Joan Jonas is a magic of heights: immediate, equally alive and inspiring. She has earned the rank of art visionary, from her studies with Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown at Judson Church, to her mirror pieces and outdoor performance earthworks as significant as Serra's and Smithson's, to acclaimed experimentations with one of the first video portapaks, up to the present. Jonas has written, built, inhabited, and is still tweaking, in accumulations of fascinating fragments, a model for a performance art in the present tense. Her work transforms literature into visual language, adds into gallery spaces pulse-racing dislocations, and interjects a humor about images produced then reproduced. Her projections become palpable, almost able to be held, feeling light but as if examined for their physical heft. In her work, there are many embodied and unusual performers: drawing performs with black and white footage of Jonas and painter Pat Steir layered behind hands chalk marking on a blackboard, wiping away the chalk, alternately covering and revealing Jonas, Steir, then a male figure and more marking; Jonas and a cast perform, so do live video projections and video recorded performers, in the woods, at a contemporary public reading of Dante in a street-level picture window.
Jonas' video and drawing installation at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, titled "Reading Dante II," includes three loose, dreamily drawn wall drawings, white china marker on a dark gray wall, Wall Drawing for Dante, 1, 2, and 3, 2009/2010' they pile up like haphazard history, homes built by accumulation. The exhibition includes a gallery of framed, watercolor pencil on paper owls, elephants, angels, rabbits and pagodas—more souvenirs than statements. The real revelation, perhaps no surprise for Jonas fans who have seen earlier iterations of this significant work at REDCAT in Los Angeles, at the Venice Biennale, at Performa in New York and elsewhere, is the video works: Drawing Dante, 2009 (16 minutes), Street Scene Drawing, 1976/2009, (11 minutes), and the major work of the show, Reading Dante III, 2009 (45 minutes). These three works play simultaneously, surrounding the room on three separate walls, overlapping and engulfing. I am here, easy and happy with this work. I wish to walk with a flickering Jonas, Jonas and her drawing-chalk fixed at the end of a long stick... every 45 minutes, rough-cut glass.
The video: an outraged, skeleton-masked figure shakes an open newspaper, rustling the record of events in both fists... To free the day of the usual burden of bad news, reading abstract and philosophical echoes of Dante’s Divine Comedy, wiping away the fourth spiral that was encircled by a fifth spiral and a sixth until the end of the page—not the news exactly, not bombings, not housing settlements, not crop yields, more quotidian experience. “The everyday,” says Jonas in Artforum, “is how I relate to these broader issues. I try to translate these visions according to my vantage point on the present moment.”
The present moment: inky arms move, move as if pedaling a bicycle but really shaking a newspaper, controlled desperation that seems to want to release a rush, cheap and simple, a cast of humble performers, trained and rehearsed, and many more video performers, and also Emperor Henry VII who wished to unify Italy... or, speaking of chalk on small wood-framed blackboards, or speaking of boxing lessons, the drawing I make during incantation, the buildings formed, then unformed by erasure, me slightly sped up, my dog trotting politely through art storage.
This is not the performance art of shock, buckets of blood, buckets of urine, buckets of semen, not endurance, no one is hurting or exhausting themselves, no electric guitars, no saws, no middle fingers, nothing abject, pathetic or ironic, not Abramovic, Burden, McCarthy, or Barney, not the early videos by Jonas which explore the form as subject, this is a descendant of the theater of mixed means, the theater theorized and formulated in Happenings and in conversation between, among others, Richard Shechner, Claes Oldenburg, and Anna Halprin. As Schechner sketches out in his book Public Domain from 1969, a theater of images/events, tasks open-ended, multi-focused.
But, we all know. We all know tomorrow, the inferno is definite, we all know five-to-seven-year-olds here in Nova Scotia’s summer before shallow kick kicking and bobbing will uproot and re-arrange the next town, the two-person chipmunk business association will rock in their seat.
This is the issue: unseen lunch box hands move dollhouses and models, guaranteed pipes will burst in this next town over. From here at the bottom of the spiral I have sucked myself into, I watch the films that moved to galleries, the dancers that removed the seats, sculptors spread around the new theater looking down long, dripping streets, or looking like Italian four-legged animal impersonators facing off between skinny trees. Where I visited there were ancient masks for becoming foxes in green dresses, while here there are plastic superstore multiples that do the trick and a woman dressed in white looking at herself, looking at the image of her white sister sticking her nose in the mirror and laughing a little in front of the trees, sunglasses and a high crumpled hat.
I turn away. China marker on wall, and yes, I designed the lights—they are made out of paper. I turn back to one of the three screens: rusty dull spikes in hands, tink-rummaged on the table, project this restlessness on the wall, now I, drawing on the floor with assistant, with assistant pull away the great black drawing, ball it up to reveal a video I made of a roundabout from the passenger seat of a taxi...
In the book, The Poet’s Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses, Mark Doty reads in Dante a haunting and hard humanism of small moments. Mark Doty: “Here is a miniature of hope; here is a deeply attentive look at both frost and at the evanescence of human feeling, how despair may melt as quickly as hoarfrost itself.” Like the performers in Reading Dante III who sing in each other’s faces, Doty and Jonas share sympathies with Dante, here:
In that part of the young year when the sun
Goes under Aquarius to rinse his beams,
And the long nights already begin to wane
Toward half the day, and when the hoarfrost mimes
The image of her white sister upon the ground—
But only a while, because her pen, it seems
Is not sharp long—a peasant who has found
That he is running short of fodder might rise
And go outside and see the fields have turned
To white, and slap his thigh, and back in the house
Pace grumbling here and there like some poor wretch
Who can’t see what to do; and then he goes
Back out, and finds hope back within his reach,
Seeing in how little time the world outside
Has changed its face, and takes his crook to fetch
His sheep to pasture. I feel this way ... (Inferno 24.1-16)
Joan Jonas, deep, attentive, focused, shining, feeling this way, goes far in search of the ineffable. In the European art quarterly, spike, art historian and curator Barbara Clausen tells some of the facts of the Jonas story and like many, considers Jonas as a world performer: “After 1958, while she was still a student of art history and sculpture, she undertook long journeys to Greece and Turkey. She visited the reserves of the Hopi Indians in the southwest of the United States, traveled through Japan from 1970, where she bought one of the earliest Sony Video portapak cameras. Her absorption in cultures that were foreign to her is the basis of her reflection on her 'own' culture.”
Jonas’ drawings of pagodas at Rosamund Felsen might attempt to gift to Dante a critical understanding of Orientalism... placeholders for good fairy tales rather than the usual exoticism. Despite my obvious excitement about Jonas’ work, I am uneasy with this, Jonas’ scheme of integrating diverse world performance traditions. Jonas as multicultural reflector in a possibly un-owned world culture, as Clausen articulates it and in general... it makes me nervous. Perhaps this is my lack of imagination, but from my vantage point, I do not imagine I will turn into an animal. Given the choice between world performance traditions filtered through Joan Jonas and Jonas collaborating with artists from all over the world, Jonas with artists brought up in certain traditions, I would choose the latter anytime. I think Jonas means well, and is honest in her search, and if it is true that performance is back to stay in the art world, let Jonas be a constant, a beacon.
- Marcus Civin
Joan Jonas, Still from Reading Dante IV. 1976/2009-2010, Installation View, Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Wall Drawing for Dante, 2. 2009/2010, China marker. 7’ 2" x 7’ as installed, size variable. All images courtesy the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery.