This Week, Antony Hegarty’s Solo Art Exhibition Beckons

Antony Hegarty is best known for—well, hold on a second. There’s his flat-out incredible and hauntingly fragile falsetto, deployed to great effect on albums like I Am a Bird Now andThe Crying Light. Then there’s his transgender identity, plus other attachments to a faded, androgynous and gritty version of the Lower East Side (Lou Reed guest spots, those stylized cover photos, etc.). So perhaps its not surprising that last year, he crashed the visual art world with a solo show at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. Now he’s bringing work to New York, at Sikkema Jenkins in Chelsea.

Actually, he’s been making art for much longer than that, debuting curious artifacts quietly for the past few years. And like the multidisciplinary weirdos of the 1970s and 80s who are so clearly his heroes, Antony seems discontent not only to be limited to a single medium, but with the individual limitations of each medium. Which means visitors to the show – opening Friday, May 31, with a 6pm reception, and running through July 12 – can expect to see drawings alongside collage and sculpture.

While his paintings and cut-and-paste offerings do begin to get at the ethereal, barely-there quality of his quieter songs, I think it’s really his methodical and monochromatic drawings that catch the eye. Sometimes he even applies ink to photographs, doodling out the geometry that underlies the image. Anyway, it’s refreshing to browse pieces by someone who has no real stake in art world politics and nothing to say about them: here is a chance to feel vivid individual expression in the form of a clean, unhurried line. Don’t miss it! 

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Antony and the Johnsons’ ‘Turning’ Is Not a Transsexual Manifesto

Though it’s been six years since the wrap of Antony and the Johnsons’ European tour of Turning, the eponymous musical performance piece is the subject of a modest but moving new film by Charles Atlas, opening this Friday at IFC Center. Along with scenes from the live show—Antony Hegarty’s music accompanied by thirteen models, taking turns on a rotating platform—Atlas captured some of the backstage chatter and rehearsal nuances (Hegarty at one point instructs the orchestral musicians to play everything “bouncing upward, never falling down”).

Each of the women also gave an interview, sharing their experiences in frank but oddly sweet anecdotes. As a young girl, Eliza Douglas woke each morning hoping to find a penis under the sheets; Kembra Phaler realized that getting sent into the hallway was an easy gateway to ditching school for the beach. But for a project that’s as much about community as anything, the harrowing address of loneliness was unavoidable. The fashion designer Sunny Shiroma breaks down as she recalls slowly losing an entire circle of friends during the ’80s. Nearly all the girls talk of having felt isolated at some point.

On his website, Antony Hegarty notes that he’s been thinking about circles of light, the Arctic, witches, oxygen, feral intuition and a global new two-spirit alliance. He and Atlas, whose orange sideburns could be the subject of their own documentary, also had some thoughts on the film.

This was not, contrary to Le Monde’s headline, a transsexual manifesto?
Antony Hegarty
: I liked that the word manifesto was attached to the description of the film because it means something definitive. But the fact that they called it a transsexual manifesto seemed a little inaccurate because there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of different kinds of people in the film.
Charles Atlas: I don’t think we were making a manifesto of any kind.

What were you making?
CA
: A piece that embraced a lot of concerns—it’s really Antony’s world, I’m brought in as a collaborator. The vision is really the feminine vision that Antony has in his music and his outlook.
AH: It was about the form. The idea for the piece sparked out of the form of the turning model, Charlie’s portraits of turning models. He’d done another piece he’d shown in a gallery in New York [in 2003] before we did Turning, which was a very intimate portrait of one of the models’ turning face, sort of fragmenting and fracturing over a period of time. We used that as the prototype for this large exploration of a live performance—a marriage of that idea with a concert scenario. And we also integrated a sense of community into the process, whereby the models are seated in the front row, and performing for each other over a period of time.

Was the community that Sunny talked about something you had any experience with?
AH
: I moved to New York in 1990—that was a different period of New York history. But certainly AIDS made an impression on several generations of people.
CA: It was definitely part of my experience.

