Chromamorpholgy: The Recent Paintings of Joan Moment
By Mark Van Proyen
“These regular abstract forms are, therefore, the only
ones and the highest in which man can rest in the face of the vast confusion
of the world-picture.”
Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy (1908)(1)
One of the enduring problems in the pictorial arts revolves around the question that seeks to gain knowledge about the optimal relationship between particular incidents and overarching totalities, and this has been played out in both the areas of form and content since ancient times. It has been pursued with renewed vigor during the 20th Century, where the emphasis on totality seems to have carried the day ever since Clement Greenberg celebrated Jackson Pollock’s accomplishment of what was called, “a polyphonic all-over picture,” referring to a picture-surface where every specific incident contributed to the unified immediacy of the work’s invitation to visual experience, in effect casting that invitation as a kind of visual chord comprised of many harmonized notes that are mixed together in the viewer’s eye. This emphasis on present-tense unity became the basis for the “look” that we normally associate with high art in the second half of the 20th century, be it exemplified by the color field painting that Greenberg would champion a few short years after Pollock’s death, or in the mode of sculpture that came to be called Minimalism, where, in Frank Stella’s memorable words, “what you see is what you see” echoed Oscar Wilde’s more time-honored pronouncement reminding us that “surface is the great revealer.” Indeed, from the vantage that prizes crystalline visual unity, the heaping-up of excessive detail on a picture surface is not only esthetically inefficacious, but also morally wrong, casting an excess of pictorial incident in the same invidious light that we would reserve for the elaborations of a bad liar. This is a very different thing from the purposeful purposeless of ideal pictorial self-realization, that being the crystallization of experience into forms that transcend quotidian experience.
In the case of the narrative content of contemporary painting, the broad tendancy toward unifying totality at the expense of particular visual incidents is also felt, only here, this emphasis is found in the reduction of visual descriptions to emblems that represent their conventional meanings, and can be quickly identified as such: think Jasper John’s Flags and Targets, or consider Andy Warhol’s portraits of celebrities as being a few among the many examples of “representation-as-emblem” that could be cited. Such works can be said to represent what Adrian Stokes would have called “A carving proclivity” in contrast to other painters who, in his words, were inclined to “modeling their forms as if they were bathed in a sumptuous light.” These two orientations stem from antique ideas about the magic of light itself; the latter being a case of Lux, that being the Latin word indicating the way that light bathes a given form in a drama of highlight and shadow, and Lumina, where the Latinate tongue points to the way that some forms seem to emanate and project a kind of inner light in a manner that we might associate with Medieval or Byzantine painting.(2)
Joan Moment’s paintings have always been pitch-perfect in their seizure of the balance point between these dichotomies, as they neither err on the side of deductive totalization, nor do they indulge in any excess of pointless over-elaboration. This fact seems to align her work with an idea of the purposes of abstract painting that preceded Greenberg’s far-reaching influence. Here, I am referring not only the work of a cluster of key practitioners, but also to the ideas that their work embraced, which in almost all cases had something to do with the use of color and shape symbolize some kind of metaphysical idea pertaining to Platonic transcendence.
For example, we can think of Wassily Kandinsky’s call for the klang of spiritual reverberation, or we can think of Piet Mondrian’s doctrine of determined relations, not forgetting Kasimer Malevich’s postulation of a “zaum language” that operated beyond rational logic. All of these ideas were percolated in the years immediately prior to the first World War, and they bespoke a world that was just beginning to experience what Paul Virilio called “the emerging dromosphere,”(3) that being his term for a world in the grips of seemingly uncontrollable increases in the everyday experience of velocity. These increases were not just the experiential by-products of travel made popularly available by automobile and airplane, but also came part-and-parcel with new vistas that were opened up by biological and astronomical discoveries made possible by significant increases in the power of microscopes and telescopes. Indeed, at that watershed moment, the “real” world seemed to be losing its believability just as previously unseen worlds were becoming more than a dream. Responding to a moment of cultural rupture, painters sought to create forms that were at once present, but also signifiers of a kind of cosmic omnipresence where form and energy perpetually created each other.
