Finding the Emotion in Images

Susan Morgan is an art writer based in Los Angeles

In a West Hollywood frame shop, the artist Joan Jonas balances on a footstool to survey a group of black and white photographs. As Reese Vogel, a master photographic printer based in Pasadena, unwraps the pictures and arranges them on an enormous work table, Jonas peers with apprehensive amazement at the images.

Jonas speaks hesitantly, with disarming humor. When she gingerly ventures forth an idea, she first steers it cautiously along a flat, predictable course and then gives it a startling spin. In writing the frontispiece for a catalog of her work for UC Berkeley, Jonas’ acknowledgments kick off with a typically enchanting conundrum: “Although many of my performances have been solo works, there really is no such thing.”

Jonas’ latest works, photographs taken by the artist for her one-person exhibition opening Friday at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Santa Monica and exquisitely printed by Vogel, are astonishing. Ranging from 5-foot-square studio tableaux (staged dreamscapes set against a transparent slide projection of densely planted cactuses) down to an intense set of 5-by-7-foot snapshots (a clump of dead flowers, mysterious debris washed ashore on an isolated beach) as inscrutable and compelling as bits of evidence, these new pictures reveal again the artist’s incisive and evocative visual language.

“This is the first time a gallery has agreed to present all new work, with the objects made specifically for this show,” Jonas, a preeminent performance and video artist, remarks quietly. For nearly 30 years, in performances, installations and videotapes presented throughout the world, Jonas has mined a vocabulary of resonant images. With graceful mastery, she has frequently utilized store-bought masks, mirrors, video monitors (often treated as technological mirrors) and spontaneous drawings--concentric circles reminiscent of the waning moon, a dog’s head, a human heart--to create a kinetic form of imagist poetry.


“All of my performances are concerned in part with image as metaphor,” Jonas wrote in a statement to accompany a 1983 retrospective of her work at Berkeley’s University Art Museum. “There is an emotion in the image that cannot be translated. The performer sees herself as medium: information passes through.”

Since the autumn of 1993, the New York-based Jonas has spent part of each year in Los Angeles, teaching a course in New Genres at UCLA’s Art School. This year, her presence here has been particularly evident.

An installation of videotapes and performance artifacts--sets, costumes, and props--from Jonas’ seminal 1972 works, Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy and Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll, was included in “Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975,” MOCA’s acclaimed historical survey of conceptual art.

“Organic Honey was the name I gave to my video alter image,” Jonas has explained. Decked out in a flapper’s beaded-silk-chiffon chemise, a plastic-doll face mask and a headdress festooned with peacock feathers and glass gems, the artist underwent a performative metamorphosis. Playing to the camera, Organic Honey was transfixed by her own image and theatricality. “I found video magical and, as Organic Honey, I imagined myself an electronic sorceress conjuring the images.” In the persona of Organic Honey, Jonas played with notions of femininity and narcissism while scrutinizing videtaping’s peculiar and fascinating technical characteristics--slow dissolves, fragmented close-ups, visual feedback.


Jonas also appears as a performer in “Keep Busy,” a 1975 movie collaboration between photographer Robert Frank and novelist-screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer. Screened as part of the Lannan Foundation’s Robert Frank exhibition (“Robert Frank: Moving Out 1943-1993,” through May 19), “Keep Busy"--with an eclectic but notable list of performers, including actors David Warilow and Bill Raymond, theater director Joanne Akalitis, sculptor Richard Serra, and interior designer Roberta Neiman--is an absurdist saga, a story about nameless characters performing interminable tasks among the ruined shacks of an island off the Cape Breton coast.

Since 1970, Jonas has spent part of every summer in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She has, over the past 25 years, lived and worked in Greece, Morocco, India, Germany, Holland, Iceland, Poland, Hungary, and Ireland. In 1994, she was made a full professor at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Kunst in Stuttgart, Germany.

“I suppose I always had the desire to travel,” she admits with a certain trepidation. Born in New York in 1936, Jonas studied art history and sculpture at Mount Holyoke College, sculpture and drawing at the Boston Museum School and sculpture, modern poetry and Greek Art at Columbia University.

“In the ‘60s, I was lucky enough to spend a year in Greece,” she recalls. “The trip influenced a lot of my earlier work.” Jonas soon abandoned sculpture for performance that mixed complex elements--video and sound recording, live video playback, projected images, movement and occasionally narrative. Jonas’ cultural references were never separated out according to high and low. In her performances, the references are far-flung and always poignant: Haitian veve drawings, designs, inscribed in sand or flour, used to invoke the spirits; Bronze Age images of animal spirits and mother goddesses; sounds of folk tunes, hysterical laughter and howling dogs; quoted poetry and heirloom silver spoons. Jonas’ performances exist within a realm of transformative entertainment, tapping into the basic mysteries essential to magic shows and shadow plays.


“I always like the idea of traveling and then coming back and explaining what I saw,” says Jonas. “Somehow returning with experiences, putting them into another form, has really been the content of my work.”

Included in her current exhibition is a recently completed installation--a steel well built from a pipe and containing the video image of a woman underwater, speaking silently, breaking the surface with bubbles. These rich and essential images--the submerged woman, the well--have recurred in Jonas’ work over the years. Jonas’ first film, based on a 1968 performance, was titled “Oad Lau"--a Moroccan village’s name meaning “watering place.” In her 1973 videotape, “Disturbances,” a woman swims silently beneath another woman’s reflection. During 1994, working in Ireland and Holland, Jonas developed a theater piece based on poet Seamus Heaney’s adaptation of a medieval Irish poem, “Revolted by the Thought of Known Places. . . .” In the Irish countryside, Jonas photographed wells built of stone and sod; later, while working at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, she constructed a steel version of a well with a fragmented mirror in place of the water. Jonas has described this continuous regeneration of images as “making another circle of ripples.”

In her ongoing examinations of portentous objects and universal myths, Jonas reveals an enticing and curious sensibility; like the 1940s avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren, she finesses an artistic territory that exists somewhere between anthropology and surrealism.

Surprised at first, Jonas accepts the comparison to Deren as a compliment. “It wasn’t until about 1970 that I first saw “Meshes of the Afternoon” [Deren’s haunting 1943 film, a spare and poetic mystery], Jonas says. “But there is a similarity of content between her work and mine.


“I’ve now seen “Meshes of the Afternoon” many times, because I always show it to my students,” Jonas continues. “Funnily enough, even though that film is more than 50 years old, it was shot in Los Angeles and the students always find it to be very familiar,” she observes smiling, delighted to find the concentric circles of reference continuing to ripple outward.


JOAN JONAS, Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., B-4, Santa Monica. Dates: Saturday through June 1. TIMES: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Phone: (310) 828-8488.