Joan Jonas was the first person in the United States with a Sony Portapak video recorder. She bought it on a trip to Japan in 1970.
Gina Pane injured herself in performances to "shock viewers out of complacency."
Both artists were born in the 1930s; both were early adopters of video, worked in a variety of media and were pioneers of performance and body art. "Parallel Practices: Joan Jonas & Gina Pane" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston seeks to pair and compare the work of these "protofeminist" artists. Curated by Dean Daderko, the exhibition bisects the CAMH's main gallery, one side painted dark gray and featuring Jonas's work, the other painted white and featuring the work of Pane, who died in 1990. In spite of their importance, neither artist is a household name.
To really appreciate much of the show, you have to consider the social, political and technological contexts in which the art was made.
It's hard for most of us to remember a time when video wasn't easily and immediately accessible. Today you can shoot and upload multiple videos to Vine before your latte order is called. Early writing about video work by the critic Rosalind Krauss foretold the future, wondering, "What would it mean to say, 'The medium of video is narcissism.'" Although the content of YouTube would certainly lend credence to that statement, Krauss was responding to the glut of early work in which artists' fascination with the medium's abilities for self-observation dominated the content. There was a lot of early video in which people watched themselves watching themselves. It was awhile before video became just another artistic tool.
Jonas's installation at the CAMH, Glass Puzzle (1973-2000) includes video of Jonas and artist friend Lois Lane posing in a room. The black-and-white video projected on the wall is the original single-channel version of the piece. (Jonas made the installation version and included additional color video in 2000.) Jonas and Lane created the performance by mirroring each other's movements as they viewed live-feed video of their actions. Much of the video was shot from the monitor itself, creating disorienting reflections and layering. You wonder who they are posing for — themselves, each other or the unknown viewer.
I found a quote from Jonas about the work that mentioned the photographer Ernest J. Bellocq. (The exhibition catalog isn't out until later in the show's run. The CAMH's wall labels are offering viewers slightly more background information than in the last performance art show, but viewer-friendliness still has a ways to go.) Bellocq's photographs were posthumously shown at MoMA in 1970 when photographer Lee Friedlander discovered his negatives. Bellocq worked in the early 20th century and photographed New Orleans's Storyville prostitutes in contrived poses and with props like masks, part of some unknown narrative. Less obviously sexual, the self-conscious poses of Jonas's Glass Puzzle hint at a similarly odd but unrevealed narrative. Lane's face is occasionally obscured, not with a mask but with a postcard of what looks like the Step Pyramid of King Djoser.
In her 1976 video work Good Night Good Morning, the artist greets the camera upon waking and before going to bed. We see her in various states of alertness and in various kinds and stages of dress and undress as she greets us with "good morning" or "good night." It's not an obsessive daily chronicle, just something filmed over three different periods of time in New York and Nova Scotia. Video made it possible for Jonas to just turn the camera on and off at will and work in this diaristic fashion. But although Jonas created it by talking to the camera by herself, the viewer changes it. Jonas is now addressing us.
The idea of mirrors and reflection runs throughout Jonas's work. She was originally a sculptor, and her early foray into performance is documented in the photograph Mirror Piece I (1969), in which a woman lying in the grass rests a tall, slender rectangular mirror across her thighs. She is hidden, the mirror creating a four-legged being. Jonas's Mirror Check (1970) will be performed at the CAMH. In the piece, the nude performer inspects her body with a small circular mirror while the audience is 30 feet away, viewing the woman viewing herself. (Performances begin May 4 and will be every Saturday at 2 p.m.)
Jonas's 1984 video Double Lunar Dogs has a nostalgic, early-MTV look to it. (In 1981, the CAMH presented an early installation and performance of the work.) Double Lunar Dogs is loosely based on Robert Heinlein's 1941 science fiction story "Universe," in which the inhabitants of a space ship that originally fled earthly apocalypse for a new planet have forgotten their origins. The ship has become their world. The video stars Jonas and Spalding Gray; Jonas is deadpan, while Gray wanders into manic goofiness. It's a meandering and sporadic narrative that could stand editing — some things in video art never change — but it effectively riffs on pop-culture, futuristic paranoia. It has a funky, homemade appeal; an all-knowing, creepy-looking character wears dryer-vent tubing over his arms for space-guy clothes and Jonas indulges in wonky green-screen special effects.
