Illuminated Manuscripts in the Age of Texting and Social Media (2022)

I was holed up in Burgundy as Covid began to rage. In a corner of the vaulted furnace room of my house, I began working with gouache, tiny brushes, gold leaf, and calligraphy pens, standing in my own scriptorium in a little village in the Morvan forest.

This is my first foray into the world of illuminated manuscripts. My work for many years has incorporated text and art-historical imagery. But I didn’t realize until I was well into my new work that the decision to mash up texting, social media, and an ancient art form was eerily in tune with the times as well as my own history.

Glowing screens on cellphones, tablets, and laptops were, I realized in retrospect, the obvious illuminated manuscripts of the digital age. Back in Medieval times, the best they could do to generate light was gold leaf.

We live in a fast-paced age, yet everything ground to a halt as a result of Covid. Contact with others became difficult, even dangerous. Illuminated manuscripts seemed to be an invitation to slow down when the world is going a mile a minute. I surrendered to the labor-intensive techniques seen in precious pages hidden away in rare book rooms.

When I stumbled into this rather neglected art form, my manuscripts reflected my intense desire to communicate something of our radically changed lives. Now in 2024, working in my new studio on the top floor of my house as I write this, I see how they allow me to give expression to melancholy subjects, political frustrations, and the lunacy of everyday life.

All sheets are 22-1/2” x 22-1/2” gouache, ink, 22 karat gold leaf and/or silver leaf on Arches 300g

2022 What’s on your mind, Ken? [FaceBook post]
Text: Create Post What’s on your mind, Ken? Add to your post

2022, “Sorry, Jewish.” [Instagram post with Instagram’s photo editing choices]

Image source: Philip Guston, Scroll, 1978, Cleveland Museum of Art

Text: Today for my [Instagram] painting Hit Parade it’s Philip Guston’s
“Scroll.” How to see it? Changed his name in 1935 from Goldstein supposedly
so his fiancé’s parents wouldn’t nix the marriage. Then in 1978 paints an
ominous landscape with a Torah perched on the horizon as if to say—proudly?
defiantly? regretfully?—“Sorry, Jewish.”
2022, Your USPS tracking # [Cellphone text message]
[Image: John the Evangelist, from an Ethiopian illuminated manuscript from the first half of the 16th century CE] The symbol associated with John is the eagle, also the logo for the US post office.
Text: Hello Kenneth R, Your USPS tracking #9485 8003 0916 3199 8212 01 has been delivered to the mailroom. How was your delivery? [thumbs up icon] It was great [thumbs down icon] Not so great

2022, Apple Software may be used, [Text exchange]
Text: Apple Software may be used to reproduce materials so long as such use is limited to reproduction of non-copyrighted materials, materials in which you own the copyright, or materials you are authorized or legally permitted to reproduce. Title and intellectual property rights in and to any content displayed by, stored on or accessed through your Device belong to the respective content owner. Such content may be protected by
copyright or other intellectual property laws & treaties, and may be subject to terms of use of the third party providing such content. Subject to the terms and conditions of this License, you may use the Memoji characters included in or created with the Apple Software (“System Characters”) while running the Apple Software and to create your own original content and projects for your personal, noncommercial use. No other use of the System Characters is permitted by this License, including but not limited to the use, reproduction, display, performance, recording, publishing or redistribution of any of the System Characters in a profit, non-profit, public sharing or commercial context.
2022, How could I not be awake now? 4:07AM, [FaceBook post]

Text: How could I not be awake now? Kyle Rittenhouse, George Floyd, Armaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, White Power, Proud Boys, QAnon, Trump…still, The Big Lie, Fox News, CRT ban, voting rights, gerrymandering, Supreme
Court, Texas abortion ban, opioids, anti-vaxers, anti-maskers, Koch Bros, melting icecaps, Paradise, CA, concealed carry, open carry, Columbine, Parkland, Newtown, Tree of Life, Mandalay Bay Hotel, Dylann Roof, Pulse nightclub, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, income inequality, & because I care about France, Eric Zemmour

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2022, Lyoesh, why are you not answering? [Cellphone text exchange between a Russian soldier in Ukraine and his mother, moments before his death]
English translation (Russian text below):
(Mother:) Lyoesh, why are you not answering for so long, is it still true your unit is at exercises?
(Son:) Mama, I am no longer in the Crimea or at the exercises.
(Mother:) Then where??? Papa is asking if we can send you a parcel.
(Son:) No parcel for me right now, mom. Instead I want to hang myself.
(Mother:) Why would you say a thing like this? What happened?
(Son:) Mom, I am in Ukraine. A real war takes place here. I am scared, we are fucking everyone up, even civilians. Everyone indiscriminately. We were told they would welcome us with open arms, but they throw themselves under our armed vehicles, not letting us pass through. They call us fascists. Mama, I feel awful.

Text in Russian:
Леш, ты как почему так долго не отвечаешь, вы точно на учениях? 12:23
Мама, я уже не в Крыму, не на Учениях 14:16 √√
А где??? Папа спрашивает можно ли тебе посылку отправить 14:33
Да какую посылку мам. Я сейчас только вздернутся хочу 14:38 √√
Что ты говоришь такое? Что случилось? 14:37
Мам, я на Украине. Тут настоящая война. Мне страшно, мы херачим по всем подряд, даже по мирным. По всем подряд. Нам сказали что они нас будут приветствовать а они кидаются под нашу технику не дают проехать. Называют нас фашистами. Мама мне очень тяжело. 14:50 √√