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When art goes viral

Chantal ‘Zakari’ s new book, ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous,’ takes on the depicting of COVID-19.

Chantal Zakari with a mock-up version of her new book, "Drop Dead Gorgeous."
Chantal Zakari with a mock-up version of her new book, "Drop Dead Gorgeous."Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s depiction of the coronavirus is everywhere: a fuzzy gray sphere studded with red spikes. It’s a rendering by CDC medical illustrators Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins.

Artist Chantal Zakari saw it, and other scientific and editorial illustrations of the virus — starry orbs in sunset colors, ghostly blue-green blobs with spiny tentacles — and was captivated.

“I’d watch terrible news and see gorgeous images. The reality was disconnected from the aesthetic,” she said.

Chantal Zakari, from "Drop Dead Gorgeous"
Chantal Zakari, from "Drop Dead Gorgeous" Chantal Zakari

Zakari, 51, who teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, started combing the Internet for coronavirus imagery from around the world. Now she has assembled those ominous spheres, along with depictions of health care workers and people in masks, into “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” an artist’s book out Aug. 1 from the artist’s own imprint, Eighteen Publications, and available now to preorder at www.thecorner.net.

“Drop Dead Gorgeous” has very little text. Rather, it tells a story through the sumptuous imagery of illustrations: the virus in high-keyed colors invading Earth and attacking humans; people outfitted in hazmat suits fighting back. It’s rip-roaring action.

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Data may be neutral, but imagery is not. Scientific illustration has data behind it, but any artist knows how to use composition and color to drive a message.

“Science is objective,” Zakari said, “but the representation may not be.”

Images inevitably convey emotion as well as information. “Look at documentary photography,” Zakari said. “On the one hand, aesthetics are very important. On the other hand, it becomes the fetish and seduction of an image. Maybe it’s not appropriate to present a terrible event with a lot of aesthetic tools.”

Zakari has considered the imagery of terror before. In 2015, she and her husband, conceptual artist and photographer Mike Mandel, published “Lockdown Archive,” a book of photographs found on the Internet depicting the 2013 manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers through Watertown, where they live.

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Eckert and Higgins’s virus, portrayed in detail on its own, is known in the medical illustration business as “a beauty shot.”

Chantal Zakari, from "Drop Dead Gorgeous"
Chantal Zakari, from "Drop Dead Gorgeous" Chantal Zakari

“The phrase has a celebrity quality, as if it’s time for its closeup,” said Paula Burleigh, assistant professor of art and director of Allegheny College Art Galleries in Pennsylvania. She has used Zakari’s book teaching an online summer course on COVID visual culture.

Indeed, renderings of the virus look much more glamorous than the real thing. They are punched up with color.

“She’s interested in the allure of these images,” said Burleigh. “Many are part of public health messages, high-impact graphics that lead to clear communication. But when you see them disembodied from the text, they’re really strange.”

“Drop Dead Gorgeous” draws on editorial as well as scientific illustrations from around the world, but Zakari removes their original context to demonstrate how potent graphics are, and how dependent on their surroundings. She points to one image of a masked woman amid floating viral balls against a Chinese flag.

“Maybe originally it’s to rally the Chinese to get organized. But it ends up on the Internet, and you may be in Europe or America needing to illustrate how terribly the Chinese handled the crisis, and use it in a completely different context,” she said.

Even so, “Drop Dead Gorgeous” attests to the universality of COVID imagery.

“It’s part of a global discourse,” said Burleigh. “It’s like Esperanto with regional inflections.”

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For an artist’s book, Zakari contended with another formal consideration: sequencing — otherwise known as narrative arc.

“At first, I was going to organize it by color. I wanted it to look pretty, and very painterly, like a colorist,” she said. “But that’s not a book.”

Chantal Zakari, from "Drop Dead Gorgeous"
Chantal Zakari, from "Drop Dead Gorgeous" Chantal Zakari

She had a problem, though: The COVID story hasn’t finished.

“I decided to start with the pleasantries — the aesthetic,” she said. “Then it progresses into drama, danger.”

The 100-page book revisits social unrest, the anxieties of many nations, society’s adaptations to the pandemic, and the battle to defeat it. In the end, the aesthetics of the coronavirus illustration drove Zakari’s decision about how to wrap it up. The virus explodes, like a vanquished death star.

“I realized sci-fi is perfect for this fantastic, abstract eye candy,” she said. “It doesn’t mean I believe in a happy ending. But the explosion of COVID, that’s pure science fiction. It’s a Hollywood ending.”



Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.