A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020. Elise Engler. Macmillan. New York. 304pp. 2022. $34.
Just as we’re settling into 2022, there remains some of that deja vu all over again. We won’t shake off 2020 that easily and for good reason. Artist Elise Engler captures this monster of a year with her daily paintings of the news in this unique collection. What began as a more modest project, a daily painting routine begun in late 2015, took on a life of its own after Trump was elected president. At that point, Engler was compelled to follow the topsy-turvy trail of events all the way into 2020 and beyond. This book covers the first hint of Covid-19 in the news on January 20, 2020 all the way to January 21, 2021, the day after Joe Biden was sworn in as president.
Indeed, truth can be stranger than fiction. You just can’t make up some of the headlines from 2020. On May 19, 2020: “Despite FDA caution, Trump says he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventative, threatens to permanently end WHO funding.” And there you have the material for that day’s painting. Engler kept to a steady diet of WNYC radio, a credible news source with editorial positions that moderately favor the left. What’s interesting is the hybrid of sorts that Engler created with her work whether or not it includes an editorial slant. Part of it can function as an editorial cartoon or seem to. But, more to the point, you can see Engler mostly focused with just keeping up with the steady stream of news: a raging pandemic; racial tensions at a feverish level; and a most unusual presidential race.
At turns poetic, Engler’s dispatches can sometimes read as passages from a very compelling dystopian science fiction novel, albeit they’re all too real. Consider July 23, 2020, at random, but indicative of the whole: “House passes bill removing Confederate statues, other figures from Capitol; California surpasses New York in total COVID cases; Trump will send federal agents to Chicago.” All the elements in place, a perfect storm, a most frightening time to witness on any level. Page after page, Engler brings home the realities of our times in concise fashion.
Here’s the thing about the news, it’s hot one moment and then it can either heat up again or suddenly cool off. Bits and pieces, significant by themselves and part of a greater whole, are vulnerable to be trampled upon by the next freight train of even crazier and more explosive news. And heaven help those items of news with any hint of complexity from staying very long on the public’s radar, if at all. Consider November 28, 2020. Another day of news to be processed and lost: “Firing squad, poison gas could be allowed for federal executions under Justice Dept. rules; “Voters, not lawyers, choose the president,” judge writes in repudiation of Trump’s effort to halt PA election process; Iran top nuclear scientist assassinated.” Engler thoughtfully corrals these more elusive bits of data and pins them down in a compelling memorable manner.
Elise Engler proved to be at the right place at the right time having honed a means of production years in advance. To add to the urgency, Engler’s studio is in New York City, what became known as the epicenter of the pandemic, at least in the United States. From her drawing board, she was only a short walk away from a tent hospital set up in Central Park. As the violence and chaos unfolded throughout the year, the paintings became less formal, more open, more expressive. Some moments and images have become embedded in our collective memory. Smaller, more nuanced items, will recede into the background, but find a home in Engler’s book, a record from a seasoned artist who was there at her drawing board when it happened.
A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020 is available as of January 18, 2022 and his published by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co., Macmillan Publishing Group.