By Peter Frank

Over the last decade, Joan Moment has fulfilled the destiny of her name. Her paintings -- overtly, even aggressively process-oriented, revealing and very much about the act of their own making – have literally become objects “of the moment.” The imprints, trails, and accretions of pigment that comprise Moment’s recent oeuvre in all formats, from work on paper to wall installation, insist on real time. Her works since 1994 are as immediate – as sensually immediate – as photograms, because they develop just as rapidly from the physical proximity of their subject images. If they are not made of the stuff they look like, they are made from that stuff.

Organic imagery has always been the substance of Moment’s painting. Over her thirty-plus-year career she has generated a body of work notable for its consistency. It displays continual stylistic evolution, but it also evinces an enduring reliance on the natural world as the formal source – not just the principal formal source, but just about the only source – for her compositions. The repetition of forms also figures significantly in Moment’s approach to abstraction, although she has always avoided grids and other organizational systems that would impose patterns; the rhythms in even the simplest of her paintings are eccentric and spontaneous, reflecting nature as it accommodates rather than resists accident. The whorls, loops, pods, paws, and other shapes that fill Moment’s work of the 1970s and `80s pulse with a vibrancy born as much of their unpredictable co-positioning as of their gnarled, fleshy contours. The complexity of nature – what so often seems to us its chaos – inspires Moment far more than does its dependability.

In her painting of the last decade, Moment has in effect closed, or at least narrowed, the experiential, and physical, gap that has maintained between her imagery and its natural source(s). Whereas before she generated her own forms based on her observations of nature, in the recent work the forms result from the application of actual paint-doused objects to supporting surfaces. The impressions left by the objects – from Moment’s own hands to tree leaves found in her yard to devices that yield perfect circles – accrue thickly in the visual field, building up skeins of images into textures, almost to the point where the figures meld into one another and form the ground. Again, however, even while engaging in repetition bordering on obsession, Moment avoids lockstep regularity or the establishment of decorative pattern. Indeed, these imprinted paintings – even more than their predecessors – are raw, ungainly, and far removed from decoration. They are a lot less like wallpaper than they are like the smears and detritus left on walls by natural, including human, forces.

As such, Moment’s imprinted paintings comprise a kind of reverse graffiti. Her work and graffiti – in its original vandalizing form and in its more recent refined incarnation(s) – both implicate the wall, as opposed to the bounded picture plane, as the field of visual, and by extension social, experience. But graffiti is a form of mark-making, dependent on language and script, whereas Moment’s works are not made of marks, but of traces; they are sourced in an essentially atavistic perception and impulse, evident, for instance, in Neolithic cave painting. Moment has herself pointed to the cave art found in Papua New Guinea as an inspiration for her venture away from her earlier painterly picture-making and into this realm of haptic imprinting and tracing.

Comparing Moment’s work since 1994 with her earlier painting yields an intriguing irony. While her earlier work was far more labored – the labor aimed at the description of natural (or at least natural-seeming) images – the imagery in this recent work is a good deal more definite, more clearly derived from distinct sources in the “real” world. As opposed to the ambiguous shapes that float and quiver across her earlier canvases, now suggesting tree rings, now resembling insects, the blots and shadows that Moment has built up and across her newer paintings and works on paper are inarguably hands, leaves, or circles – although with those circles, comprising the newest series, she begins to reopen interpretation.

The Hand Series, Moment’s first foray into imprinting, remains her most uncomplicated and visceral – and the most difficult, even painful, to behold. Made over a period of four years, the paintings certainly attest to a human presence; but it is an anguished human presence, the synecdochal hand seemingly hurling itself at a barrier, leaving a stuttering rain of palpable and ghastly – sometimes bloody-seeming – remnants. We hardly need Moment to tell us that “these paintings deal with mortality, genocide and the AIDS epidemic,” although by adding “sexual and spiritual concerns,” she reminds us what all religions remind us: there is a world beyond the body, and the soul can transcend. Beyond the melodrama of the splattered, runny paint and the cascade of palms, moreover, each hand is a positive declaration, an “I am here” – or, better, “I am still alive” – impressed upon the universe.

The Hand Series is visually rough sledding, and its rawness remains anomalous in Moment’s oeuvre. In 1997, almost as a way of bringing herself back to the pictorial control that had underpinned all her earlier work, Moment began the Garden Fresco Series. Like the Hand Series, the Garden Fresco works are built up of imprints, in this case leaves from the variety of trees growing and near Moment’s home in Sacramento. Beyond the fact that tree leaves are inherently much less fraught with emotional association than are human hands, the Garden Fresco paintings engage their components in a more measured, if not more composed, surface design. The agitation of the hands is absent here; instead, there is an almost poignant sense of contemplation, the kind we expect nature to induce. Without quite presenting her leaf imprints as specimens, Moment evokes both the dispassionate (although passion-driven) regard of a botanist and the almost incantatory fugue of a poetic observer of nature (Thoreau comes to mind).

The Garden Fresco works were made over a two-year period, over which they returned slowly to the kind of intricate, predetermined visual construction found in Moment’s pre-imprint paintings. The Red Nasturtium series takes this growing tendency in a different direction, conflating the painter’s old need to compose with her newer need to find expression in the non-pictorial physicality of paint. As a result the Nasturtium works brim with the flower’s nearly round petals, often streaked with color, implying at once movement in an ambiguous space and surface manipulation of the source material.

Both the roundness and the streaking in the Red Nasturtium works have led Moment to her latest imprint series, the Orbs. Here, Moment regards the circle itself as a natural phenomenon; although she derives its imprint from the bottoms of bottles and other inert objects, she animates their presence by engaging them in clever and surprising interplay. Not only does this hark directly back to her old manner of composing pictures, but it allows – as the earlier imprinted works do not – for metaphorical readings of the formations. A string of very small white disks suggests a pearl necklace, for example, while a cluster of circles each with a kind of eye or nucleus resembles fish roe floating in a pond. Indeed, one of the abiding suggestions in this series is of underwater life, flora and fauna alike, enmeshed in bubbles.

Just as the compositional predetermination of the Orb series and the self-effacing ordinariness of its principal shape have suppressed the melodrama, the Orb series’ effervescence fully returns Joan Moment’s jocular humor to her paintings. The touches of excess Moment would introduce at crucial times into her previous organic fantasies recur here, although more circumspectly. The Orb paintings are developing rapidly, and each new group allows in more and more varied and metaphorical interpretation. The new Joan Moment is coming to meet the Joan Moment of old – in the moment.

Los Angeles
May 2003