The more recent 2010 installation Reading Dante III dominates Jonas's show. It's a decidedly multilayered, multimedia work. As in Glass Puzzle, video is projected onto walls or made object-like by showing it on a monitor. There are wall drawings and videos of the artist drawing as well as videos of performances. It's fascinating to see a 40-plus-year span of Jonas's work and how it has evolved in this recent piece. I like the imaginative and immersive nature of the Dante installation, but somehow it never reaches critical mass for me. It remains a collection of interesting parts.
In French artist Gina Pane's work of self-injury and endurance, Action Escalade non-anesthésiée (Action Non-anaesthetized Climb) (1971), the artist repeatedly climbed a metal frame with jagged bits welded to the horizontal rungs. At the opening, I discussed Pane's work with a friend who was in art school at the time of Pane's 1971 piece. Today there is general awareness of victims of abuse injuring themselves as a way to process overwhelming or horrifying emotions, but as my friend pointed out, that wasn't part of public consciousness at the time. For her, work like Pane's stemmed from that era's violence and unrest. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated the same year as France's May '68 protests, the 1970 slaughter of Kent State students had just happened and the war in the former French colony of Vietnam was raging.
The "Climb" action is documented in the show by photos of the artist climbing the metal "ladder" to the point of exhaustion. The photographer was the only witness. The structure itself is on view next to the photos. Pane's work seems like the confluence of the personal and the political. She was born in France in 1939 — along with WWII. Her mother was Austrian and her father Italian; she grew up in Italy, coming to France to study in 1960. It's worth noting that a number of the self-mutilating Vienna Actionists were born within a year of her.
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Did Pane's work really shock people out of their complacency? I doubt it. While a conceptual argument can be made for the self-inflicted violence in performance works, I think its origins lie in the personal psychology of the artist. Self-inflicted violence like Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation out of anger and frustration at the injustice he faced helped trigger the Arab Spring, but even this most extreme form of political protest rarely yields results. A mother of four just set herself ablaze in Tibet to protest Chinese rule, the 110th Tibetan to do so. Whatever the artist's intent, today self-harm in the context of art has become commodified, voyeuristic and trivialized.
Some of Pane's works have a heavily Roman Catholic overlay, like the blood and thorns seen in the photographs of Constat d'action for Azione Sentimentale (Sentimental Action) (1973). Pane artistically inserted a line of rose thorns into her forearms and then cut her palms for stigmata-esque effect. The artist wears white and it's all very stylishly done, without any of the baroque gore of the Viennese Actionists. The piece was delicately planned out by Pane in a series of drawings. It seems very personal and contemplative.
Pane's video Action Little Journey (1977) has some wittily poetic moments in it. In one scene, she holds a tiny cutout of a sailboat up to the camera and blows on its sails. In another, she flies a paper silhouette of an airplane to the sun, where it falls like Icarus. Photos of early actions like Pane's attempt to bury a ray of sunlight or her later 1984-85 wall piece abstracting the Paolo Uccello painting of St. George slaying the dragon have a similar thoughtful elegance. Prior to this show, I had seen only the more sensationalistic of Pane's works, and I was pleased to see a broader range of her artistic production.
I'm interested in seeing work from these two artists, but I don't know that pairing them brings great insight to either. The very recent work from Jonas throws the balance off. The curatorial essay is forthcoming, so maybe I'm missing something. Finding new angles and comparing and contrasting work can be interesting when two artists' work is widely known, but it's difficult when it isn't. For me, and I'll assume some others, Parallel Practices is the most I have seen of Pane and Jonas's work in one place. I just want to see more. Each is worthy of her own retrospective.