita Felli Maynard. Courtesy of the artist.

Artists possess the unique ability to capture the magnitude of an emotion as big and fundamental as love, in all its rich, myriad forms, and channel it into art. An upcoming exhibition at the High Museum of Art, “What Is Left Unspoken, Love,” features work by over 35 artists whose practices embody love’s many iterations and meanings. And while it would be easy to resort to saccharine clichés, what the exhibition instead presents is love as a catalyzing, societal force.

“No matter how you refine your search for art exhibitions about love, invariably you find exhibitions about sex, desire, or romantic sentimentality,” said High Museum curator Michael Rooks, who organized the exhibition, which is open from March 25th through August 14th. “Generally speaking, I selected artists for whom love represents a form of practice—something that is intentional and active or, as Alain Badiou has said, ‘less miraculous and more hard work.’”

The kinds of love explored in the show range from love for one’s community, to bell hooks’s concept of “the School of Love,” to the embrace of family, humankind, and nature. “One of the most urgent expressions of love is expressed in work by artists such as Tomashi Jackson,” said Rooks. “Jackson’s work honors and commemorates the collective action of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s [vision of a] Beloved Community while drawing parallels with the present-day struggle for racial justice and questions pertaining to the efficacy of a politics of love.” Ghada Amer, meanwhile, explores both the limits and potency of language when it comes to articulating love, particularly in repressive societies. And Felix Gonzalez-Torres reminds us of love as a transcendent relationship with time in Perfect Lovers (1987–90), which features two clocks ticking in perfect sync.

“For most artists in the exhibition, the work of loving practice calls for the shouldering of individual responsibility to forge a society or worldview that fosters, or is fostered by, love,” said Rooks.

Also included in the exhibition are works by Rina Banerjee, Patty Chang, Jeffrey Gibson, Rashid Johnson, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Kerry James Marshall, Wangechi Mutu, Ebony Patterson, Magnus Plessen, Gabriel Rico, and Carrie Mae Weems. Ahead of the exhibition and in time with Valentine’s Day, we spoke with four of the featured artists on what it means to express love through their work.

Alanna Fields, Our Love Was Deeply Purple, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.


Conveying love is essential to Alanna Fields’s practice. “It’s what I’m most invested and interested in,” she explained. “There are so many different kinds of love, particularly shared between Black queer people. Honoring these different types of love that are often misrepresented or not represented at all is always at the center of my work.”

Titled Our Love Was Deeply Purple (2021), Fields’s work at the High Museum exhibition highlights queer love between Black women. The photographic work features the image of two anonymous figures sourced from a postcard from the 1920s. The image is cropped and spliced into four panels that work like vignettes of a single image. Two of these panels are embellished with washes of deep, majestic purple. Fields explained that queer love is the “personification” of the color; historically ever present, but often underacknowledged. “When making this work, I meditated on words from Alice Walker’s [novel] The Color Purple, where she writes, ‘I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.’” By brushing over these images in violet wax, Fields accentuates and illuminates her characters instead of concealing them. “There is nothing that remains unseen,” Fields said.

Kahlil Robert Irving, My Grandmother's Cupboard (Artifact), 2020. © Kahlil Robert Irving. Photo by Kalaija Mallery. Courtesy of the artist.

Kahlil Robert Irving embeds love into the layers of his work. My Grandmother’s Cupboard (Artifact) (2020), featured in the High Museum show, is a memorial to the legacy of Black family food traditions and domestic labor.“This work is intentionally referencing Ernestine Irving who is a mother, my grandmother, a skilled nurse, and a beautiful cook,” the artist told Artsy. “It’s dedicated to my grandmother and her mother and the generations of maternal lineage in my family.”

Irving also explained that the series of objects in the artwork—an austere collection of glossy, pitch-black ceramic dinnerwares and vases—is a metaphor for the meals he shared with his grandmother and for generational inheritance. “I think expressing love in my work is acknowledging and reflecting on one’s life, experiencing how others have changed it, and reminding those people of their influence through our actions and words,” he said, adding that remembering in and of itself is an act of love. “I think I do all of it,” he continued. “I intentionally and inherently invest love through labor and my relationship to being present in life.”

Felicita Felli Maynard, Jean Loren Feliz in the Studio, 2019. © Felicita Felli Maynard. Courtesy of the artist.

In their photographs, Felicita Felli Maynard recreates the look and feel of archival black-and-white images, weaving together histories of Black representation. Throughout every step of their research and process-intensive practice, love is an essential presence. “When shooting wet plate collodion photography, there is a physical intimacy between myself and the subject,” they said. The collodion process is one that requires remarkable patience. Batches of the chemical need to be mixed by hand from raw materials, and it is very temperamental. For each image Maynard captures, they coat a plate, sensitize it with silver nitrate, then expose, process, and varnish the image to achieve the final result. “Every plate is different, making each [piece] one of a kind,” they explained. “The process of exposing and processing the plate before the plate dries puts me into an embodied relationship with image. With scanning, I bring this physical image into the digital realm.”

The High Museum exhibition includes two of Maynard’s photographs, Jean Loren Feliz in the Studio and Jean in the Garden (both 2019). Both are from Maynard’s series “Ole Dandy, the Tribute,” which follows the lives of drag kings Jean Loren Feliz and Angelo Lwazi Owenzayo. “I create artwork to further understand myself and those before me,” said Maynard. “All of this exploration is directly connected to self-love and the love I have for my community. Specifically, this work is motivated by a love story about my identification with the gender-transgressing Black performers of the past and all the private, hidden love stories they shared that we may never know.” They further explained that their process is also an act of honoring the past and healing from it. “I give space for these ancestors to exist and honor the lives of what could have been, should have been, and will be,” they said. “This work is a remix of the past in order to envision an inclusive future.”

Susanna Coffey, Self Portrait (for Roy Snow), 2001. Courtesy of the artist.

When we reached out to Susanna Coffey about expressing love through her work, she reminded us that the English language woefully underserves the emotion, providing only one four-letter word. “For Anglophones, so much must really be left unspoken, for those four letters can so easily misconstrue,” she said. By contrast, Coffey explained that the Greeks have seven different words that express different kinds of love: eros, a romantic, passionate love; philia, which describes intimate, authentic friendship; ludus, a playful, flirtatious love; storge, the unconditional love of family; philautia, self-love; pragma, the committed love of a companion; and agápe, the universal love between humanity and God.

For over 30 years, Coffey has employed self-portraiture as a way to explore identity, society, and spirituality. “From the beginning, I could see that the beauty and complexity of human appearance has been woefully underrepresented pretty much everywhere and for all time,” said the artist. “It was easy to see that what is deemed beautiful by a society is privileged and that standards of beauty are usually narrow and always propagandistic.”

Through the process of painting, Coffey ebbs and flows through love’s many definitions. She feels storge with the history of painting, sensing a kindred connection with the practitioners of the past. She feels agápe in the diverse, idiosyncratic beauty of humanity. Meanwhile, the actual process of painting itself is captured by ludos, eros, and philia. “What begins in a flirtation, after months or years at work on that painting, resolves in finding myself in philia with the result,” she explained. “Being in philia with the finished work is as if I’ve found a new friend or relative.” Surprisingly, given her penchant for self-portraiture, the only type of love that Coffey feels is absent from her practice is philautia. “I hardly ever think of me, as an individual, as a painting idea,” she mused.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the artist Felicita Felli Maynard using she/her pronouns instead of they/them.

Shannon Lee