Still Inspired (?) Credit: Dan Pacurar

A figure in black caresses a length of paper mounted on the wall with both hands. Two hands take sticks of charcoal to apply smoky curls, then lines that outline and defines first the frame of the page, then a life-size human figure. As he continues, his body seems to multiply: shadows on the wall echo the motions of the curves on the page. He adds translucent strokes of black paint, then tosses on opaque splatters in white. When he departs, what remains is an image of shadow and light, a shape of a body that dissolves into the surrounding space and seems to float above it.

For twenty years, Chicago artist Sergio Gomez has made large-scale paintings based on the human figure. Loosely rendered silhouettes that radiate and merge with environments that are sometimes cosmic, sometimes geometric, sometimes indicative of an emotional or psychological state, his works are “more about the presence of an individual than the likeness of an individual,” he says. “I’m interested in depicting not how a person looks but how they feel to another person.”

Though Gomez describes his work as “figurative abstraction,” his process of creating originates in embodiment. “When I started doing figures, I started by tracing myself,” he says. “That’s how I started to understand my own size. After 20 years I can do it almost by memory. I couldn’t afford a model so I was my own model. I painted on the wall, stretched myself against it.”

The partnership with Still Inspired (?), an annual performance showcasing four choreographers who create dances inspired by the artworks of a Chicago-based visual artist, seemed meant to be. Still Inspired (?) began as a single production in 2013 by choreographers and producers Laura Thurston and Lisa Lorenz (who is no longer involved) as they were retiring from professional dancing: “Let’s just collaborate with a visual artist, see if we can give visual artists a boost in the community, and it gives us a topic of interest for the show,” recalls Thurston. To their surprise, the first performance at Links Hall sold out—and brought performing and visual art communities together in dialogue. Since the first production, which brought four choreographers together with four visual artists, productions have focused on working with a single visual artist. “It gives the audience a jumping-off point to see the actual inspiration behind the artwork,” says Thurston. “It’s been a very loving, open experience.” 

Still Inspired (?) first approached Gomez for a collaborative live performance in 2018. “To make my work requires my full body in motion,” says Gomez. “That’s why I love seeing dancers reinterpret my work using their bodies. To me being in the studio is dancing as well, dancing with the work.”

This year, initially uncertain of whether to proceed, Thurston, together with fourth-time choreographer and first-time coproducer Annie Conway, decided to create a series of dance films released on social media the first half of March. Returning to Gomez’s works, which indicate and refuse the detail of the body, the result is a fascinating meditation on the body in the time of the pandemic, offering the specificity of the dancing body against the abstraction of the lens, the sense of its endurance and creativity in a moment when our collective experience of the body is fragile, ill, and fragmented between the real world and the screen. 

Released March 1, Schema, choreographed by Francesca Baron and directed and edited by Tanner Gloystein, begins with a pulse and a page, a white space that comes into focus as a shadow, then a foot, then a body emerges. A single dancer (Baron) gestures and observes, holds space in her arms, and traces lines in charcoal that gradually trace themselves back on her skin in motions that contrast the plane of the canvas with dimensional exploration of space. Moving between tense scribbling, articulated curves, and smearing of hands, feet, legs, torso, she explores charcoal’s possibilities to create fine lines, smudges, splatters, and dust, accelerating until her skin darkens to its shade, an artist transformed through the process of creating. 

According to Baron, Schema was inspired by Gomez’s Assigned Identity and Acquired Identity, as well as a time-lapse video he had made of himself producing the paintings. “He starts with all these broad strokes and over time you see the picture come into focus,” she says. “I want to see dance in the same way, the process of where the dancer has started and where they end up. I was like, quite literally, ‘What if I use charcoal to see where the dancing body has been, so by the end of the piece, you see all the markings of where I have been?’”

Released March 8, Catatonic, with concept and choreography by Haley Marcin and Ashlee Dance and cinematography and editing by Dan Pacurar, focuses tightly on a body in distress, breathing and convulsing, back arching, fingers curling, hands clasped to the neck. Marcin performs much of the piece with her eyes closed, an image both intimate and unconscious. “I really missed working with a choreographer—it sounds silly, but being told what to do,” she says. “I had been training in my living room by myself. Why not work with someone else? Why not work with someone far away?” So she contacted Dance, a fellow graduate of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, who is currently studying for a master’s degree in dance and film at the California Institute of the Arts. 

The resulting process was remote and mostly asynchronous: a virtual body speaking to a virtual body. “I would supply her with videos of myself doing the movement,” says Dance. “It was mostly done through video and text back and forth. I submitted a shot list. I’d already been thinking about sleep and dreams and sleep paralysis in my own life.” Gomez’s Dreamers 2, a painting both describe as “ominous,” supplied imagery that touched off their exploration. 

“It’s a shadowy figure with a red line that’s drawn almost through the chest to the head, a spiral,” says Marcin. “It begins with the silhouette of my back to the camera, reflecting how the painting looked. We kept using the word raw. Very broken down, basic, in its simplest truest form.”

Torrent, the final film, released March 15, was created in person by Thurston and Conway with cinematography and editing by Andrew Phan/New Pixel Films, featuring a cast of five dancers—and a voiceover by Chicago dancer, choreographer, and Rush Medical Center COVID-19 frontline nurse Karen Fisher Doyle. Fisher Doyle’s reflections, dating from May 2020, are startling and poignant. “I felt like I had to go to war, like I was an 18-year-old being drafted into a situation I didn’t want to be a part of,” she says. She describes the oxygen administered to patients, the heat and friction of meticulous disinfection, the fear of infecting family members. The dancers wear white costumes and dance in masks, alternating between a hubbub of activity and moments of stillness.

“It’s incredible how she articulates her experience,” says Conway, noting that Fisher Doyle had made the recording prior to the inquiry by Thurston for Still Inspired (?).

“It was very raw and delicate. It was challenging to put ourselves in that position. It’s a hard narrative to have to keep dancing to in the studio. It was heavy and risky and jarring to hear the details. [Frontline healthcare workers] are still in it today, and I don’t want people to forget what they’re sacrificing.”  v