This week I spent some time thinking about the work of the American artist Joan Jonas. She’s not an artist I was very familiar with, and I’m annoyed with myself now that I missed a recent retrospective of her work at Tate Modern in 2018.
Jonas is 86 years old, and has had an extraordinary career. Back in the 1960s and 70s she was a pioneer of video and performance art but she also works in a range of media. I find it hard to pin down in words exactly what Jonas’s work is about, although running through it is an exploration of fairy tales and myths in a way that resonates with our contemporary experience of the world. Nature and her dogs feature a lot too.
If I had to summarise her work, I would say that she’s just simply curious about life and finds ways of grasping and expressing meaning. I know that’s a little bit nebulous, but oftentimes I find that meaning in art for me is clear as a bell one moment and then it’s gone. I love that about art: there’s a connection, a sense of clarity, in visual form that we can feel but we can’t necessarily translate into words.
Jonas talks about how her work explores the complex layering of our thoughts, and what she says is perhaps the closest that words can get to summarising it:
My work is all about layering, because that’s the way our brains function. We think of several things at the same time. We see things and think another, we see one picture and there’s another picture on top of it. I think in a way my work represents that way of seeing the world - putting things together in order to say something.
I’m not going to run through her career here, although if you need a quick summary or a jumping off point to explore her work here’s Tate’s 5 things to know about Joan Jonas. Instead I want to share a 5 minute video from 2014 of Jonas talking about her process of drawing and how integral it is in her practice. Aside from it being an absolute delight to watch her draw, there’s so much to pull out from what she says.
‘I don’t think you can ever really capture what it’s like for an artist to be alone working on their work in the studio’ she says. Watching the quietude of Jonas in her studio made me think about a conversation I had this week about introversion with my friend Leila Ainge, a psychologist. Leila writes a fascinating blog called Psychologically Speaking, about how our brains work. After lamenting to her the downsides of my own introverted nature, Leila pulled me up by pointing out the strengths of introversion: we have our own inbuilt stimulation and self-regulation, and we are the supply chain, providing the food for thought for everyone else.
I don’t know whether Jonas would describe herself as an introvert, but she seems to thrive in quiet solitude making work in her studio. Like practicing a piano, she is motivated to return to drawing the same thing again and again. I’ve heard many artists talk about the effects of entering their studio space - the way in which time disappears and the calm and focus that descends in the process of making art. And the sense of fulfilment that comes from that. It made me wonder what percentage of artists have a tendency towards introversion.
I’d love to know what you think about this, and about Jonas’s work or any of the ideas she talks about in the video.
I really enjoyed finding out about Joan Jonas, and I agree that is hard to pin down a direction of her work, it seems to start in one place and explode out in different trajectories and I loved that! Reflecting on the ‘brand ness’ and instant recognition of Yayoi Kasama’s work it highlights how opposites share space in the art world.
I wondered with Jean Jonas though if that repetitive nature or the sketching was leaning towards the quiet and contemplative rehearsal associated with performance, and I think that’s a classic example of how introversion and extroversion can work hand in hand sometimes.
I'm not an artist, but I love idea of having a quiet studio space to potter around in, to make things and explore stuff. A place where everything else is on the outside.