What was it like? I know that’s a vague question—
CA
: (chuckles) That’s a terrible question. It was a plague. It’s hard to think that it’s not part of someone else’s history.
AH: There is another generation now that’s grappling with that history. It’s kind of like WWII, when my grandmother used to tell me about WWII. Someone told me he saw the Sunny piece and he just said it was maybe, like, one of the most striking descriptions of that, and somehow so succinct. And it gets so many aspects of it across. It really is striking.
CA: And the dramatic notion of a group—and then all of them are gone. You know, I had a huge circle of friends, and a lot of them are gone but not all of them.
AH: I had that same thing explained to me by Vito Russo, that concept of a wipeout. There’s something so disarming about the way she tells the story—and it wasn’t something we solicited. The reason that the interviews are a part of the film is because at the end of the process of doing the second tour in Europe, we all had such a well of feeling in us, but we had never really articulated what it was we were doing. And of course, the narratives weren’t a part of the performance. But I went around just to collect interviews with people, just to find out how people were feeling and what their impression was of what we were doing. Because we didn’t really have a strong—as you say, manifesto—we were basically working with a form and with my music.
CA: We all had a feeling about it, and it was definitely a world and an image that we were projecting. But it was very loose—you know, there wasn’t a way to put words to it so much. Of course, as an audience you could watch and project from Antony’s music onto the particular model.
AH: And the themes of the songs actually did seem to collaborate with what was going on for the models. The idea became for me that the meaning of the piece was the sum of everyone’s feelings and intentions as they were participating. It was very open.

When you’d say to them before the shows, have this in your head: think about the time you felt the most loved, or think of yourself as a skeleton, did they ever tell you what they were thinking?
AH
: (chuckles) I thought they basically just humored me.
CA: Well I thought it was really helpful because a lot of them had never been on the stage before. People who are performers kind of know how to carry themselves on stage, but that was especially helpful for the girls who didn’t have that experience.
AH: It was to encourage them not to focus on their externals, but just to go in and find a reverie. Because the whole idea, for me, of the portraits was to seek something kind of essential.
CA: Just, to be. That’s a hard thing to do.
AH: I thought of it as clay turning—it finds its form. So I just wanted to give them some ideas so their mind could wander, make them feel comfortable. But most of the women were very aware of the other women watching them, and there was a very strong sense of performing for each other. Not necessarily impressing each other, but raising the bar, and raising the energy. And I think there was a tremendous sense of pride—there was a strong commitment from everyone.

What’s been the response so far?
AH
: What’s interesting for me has been the way people find a way to connect to the piece. It’s like, in some ways, bringing the narratives in—the pedestrian narratives of some of the women—grounds the piece.
CA: It was very funny [at the premiere]—three people came up to me and said, “I really want my mother to see this piece.” Separately, three separate people.
AH: I think there’s something about a feminine circle that is helpful, especially for certain kinds of people. It can even be restorative in a way—it’s almost kind of an indigenous idea. It’s not a hierarchical structure. It has a kind of alchemy to it, and also a sense of witnessing each other in equal footing. We did the show in Brooklyn, and an Inuit woman came up to me and said, “This is what it’s like in Alaska.”

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See Willem Dafoe As An Ill-Fated Boss In Antony’s “Cut The World” Video

The video for Antony and the Johnsons’ “Cut the World” has enough contemplative gazing-out-the-window- shots to rival the last season finale of Mad Men, but with a far more unsettling conclusion. In the video, the first taste of Antony Hegarty’s new live album of the same name, his lush and lovely baroque pop track plays while some office drama plays out between boss-man Willem Dafoe and his revenge-hungry executive assistant, played by Carice van Houten from Game of Thrones.

The video is the work of Nabil Elderkin, who directed some recent and well-received clips for Kanye West, Frank Ocean and more, and artist Marina Abramovic, who collaborated with Dafoe for the play The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, makes an appearance as a fellow unlikely assassin.

