As covid-19 ravaged New York and New Jersey, Pavón and Lopez Boada locked down in her small apartment. The couple decided to transform the experience into visual metaphor, assisted by just their own imaginations, a compact Sony digital camera with a 50-millimeter lens, several flash units and whatever props they could improvise. The pictures do not employ digital compositing.
“We wanted to do it while we were living it,” said Pavón in a mid-October Zoom webinar hosted by the museum.
Forty is a biblical number, used as shorthand for a long period of isolation and travail. The Italian word for 40 also happens to be the source of the word “quarantine,” originally referring to the number of days a ship suspected of carrying disease was kept offshore.
Pavón’s images include explicit references to the pandemic, but always combined with other themes. A grieving Lopez Boada wears a medical mask as she cradles Pavón’s seemingly lifeless body in “Pieta,” one of several riffs on Christian accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection.
In “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” Lopez Boada is the risen messiah, her wounds probed by Pavón’s doubting apostle. In “Magdalene,” she sits alone, the scene set by the ominous shadows of three crosses.
Shadows and mirrors produce some of the most evocative effects. A hammer, a skull, an elephant and the distinctive outline of Mickey Mouse’s head are among the clearly legible shapes cast on the apartment walls. Pavón, with a camera in front of his face, is reflected in a handheld mirror in one of two pictures inspired by the tale of Perseus and Medusa; Lopez Boada’s face can be glimpsed in water in a pan in “Echo and Narcissus,” a parable relocated from a rustic spring to the kitchen sink.
Disembodied heads appear to be literally detached in several photos that simulate decapitation, a chilling visual expression of death. Lopez Boada’s severed (but clearly animate) head hangs in another variation on the Perseus and Medusa fable. In one of the funniest pictures, Lopez Boada’s Salome carries the head of Pavón’s John the Baptist in a flimsy metal broiler pan. Other vivid death scenes feature the corpses of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat — with killer Charlotte Corday glimpsed, of course, in a mirror — and Shakespeare’s Ophelia.
Murder features so strongly in these pictures, in part, because it does so in their artistic and literary antecedents. But mortality is also an understandable preoccupation for people sequestering from a lethal plague. Lopez Boada’s modest home served as a bastion against death, so naturally Pavón depicted it — not once but twice — as “Paradise.”
The photographs’ heightened drama draws from such painters as Goya, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, but also from film-noir cinematography and stage melodrama. (Lopez Boada, who helped devise the sets and costumes, said she grew up in a “theatrical family.”) Pavón credits some of the project’s success to a technical limitation: that solitary 50-millimeter lens. It made all the pictures look as if they were “seen through the same eyes.”
As his quarantine ended, Pavón added a two-photo epilogue on the theme of “Americana.” After 40 days, it was time to emerge from mythology and engage the slightly strange country in which Pavón and Lopez Boada have come to dwell.
Among Western nations, the United States is perhaps the least attuned to what Pavón calls “the universal bank of images” that “Quarantine” cashes out. But no knowledge of classical art and literature is necessary to feel the power of Pavón’s photos. In a plague year, anyone can get the significance of a severed head.
If you go
Quarantine: 40 Days and 40 Nights
Art Museum of the Americas. inartwetrustmuseum.org.
Dates: On permanent view.