To Image the Soul: The Paintings of Joan Moment
By Elaine O’Brien

She chooses a constellation among our voices
and flings it, free of sorrow, heavenward.

Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus

The paintings in this exhibition achieve the pinnacle of Joan Moment’s trajectory of artistic aspiration. “I am embarrassed to say,” she noted privately in 1984, “that what I am after is an image of the soul.” More than that, she added,

I would like to make an image that by its very nature, in terms of form and substance, bears an intensity and a life of its own which although foreign to the viewer is strangely recognizable and undeniably spiritual. And I would like this image to be so strong that it enters the heart and the soul.

First realized and expressed in paintings and writings of the early 1980s, Moment’s metaphysical researches, which join her work to the most universal of artistic traditions, began much earlier – in the mid 1960s – with her very decision to be an artist. In recent conversation Moment vividly recalled the epiphanic interval in her youth when she was drawn to the steep path and took her tentative first step. A mixed-media assemblage created at the time is the first image she shows when she lectures about her art. The work, titled Burial (fig. 1), now lost, was an advanced painting assignment from 1966 when she was 28 years old. “Burial,” she explains, “is of my old self and my mother’s death from ovarian cancer, coming to terms with that.”

The buried self had two aspects: one was the artist as her mother’s daughter, an identity she had long found ill-fitting and by the time of her mother’s death had painfully outgrown; the other was Joan Moment, the student nurse at the Yale Medical Center. For the artist-to-be, nursing school was a “profound and traumatic experience…. What I saw were horrible illnesses and death…. I had great difficulty accepting the idea of physical dissolution and the suffering of many of the patients I saw.” The shock of her mother’s untimely and sudden death compounded the trauma of the hospital scenes Moment had witnessed. Her grieving imagination turned inward to existential themes of mortality, the search for meaning, spiritual consolation, and the possibility of transcendence through art. From the perspective of 2006 and the paintings of Aerial Luminations, all of the much-noted fixtures of Moment’s oeuvre can be seen to originate here: the primordial iconography, conceptually and formally linked series, repetition, phenomenological experience, and the artist’s automatist methods in which painting is at once a search for the real, the traces of being, and the process of self-creation.

“The theme of Burial is still the motivation for my work,” she explained in a 2005 interview occasioned by the exhibition, Seeking Primordial Forms. Moment firmly drew the arc of artistic aspiration that connects Burial of 1966 to This Happens to Everybody, Space Goes on, The Sea Lives: the Ur-painting of the 2004-6 Constellations series, including the paintings in Aerial Luminations:

That issue has remained with me throughout my life, and the large painting in this show, This Happens to Everybody…, was painted when my father was ill and on the way to the end of his life. I was very conscious as I was making this painting of making a place where he would be. It’s hard to describe, but I had a real need to make this place. I also think of it not so much as a painting of grief or sadness, but a very optimistic painting. …The impulse was much like the one I had when I made Burial. It is about outer space and him being there.”

Joan Moment’s creative biography as a quest manifested in a linked sequence of ambitious series has been narrated many times in reviews and catalogue essays. Emphasis has been on the painter’s consistent use of archetypal iconography, repetition, symbolic processes, and inventive use of materials. Her spiritual search for an image of the soul – the intention recognizably pivotal to us now looking back on a production of four decades – was not emphasized, but it was noted. This is especially true of the critical reception in the early 1980’s in which art writers were responding to paintings that those on view in Aerial Luminations recall. In 1984 Judith Dunham, for example, describing a suite of paintings that included the vast Pertaining to the Planets and Raw Nerve Endings (fig 2: 1983, acrylic, latex enamel, gauze on canvas 72” x 84”), accentuated the faux naïve “rawness” and “crudity” of Moment’s art. (Only a trace of which remains in the requisite gaucherie of contemporary belle peinture.) The signature elliptical forms of the 1984 exhibition, Dunham observed, assumed “the identity of planets, galactic configurations and vortices … archetypes … imbuing the work with a spirituality….” (1)

Similarly, Christopher French, responding to paintings such as the 1985 Distant Pleasures (figure 3, acrylic, gauze on canvas, 48” x 60”) for a Sacramento State University exhibition, wrote that Moment had performed a reversal of her early seventies condom and neoprene pieces. With forms suggesting the Venus of Willendorf, archetype of the Feminine, wrote the critic, the artist had created a balance of animus and anima. Yet French also observed how much the symbolic process of erasure in these paintings evoked a profound sense of memory and loss. “Like a series of shroud-like veils,” he reflected, “they are an appropriate gesture for an ephemeral form whose function is explicitly spiritual.” (2)

Moment’s 2003 eleven-year survey exhibition at the Huntington Beach Art Center presented the Hand Series, the Garden Fresco Series, the Red Nasturtium Series, and the Orb Series: richly material paintings with a nature-based physicality made all the more emphatic by the process of imprinting. Of them, catalogue essayist Peter Frank wrote, “If they are not made of the stuff they look like, they are made from that stuff.” (3) Using an almost hyper-natural palette of predominantly greens and browns – colors eschewed in Aerial Luminations – Moment made direct impressions from leaves, fingertips, hands, and bottle rims onto surfaces of paper that beautifully absorbed and displayed oozing excesses of paint. However material they are, in her statement for the exhibition, the artist explained that the Garden Fresco Series and the Red Nasturtium Series were “created to encourage a kind of reverie, forgetfulness and dream-like state that we often experience in a beautiful garden or in nature. Equally important is an underlying theme of temporality, mortality, memory and the waking-dream.” The nasturtium leaf (seen here in paintings such as The Secret Life of Plants II and Blue Nasturtium Series XX) “has highly visible veins and appears skeletonized, implying various states of life and decay. As such they become a metaphor for the body and human mortality.” Another statement expands and transforms the visual metaphor: “The veins are like wheels, aerial views of roads and the overall peltate shape reminiscent of microscopic cells and cosmic forms from outer space.” With this dynamic union of primal dualities of life and death – matter and spirit, experience and memory – it is not a long step to the memorial painting for her father, This Happens to Everybody: Space Goes On, The Sea Lives – with its blue, breathing vastness an image of the soul, “a place where he would be.”

In taking on the subject of Eros and Thanatos, Moment accepted the archetypal role of the artist. And the beauty evident in Aerial Luminations, beauty arduously achieved yet required of an art that will mirror the human spirit, defies death and suffering as only art can, by subsuming it into Orphic joy. If the metaphysical impetus behind Moment’s production from Burial of 1966 to now has been adumbrated in the reception literature, we can look for a reason in the prevailing aesthetic of her era – the postmodern decades from the 1960’s to the early 1990’s. Postmodernism’s defining irony and anti-aesthetic, its argument with belle peinture and spiritual abstraction, is by now a nearly forgotten critique, merely one of many options. In our global century we are no longer ashamed to believe in the power of art. We too hope to find an image “so strong that it enters the heart and the soul.”

(1)Judith Dunham, “Rawness, Crudity Balanced by Sensuality,” Joan Moment, exh. cat. Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Wake Forest University, North Carolina School of the Arts, 1984.
(2) Christopher French, “Various States of Being,” Joan Moment, exh. cat. Robert Else Gallery, California State University, Sacramento, 1985.
(1) Peter Frank, “Joan Moment: The Imprinted Paintings,” Joan Moment: Paintings, Works on Paper, and Wall Installations, 1993-2003, exh. cat., Huntington Beach Art Center, 2003.

Elaine O’Brien is a Professor of Contemporary and Modern Art History and Criticism at Sacramento State University