Those who will not be able to see Hegarty’s work at the Meltdown Festival in London next week can watch below, but if vengeful throat slashing isn’t your bag, you may not want to stick around for the final third or so. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Antony Hegarty Gets Synesthetic for Swanlights

Antony Hegarty is one of those artists that America produces but never seems to quite know what to do with. Technically born in England, yes, Hegarty grew up in America, and it’s where his music, under the name Antony and the Johnsons, became more-or-less famous for its ethereal, emotional nature, and the way repeated phrases grow new tendrils of meaning through repetition and Hegarty’s evocative, ghostly, undulating voice. He’s a darling in England, where his 2005 album I Am a Bird Now won the Mercury Prize, a sort of combination Grammy and MacArthur Genius Grant. But, when I told my usually-in-the-know friends I was going to see a one-time-only piece from Antony commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, I got mostly blank stares. Hegarty’s work can be hard to access — it has no hooks, no beats, usually not even a proper chorus or verse. That is not his mission. Instead, he broadcasts directly to a listener’s heart using his powerful, ghostly voice over simple arrangements.

It was fitting, then, that the show (concert? event? installation?) Swanlights mostly featured Hegarty singing alone on the stage at Radio City Music Hall, a tiny figure at first silhouetted behind a screen, then alone under the stage’s impossibly towering curve save for some playful lasers which danced around him and a sort of pixelated paper asteroid which hung over his head and was slowly pulled apart over the course of the show’s two or so hours.

The show also featured stunningly emotive arrangements for a 60-piece orchestra by Nico Muhly, lasers designed by Chris Levine that could expand into vast green and purple clouds or dance like tiny fairies, and the aforementioned asteroid created by Carl Robertshaw, which I am sure served a metaphorical purpose which escapes me. The night took its name and themes of poetic environmental alarm from Hegarty’s most recent album, but it featured songs from all four of his releases. Originally planned to take place in MoMA’s towering atrium, a space which has hosted similar multimedia events from artists like Pipilotti Rist and Marina Abramovic (Doug Aitken’s work was similar in spirit, but also grew beyond the atrium), the addition of the orchestra made it too big – it had to find another home.

Despite moving a few blocks downtown, the work is “in the same vein,” as the above pieces, explained Klaus Biesenbach, Chief Curator at Large of MoMA and Director of MoMA PS1, and the man who’s been working with Hegarty for three years to make Swanlights a reality. “I am interested in this idea, what you would call in German synästhesie. This idea of the unity of what you see and what you hear and what you experience. So of course, I’m also very interested in Antony.”

If anything involving a two-hour orchestral laser show at one of New York’s most monumental theatres by one of the world’s greatest modern art museums can be said to be odd, then the origins of this project are indeed extremely odd.

“A couple of years ago, I visited an artist upstate, and Antony and I just ended up being the two people who travelled together,” Biesenbach explains. “And while being with this artist upstate — the artist actually was Marina Abramovic — [Antony] found this huge branch of a tree. He took it with him to the city, and I remember how he we got it into the train. Then I saw a little poem he made, and I kind of recognized that tree branch in it, and then I saw that drawing in Swanlights, where there’s a little introduction book. First I see it in a poem, and then I recognize the branch somewhere in a drawing, and in the end it ends up in his music. I think I’m fascinated by this [method of] really looking at the whole world and very holistically making something out of this that is otherworldly, perhaps because that is what he is.”

This movement — tree branch to poem to drawing to song — solidified Biesenbach’s instincts that Hegarty was on the same synesthetic mission as him. Indeed, sitting in the audience of Radio City, with lights changing from tiny pinpricks to vast color fields as Hegarty’s voice seemed to momentarily latch onto and ride the swell of the orchestra before pushing off and soaring above it, it was easy to see that Biesenbach’s instincts were correct.

“I’m intrigued that there is no difference between his opinions, his daily experience, no gap between who he is and what he does,” Biesenbach continues. “So he is really a true artist. Which is pretty fascinating, I think.”

Björk & Antony’s Latest Musical Collab: Flétta

I’ll admit that my love of Björk has more to do with her sexiness, style, and screen presence than her music, which I admire, but don’t particularly enjoy—the swan dress, having only one name, marrying Matthew Barney, her heartbreaking turn in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, those great Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze-directed videos. I’ve tried many times to get into Björk’s music, and while I think she has a powerful and dynamic voice, I usually find the arrangements of her songs too new-agey, like I’m in some ultra-serious yoga class trying to bend unnaturally and suppress an erection as others search for universal peace. I’m not a huge Antony and the Johnsons fan, either—the whole cello and warbly-voice thing is a bit twee for my tastes. That said, I really like this new Antony and the Johnsons and Björk track that Antony posted this morning on his tumbler.