For three decades, Joan Moment has been creating paintings that invited the sensitive viewer to a meditation on such omnipresent energies. It is significant that, after she has abandoned the uses a paintbrush to manipulate her pigments, preferring to either imprint them on her surfaces using everyday objects as if they were rubber stamps, or to saturate the aforementioned surfaces with a richly varied vocabulary of pourings and stainings, aligning her creative process more closely to the operation of natural energies rather than positioning them as mere manipulations of inert materials. On this point, she is emphatic: “I have never been interested in illusion and description,” (4) and an examination of the work that she has produced during her 35-year career as a painter bears this out. A good early example that reveals Moment’s approach to materials is a work titled Various States of Being (1985) which uses paint-saturated layers of translucent gauze fabric to convey the illusion that the work’s surface was an exceedingly large fragment of interconnected living tissue—an illusion given sensuous amplification by the work’s stunning palette of orange, yellow and gray-ochre. From that point on, Moment’s work has been devoted to giving visual voice to a kind of biophiliac vitalism: indeed, if there was one formal attribute that we can see operating in all of her paintings, it is the forwarding of an illusion that her picture spaces are pulsating with vital energy, almost as if they are fragments of living tissue. In several works created in 2004 (titled The Nasturtium Series), Moment even used the leaves of plants as imprinting devices, leaving their visible indexes as lyrical eulogies to the gradual waning of perfect vibrancy.
The mid-1990s find Moment beginning an evolution toward more crystalline compositions that feature a simplified vocabulary of repeated forms. Color gradually became crisper and more vibrant, and was growing much less suffused with atmospheric layers. The painting technique revolves around the making of repeated imprints of circles that are configured to appear as interconnected chains of amino and nucleic acids, the very “stuff of life” that marks the transformative moment when chemistry first becomes biology. Other works feature more dispersed arrangements of these circular imprints, suggesting that they are captured in a moment of moving toward one another, driven by a kind of gravitational pull. Perhaps more suggestively, these works move in a monochromatic direction, albeit one that is rich with subtle variations of hue and graphic incident. A few of these new works are red, but not exactly the red of blood; rather, their crimson cast echoes the color of red algae, the very “soup” that paleobotanists tell us first incubated multi-celled animals.
The majority of the recent paintings are a deep brilliant blue that seems to encompass cobalt, ultramarine and lapis lazuli. In fact, these works come to us as parts of at least two groups, those being the Molecular Series from 2003 and the Orb (derived from “orbit”) series from 2004. Common to these recent series is an evocation of the heavens, which is signaled by the aforementioned blue, and also by the way that various drops of white, yellow and pink paint coalesce to appear as if they were the stars and planets of distant galaxies. Such a coalescence is particularly apparent in Archipelago (2005), which could be read as a kind of map of a multitude of islands regarded from a distant vista. But it is in works such as Luminous Net, Outburst, Looking Through the Yellow Sea of Blue Moons and Mapping the Stars (all 2004) that we see Moment’s cosmic dramatis personae in full operation. In these works, configurations of interlocked circles are positioned in the picture plane in the same manner that disparate cells might join forces in a petri dish, creating regularized nets that might contain some of the other more shape-shifting elements that participate in these compositions. Reminiscent of the chains of bubbles that make up a complex foam, or of chemist’s diagrams of the various compounds that make-up a given substance, these interlocked circles can also be said to resemble the “spirit catching” baskets made by some Native American shaman, even as they are also evocative of the alchemical paintings of Yves Klein, or the evanescent delicacy of the ink paintings by early Zen artists such as Mu Ch’i. Indeed, these configurations could be taken as idiosyncratic constellations devised by some ancient or even extraterrestrial navigator as an aid to a grand journey through a world where microscopic and macroscopic views are as one, leading us to the place where we can see how the flexibility and flux of primordial pulsation starts to breed the architecture of consciousness.
(1) Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution
to the Psychology of Style (1908), Translated by Michael Bullock (New York:
International Universities Press, 1953). 19.
(2) See Adrian Stokes, "Carving and Modeling," (from Color and Form ) in Image in Form: Selected Writings of Adrian Stokes, edited by Richard Wolheim, (New York: Harper and Row,1972).
(3) Paul Virilio, “Perspectives of Real Time,” in Rosenthal and Joachimides (eds.) Metropolis (Berlin: Martin Gropius Bau, 1991). 59.
(4) Author’s interview with the artist, Sacramento, CA; December 30, 2005.
All references to the artist’s intentions are derived from this source, unless otherwise noted.
Mark Van Proyen is a Resident
Faculty at the San Francisco Art Institute, artist, critic and Contributing
Editor to ARTWEEK, Art in America and many other publications