INTIMACY AND STRANGENESS
Infra Red – The Gertrude Posel Gallery, October 2002
by Jessica Dubow
‘It is necessary to blind the eye that believes in something; it is necessary to make a painting of blindness, which plunges the self-sufficiency of the eye into disarray.’
Joni’s portraits puzzle us in the same way that a line drawing of a woman with a scarf wrapped around her head becomes a rabbit. Now you see it, now you don’t. When you screw up your eyes, a feature hidden within the mass of material takes form; an edge which isn’t immediately apparent finds fleeting delineation. No sooner do you fix a detail than it slips out of focus in favour of the whole; a mark that seems to separate face from field dissolves back into flux. I think of the story of W. J. Turner and of how he strapped himself to the mast of a ship the better to experience the swarm of a storm and so transform line into a translucent mass of colour, hue and matter. And like the random autonomy of a seastorm, a snowstorm, or some kind of conflagration, Joni’s portraits have neither limit nor centre, top nor bottom, do not begin or end. There is nothing here to attract the pose of a ‘point of view’ or authorise the co-ordinates of visual cognition. Other than the projections of our anticipatory minds there is nothing, no discernible shape, for our eye to intend towards. There is no object to orient a ‘face-to-face’ encounter. Instead, here we give over to the fluidity of figure and field, to the palpability of mark and gesture, to the chance fluctuations of form. In a sense, then, to look at Joni’s portraits is to look not efficiently but intensely. It is to enter into the pure capacity of the immediate. It is to be immersed in a space where there is no absolute substance, or where all substance is absolute. Held in this space Joni’s work is also about time.
Conventional portraiture is, of course, also about time. It is about the recording of faces for posterity, for memory, for commemoration. It is about history as it is fixed in service of a future, made static in the interests of successive states. Joni’s portraits, however, happen not in narratological or progressive time, but in a kind of phenomenological time. They understand that the lived perspective, that which we actually perceive, is irreducible to an inert image or to that sight defined by long-distance and exteriority. Rather, Joni renews the power of portraiture and of time on different grounds than those provided by the stasis of distance. Here her work concurs with Rodin’s verdict: that ‘it is the artists that are truthful, while the photograph is mendacious; for in reality, time never stops cold.’
Perhaps another way of approaching Joni’s work is to say that it is not about representation, or even about portraiture, but about what both of these things presuppose: perception and the field of vision. That her portraits avoid any concept of truth construed in the sense of ‘correspondence’ or mimetic ‘accordance’ is, of course, a stated aim. Likewise, that she works against the fetish of a subject who intends its object from afar, is a basic premise. But working against ‘resemblance’, as against the powers of visual dualism, is only the beginning of the story. For in a stronger sense, Joni forecloses discourse, and its theory, to intimate a primary or anterior realm: that ‘seeing moment’ where body and object, the sensual and the schematic, have not yet split off to order a politics of representation. Rather, her portraits return us to that pre-formulated field that precedes the split. They are about the actual phenomenon of perception prior to its abstraction in thought, or as an effect of judgement. Indeed, here we might borrow the words of Merleau-Ponty and say of Joni’s work that,
‘the meaning which springs forth in them is not yet an object; the intentional life which constitutes them is not yet a representation; and the comprehension which gives access to them is not yet an intellection’ .
These are not images then that - like thought - understand their object by envisioning it, by constituting it, by assimilating it back to sense and the self. Rather, caught in that state of the ‘not yet’ - in that intermediary moment which seems to rupture the closed cycle of representation - Joni insists on what the tradition of portraiture has ignored or withheld: the moment of call over against form, of being held over against possession, of trace over against proof, and generally, the movement towards interiority over against the exteriority that is identity.
There is nothing solid in these portraits. But that thickness which responds to its own rhythms, energies, intensities is not nothing. It is about a materiality that is the very sign of felt, phenomenal labour; a materiality that affirms the primacy of lived perception prior to the differentiation of the senses and the fixing of the body as object. We encounter this in the luminosity of Joni’s white on white plasterings such as Idea, Ideogram, or Albedo- a luminosity whose tactile aspects make it a metaphor for proximity rather than for intelligibility. Indeed, for Joni, illumination works less to subject a face to outward visibility than to negotiate a passage through darkness - as through the very opaque, invisible materiality of sensible being. Similarly, we encounter the corporeality of light in the way that the folds and rifts of densely marked surfaces in Fayoum 2002 are worked together with a jelly-like translucency – the entwinement of vision and touch understood, here, not as the grasping of qualities but as the hinges and contact points of an embodied perceptual field. At other moments, the idea of vision construed as a kind of interior depth perception, comes to us in the geologic reds of Rare and Clay for Adam, the volcanic oranges and blacks of On fire and burnt out, the almost uterine pinks and reds of Fuchsia 94.7. They speak not of skin but of flesh. They remind me of what happens when you stare at yourself in the mirror for too long until there seems to be the return of a corporeality that is beyond sense, or prior to it. Mostly though, we experience the way that Joni’s faces come to merge and dissolve with matter, folding and unfolding in movements which cannot be anywhere measured or contained. They do not so much de-incarnate as prolong the anticipation of presence. What is shaped is an exposition of flesh that precedes any ordering of the ‘I’; an encounter with a body that is not yet an apprehension, an identity, a reference.
It is not simply the case, then, that Joni simply eclipses the distinction between subject and object, skin and flesh, figure and ground. Rather, such distinctions translate each other as reciprocities, as mutual emergences. As such, her portraits seem to understand that the concealed essence of visual perception is the primary intertwining of viewer with view; is the active implication of the one who sees with that which she sees. Before and beyond any clarity of sight, it is an immersion in the unsignifiable field of vision.
This is not merely then a phenomenology of perception. It is also an opening of affection. In fact, it is a kind of ethics - one that addresses the question of how we appreciate the existence of other selves, other interiorities. Happily, Joni avoids ‘Manichean laments of Self and Other’. More subtly, she also seems to avoid an ontology of formal reciprocity or recognition - all to aware, it seems, that such a relation always risks the consumption of difference by sameness and that, indeed, even ‘to recognise an object’, as Henri Bergson has it, ‘is already to know how to use it’. Instead, Joni’s portraits have an almost non-optical quality in which the gestures of touch, of tangibility, of texture restore the very material proximity of self and other, artist and sitter.
Emmanuel Levinas discusses similar issues in his understanding of the word “regard”. To “regard”, in Levinas’ sense, is not to look, to know, or even to recognise. Rather, it is a kind of generosity towards another face, a certain holding in care of its particularity, its singularity and, indeed, a ‘regard for’ its unique otherness. ‘The face of the other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me’, writes Levinas. For me, the beauty of Joni’s work lies in just this sense of the undefinable as it does justice to another’s alterity. It lies in her sensitivity to the eternal strangeness of humans to each other: a strangeness which is not the same thing as an alienation or objectification. More importantly it lies in her appreciation of the responsibility we have in respecting that strangeness. For if portraiture is always an encounter between artist and sitter, then Joni maintains that relation as always only imminent, never realised. She never seeks to contain a face in a lasting impression but only to affirm its movements and remainders. And when at times a sitter’s face does appear, it erupts only as a ‘flash’ - like an fugitive memory - and so remains always on the edge of vision. Unclaimable, ungraspable, indeterminate, ‘invisible’, we are held by these faces but cannot possess them.
With this gesture, it is perhaps our own vulnerability that becomes the key feature of looking at others.