The song revolves around Björk singing in made-up Icelandic gibberish over a minimal piano line, while Antony hums in the background. It’s a beautiful song, and manages to encompass all I like about both artists while dampening down the things that annoy me. Look for a conversation between the two friends about recording Flétta in Jamaica, Icelandic politics, and fame in the October issue of BlackBook.

U2, Courtney Love, and Scarlett Johansson to Play Gavin Friday’s Birthday

Sure, in ways, it’s an unlikely if disparate meshing of talent. But this concert, the latest in a series of events produced to fight the spread in AIDS in Africa as a part of (RED)NIGHTS, finds an anchor in celebrated singer-composer-painter Gavin Friday, a childhood friend of Bono. His band is among those performing. Other performers besides Johansson and Love include Antony Hegarty, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright (last seen celebrating Édith Piaf), Andrea Corr (yes, of those Corrs), Laurie Anderson, and perennial post-punk princess Lydia Lunch.

This event is also Bono’s way of saying, “Happy Birthday!” to Friday, who turns 50 this year. Friday’s last birthday present to the U2 frontman included “a crucifix, three nails and a hammer and…a letter saying ‘DIY.'” It turns out that even humanitarians can admire gallows humor.

Friday says of this eclectic cast of performers, “I have bumped into most of them over the years.… All of them in their own unique way are touched by greatness.” Of the show, he explains, “The show is tight but in a free-form way. Rehearsals will start to reveal the nature of the beast.” The revelry is produced and will be curated by none other than Hall Willner. It takes place at Carnegie Hall this Sunday and tickets can be procured here.

Antony Hegarty’s Feral Instincts

The uncompromising visionary behind Antony and the Johnsons opened the “Six Eyes” group show at Galerie Du Jour in Paris earlier this week and will take the stage at Coachella this weekend.

“Are you here?” asks the woman manning the door at TriBeCa’s Clocktower Gallery. “Yes, I am here,” I affirm. She’s an event publicist scanning her clipboard and guest list, but she could just as easily have been a choreographed part of Antony and the Johnson’s performance piece — a meditation on being present in an increasingly disappearing natural world — soon to begin 13 flights upstairs.

As a crowd including Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Michael Stipe and various art world celebrants sip red wine from plastic cups, Antony Hegarty and a cast of nine female singers clad in earthy khaki colors sings in hushed tones. Images of glistening blue blossoms from Colin Whitaker’s silent Night Flower films are projected on the loft walls.

The night ends with Hegarty and his choir gathering for an acapella version of “Another World,” a featured song on Antony and the Johnsons’ most recent album, The Crying Light. “I need another world, this one’s nearly gone,” he sings in the high-pitched, soul-stirring quaver that has won him a cult following (and in 2005, a Mercury Music Prize for best album for I Am A Bird Now.) The song may have been intended as a lament for our planet’s fragile ecosystem, but it also holds meaning to the artists and curators present this evening, many of who­m have seen their funding disappear in the current recession.

Yet the night is also a celebration of what’s possible in spite of that. The backup singers all come from Hegarty’s early’90s training ground, the Experimental Theater Wing at New York University. And aside from Hegarty’s shimmering silken gown (the base layer of a couture ensemble created for the transgendered singer by designer Henry Holland), the costumes were all self-made out of a few yards of raw fabric.

“We got lost in a little reverie,” says Hegarty, recalling the performance when we meet for scones and apricot tea at Podunk in the East Village, a local favorite gathering spot for Hegarty and the likes of CocoRosie and Natalie Portman. “The singing was like a colored breeze coming in from all sides, a kind of beautiful halo around the room, like a breath — the room breathing quietly behind you.” To Hegarty, how the performance piece played out in the midst of a chatty art world party was instructive, a reminder of how nature interfaces with the industrial world. “It’s like plants along the freeway; they’ll still be emanating their own tone, even if there’s tons of noise, even if we’re deaf to it.”

