New York

Joan Jonas

Pat Hearn Gallery

If it makes any sense to talk about a video loop as having a conclusion, then the last image of the video component of Joan Jonas’ installation My New Theater II (Big Mirror), 1998, must be that of the artist coaxing her dog to jump through a hoop. The shot sends us back twenty—five years to the other large-scale work in this exhibition, Songdelay, 1973 (the show also included photographs, props, and other works). For that 16mm black-and-white film, now transferred to video, Jonas set herself and fourteen other performers to carrying out a number of tasks or exercises, jumping through hoops among them. Juxtaposing the two works turned out to be a compact way to show how much has changed and how much remained constant in this artist’s career.

Songdelay intercuts a number of scenes of people performing routines that often depend upon their coordinating action and perception. In one such maneuver, a circle and a line have been whitewashed on the ground; two performers grasp either end of a long pole, one moving back and forth across the path described by the line, the other following the path of the circle. The problem they must solve is how to keep moving along their given trajectories while maintaining the constant distance between them prescribed by the pole. Another scene has to do with participants’ efforts to clap pairs of wooden blocks together simultaneously across distances that introduce a delay between sight and sound. Sometimes we see several exercises going on at once. Is this performance-artist boot camp? An anti-entertainment three-ring circus? Applying geometry and repetition to human behavior, Songdelay creates a minimalism of activities, rather than objects.

The performers in this piece all seem incredibly intent on the rudimentary, slightly ludicrous activities in which they are engaged. What’s amazing is their evident conviction that what they are doing is art. Inadvertently, Songdelay has become a document, not only of a particular performance, but of a community—the old SoHo, thriving in an underdeveloped corner of recession-bound Manhattan between the go-go eras of the ’60s and the ’80s.

My New Theater II is a less formalistic work than Songdelay, though its form is more thoroughly elaborated, more deeply self-reflexive. Which is just why it is more inward-looking, ironic, and literary. Isolation rather than community is its emotional subtext. The tape is back-projected onto a screen housed in an elongated, proportionally skewed miniature theater that appears to be much bigger on the outside than on the inside. Jonas’ voice-over recites a text (part of it drawn from William Carlos Williams) about a man painting a landscape as fragmented scenes show her following the story’s description; she draws with white chalk on a black canvas that she faces or on a black slate she holds toward the camera. (The drawings hang nearby in the gallery, as if in evidence of the videotape’s veracity—until you notice that what appears on screen is their mirror image, not their exact replication.) In other sequences Jonas sweeps furiously, or performs a slightly mad-looking, puppetlike, loose-wristed dance. The latter activity recalls a part of Songdelay in which a performer with poles in her pants makes herself dance by controlling her legs, marionette—like, with her hands (just as the parenthetical title Big Mirror also seems to refer to the flashing mirrors seen in the latter part of the earlier work). Jonas often glances off-camera, as though following cues, or perhaps checking herself on a monitor. Doubt and disquiet have become a bigger part of the picture, but so has a greater openness to humor and fantasy—both of which have figured in Jonas’ art all along.

Barry Schwabsky