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Growing up transgendered, Hegarty knows well what it’s like to exist quietly as an outsider in the world at large, and the force of will it takes to stay true to one’s own integrity. Born in 1971 in Chicester, England, he was uprooted at 10 when his family moved to the suburbs of San Jose, California. Though he was always writing music and doing creative work, he looks back on those teenage years as a sort of Zen activity of biding his time until he found the freedom to fully blossom. “I was really preoccupied with trying to be thin enough that someone would fall in love with me,” he says of his teens. “I was about as hard core as you could be on one edge and about as [mainstream] on the other. I was somewhere between Christian Death singer Rozz Williams and a high school cheerleader.”

Arriving in the hippie-surf enclave of Santa Cruz for his undergraduate studies in the late ’80s, he began to find his footing as an artist, delving into performance art such as the Japanese experimental dance tradition of Butoh, where he was encouraged to “step into a salmon’s shoes and swim down the river or imagine you are dancing with a flower,” training that he would come to draw upon while making The Crying Light.

All of this was a cocooning phase, preparing Hegarty for his move to New York City in 1990, and the avant-garde downtown scene that welcomed him as a kindred spirit. Following in the outsize footsteps of drag/punk/performance artists like Leigh Bowery, Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias before him, Hegarty became a downtown nightlife fixture, first performing with the punk-cabaret collective the Blacklips, and eventually forming Antony and the Johnsons.

His cult of followers has grown from standing-room-only crowds at intimate New York clubs like the Pyramid and Joe’s Pub, attended by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, who’ve become good friends to him over the years (“my support network,” he refers to them), to a worldwide legion of devotees; The Crying Light debuted at No. 1 on the European Billboard charts. What makes him so special, in the words of Anderson, is his openheartedness — and a refreshing lack of irony. “It’s scary to be that vulnerable, to say things that are that truthful. It’s much easier to use irony. The striking thing about his work is that he doesn’t,” notes Anderson. “And the wonderful thing about his audience is that they’re willing to have their hearts broken. Sometimes people forget that the audience is actually really on your side and hoping you’ll go there — and he knows that really well.”

Hegarty was emboldened by his Mercury Prize for I Am A Bird Now, his sophomore release. “That ushered in this new period for me. I started to realize that people from all over the world with wildly divergent personal stories were finding ways to relate to my music. As a late-night, downtown New York performer, that came as a revelation to me.” Watching sold-out crowds in Ireland, full of “boys who look like soccer hooligans” with their arms around one another, singing lyrics like “You are my sister, and I love you,” at the top of their lungs during his shows was almost incomprehensible for Hegarty. “I didn’t think that the universal principle that music can cross great divides to unite people in a common emotional sense of truth necessarily applied to me. It gave me a real sense of purpose.”

After the intense soul-searching of his breakthrough album, during which he sought to identify “what about the self or the child inside a person is a treasure,” Hegarty has now turned his gaze outward. “In my recent work, I’m looking at the world around me—the natural world, the intangible world—and trying to see it differently,” he says, slathering a dollop of cream onto a scone. “I was raised in a Christian theology with very limiting ideas about what my relationship was to this place, what my goals should be in walking through my life, who I had to appease and how I had to get there. I realized quite young that all bets are off with me because I was gender variant, and according to my Christianity, I was going to hell. I could either go with that or start listening to my own feral impulses. Christianity and capitalism have a funny way of prying apart the sense of the sacred from the sense of the physical or the material.”

In his quest to be more in tune with the elements, he went so far as turning his Village apartment into a natural oasis, purchasing a trickling water fountain for $25 and filling his living quarters with potted trees. “I really wanted to create a forest in my room. Everyday I resist going to Petco to buy some birds and set them free—only because I know everything would get covered in bird shit,” he says with a laugh.

His search for his sense of place in the natural world extended to the body of artwork he made while writing and recording songs for the album. What started off as a sort of creative relief, an outlet to let loose, ended up aligning with thematic explorations in his music. After the artist Jack Pierson saw his drawings and invited him to participate in a group show in 2006, Hegarty was encouraged to take visual arts more seriously. A solo show entitled The Creek at London’s Isis Gallery this February brought together many of his pieces since then, and he recently curated the Six Eyes group show, including pieces by Peter Hujar, Kiki Smith, Barbara Cummard and Alice Onmally, along with his own works, at Agnes B’s Gallery Du Jour in Paris, which runs through mid-May. “I’ve always liked the idea of using my art pieces as a visual aid on the albums,” he says.“These pieces represent the color of my thinking right now.

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“I wanted to work with light and projection,” he continues, referring to the hand-drawn lines that cover a recent self-portrait shown here, a collaboration with photographer Don Felix Cervantes, with whom he’s worked for the past decade. “Those lines, for me, were like a spirit was embellished. I was interested in drawing what’s not being said or extracting something from the picture.” In the tinted line drawings of “Blue Ghost” and “Wooly Mammoth,” the lines are “more like a school of fish—small things coming together to form the design. Those line drawings are kind of exacting, but most of the drawings I do are kind of the opposite.”

In another body of work, Hegarty selected images from a trove of age-weathered magazines from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and looked for further meaning in them. Sometimes that entailed dunking the photo in the surf off the sandy dunes of the Hamptons, ripping pieces off, or drawing over it. “I was trying to pull something out of the dream world of the picture, pulling something through time towards me, towards the present,” he says of a piece like “Ice Ship.” (The process reminds me of his assessment of his personal style: “I like things with holes in them,” he says, tugging a finger through a distressed patch of his big wooly sweater. “I like the way things look when they’re falling apart. They look beautiful to me.”)

In Native American terminology, a transgendered person is referred to as a “two spirit.” Many of Hegarty’s art pieces, physical and aural, are fixated on the spirit world—some more literally than others. In one set of photographic portraits, Hegarty projected antique images of his great-grandmother over his own face. The results are a bit jarring—dark splotches cover much of his fleshy cheeks—and appropriately haunting.

“I like the idea that my family is a participant, that there is this unbroken line of life in me that goes back to the beginning of creation, through all of my ancestors,” Hegarty says. “Maybe something of their spirits has been retained through every generation. I’ve been thinking about my singing and about trying to open myself beyond my local sense of self. Maybe I could give voice to an ancestor, let my great-great-grandmother sing the song herself. It doesn’t have to be just about me. That idea can be very powerful. As an artist, it’s a rich reservoir of experiences to draw upon. You can stretch out beyond your local sense of self and invite ghosts to be a part of your process.”

ANTONY’S FAVORITE TEA ROOM: Podunk, New York City.

Don’t Let the Rabbits Get You Down: Art You Can Count On

imageThere’s not the slightest doubt that galleries are hurting suffering direly lately. The fallout has gotten so abysmal that they’ve embraced a rather Donnie Darko-esque method of raising awareness. So this weekend, wherever you are across the world, make a little time to patronize your local galleries. Just because the New Depression’s made mincemeat out of television and pop music doesn’t mean art is experiencing a similar creative drought.

● Culver City-based Fette’s Gallery is celebrating the work of artist Bas Louter’s latest work with a show entitled “Dust.” Louter’s charcoal and ink drawings draw take cues from history and film noir in equal measures; “Dust” is curated by Fette herself . While the show is ongoing through Valentine’s Day, it formally opens tomorrow night with a reception.

● Now here’s synergy that all the savviest marketing execs world put together couldn’t conjure. Antony Hegarty, the voice behind Hercules & Love Affair, is drawing attention to his band’s — that’s Antony & the Johnsons — latest offering by presenting a number of his newsprint and ink drawings at London’s Isis Gallery. “The Creek” dreams up fragmented landscapes, finding reference points in the works of William S Burroughs and Antonin Artaud. The exhibition ends in late February. Also, for synergy’s sake, here’s the band’s first single off The Crying Light, “Epilepsy Is Dancing.”

● And because Warholia will never fall out of fashion, Galerie Rudolfinum in Brussels is celebrating Andy Warhol’s screen tests and non-narrative films from the better part of the 1960s. “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures” features everyone from pop art poster-girl Edie Sedgwick to Dennis Hopper doddering about on film. I suppose no one could ever allege that the man was anything if not prolific. The show runs through April.

● In Lower Manhattan, namely the Lower East Side’s Cuchifritos, a group show focused around a photo album found curbside that chronicled a peculiar relationship in which two lovers never appeared together in any of the photographs. In addition to the found photography, “A Relationship Left for Dead” features artists like Patrick Cunningham and Jordan Tinker contributing work that utilizes the album as a launchpad to more thoroughly explore themes of loss and isolation. And what better time to explore such bleak motifs than during flu season!