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"And Earth of Water: The Art of Joan Perlman" (catalog essay)


by Anne Brydon
Element/Frumkraftur, Hafnarborg, Iceland   2007

Air dies giving birth to fire. Fire dies giving birth to air. Water, thus, is born of dying earth, and earth of water.
-Heraclitus

A few days ago, a severe thunderstorm brought home to me the essence of American artist Joan Perlman's passionate concern with giving visual form to her experience of Iceland's nature. The day after its destructive impact, the image in my mind's eye of trees buffeted by winds blowing, so it seemed, from all directions at once stopped me short. I thought, turbulence and flow, chaos and order: this eternal, dynamic tension is exactly what Perlman has spent twelve years investigating through her art. Turbulence, uninvited, descends upon us in many ways, such as by illness, accident, or the loss of a loved one. The more common reaction to such rupture may be fear or anger, but the ability to dwell in uncertainty - what the poet John Keats called "negative capability" - seems a more useful life skill when negotiating the unexpected.

I see unfolding in Perlman's art a gradual yielding to and acceptance of unpredictability, a creative growth she at first intuitively then later more consciously channelled through observation and contemplation of Icelandic nature. Each artwork results from painstaking attention to the processes she uses to transform the changeableness of sensation, perception, and affect into visual form. They encompass experiments with colour, form, and technique that respond to the experience of gazing upon glacial rivers and the luminous mosses that blanket undulating lavafields. Yet the artworks don't mimic the world. Rather, they abstract from it and render impressions of a deep, sensual engagement with the substance of place and natural forces.

Like all truly creative moments, Perlman's involvement with Iceland began with a detour. In 1991, while living in San Francisco, she began to dream repeatedly about Iceland. She knew nothing about the country and recalls no reference that may have triggered these visitations…For years the dreams compelled her and she wrote them down. She began to learn what she could about Iceland, reading the sagas and books about its culture and history. She made plans to travel to the country to learn what this strange urge was demanding of her.

Perlman first came to Iceland in 1995. For five weeks she travelled alone around the country, feeling a connection to the landscape grow within her. Subsequent travels have allowed her opportunities to pay more attention to particular places, talk to people, and learn about the geological processes of creation and transformation so apparent on the island's surface. As geologists and geographers everywhere know, Iceland is an ideal place to witness the inexorable movement of geological time.What at first meets the eye as fixed and immutable - the rock that blocks one's path or the mountain visible on the horizon - loses solidity when perspective shifts. The eye learns to take in larger patterns, to see things not in themselves but as moments in never-ending actions within which human existence figures as fleetingly as dust. Echoing Heraclitus' words in the epigraph, one thinks of the volcano Laki erupting and plumes of ash smothering the pastures: air dies giving birth to fire. So, too, the glacial rivers running south from Vatnajökull and the vast glacial outwash of Skeiðarársandur testify to the mutability of earth to water, and water to earth.

Working toward understanding how this landscape of movement and change affects her is integral to Perlman's artistic process. Observation of how the shifts of her own perceptions, consciousness, and interiority are shaped by the close experience of natural processes mediates the powerful energies she perceives emanating from the earth itself. In this interrelation between self and world she recognizes herself as being in, and of, nature.

In August 2005 I first spoke with Perlman after she gave an artist's talk at the Centre for Icelandic Art. Her residency there marked another step in coming closer to Icelandic culture. (This exhibit at Hafnarborg is another step still.) In her story of return visits and a deepening relationship with Iceland I immediately saw parallels to my own long-term involvement with ethnographic fieldwork in the country. Perlman found the comparison apt.

This fieldwork I describe doesn't conform to any stereotype of scientists collecting data and subjecting them to laboratory analysis. Such an image of a sterile and linear method barely describes the inventive side of doing natural science. And it certainly doesn't grasp the depth of the creative, meandering commitment to experiencing the experience of the present moment which I suggest links anthropology and art. Fieldwork is the name anthropologists give to what amounts to a straying from the path of expectation. It involves deliberately placing one's full being into an unfamiliar state and paying attention to what happens in the world as well as inside one's self. In this state, we recognize that the self and the world are inseparable - "we are", as Brian Massumi states,"our situations."2

This attention to the singularity of experience is how we come closer to understanding human existence and how we make it meaningful, in ways that reason alone cannot grasp. We need to do this - and I think this is why we feel the need for art - in order to sense the necessary connections that tie chaos to order. Much of our everyday life involves attempts to control chaos. Housecleaning does this. So do the laws and procedures that regulate the institutions we inhabit: schools, businesses, governments, and so on. Chaos is increasingly imagined in the modern world as dangerous and threatening, something to be feared and, if possible, demolished. However, we can learn from other cultures that chaos is necessary to life. Rather than resisted it can be negotiated by such creative means as ritual and myth as well as through practical interactions with nature that don't attempt to dominate it. We can also look to contemporary science which now explores such ways of thinking about randomness and contingency as fractals, relativity, the interlinking of observer and observed in quantum physics, and, of course, chaos theory itself.

Turbulence and flow, chaos and order, creation and destruction: we use these word pairs, however inadequate they are to the task, to grasp hold of that complex, vital dynamism experienced, for example, while watching weather phenomena or waves crashing against a shore.What appears chaotic and accidental from one perspective can be seen from another as an element in a larger pattern. To give in to chaos, therefore, does not mean giving up on stability or structure.

And so, in a manner resembling fieldwork, Perlman uses displacement as a way to break out of those habits of thought and action which cloud vision. At some level she could have gone anywhere in the world and the effect of seeing anew would have been similar, although not the same. But the sharp contrast between Iceland's stark, austere beauty and the physical world she knew while growing up in NewYork City and then later in other urban settings triggered a particular awareness. The expansiveness of space, the rawness of lavafields, and the driving force of glacial rivers were new to her and she worked toward assimilating this newness. It would have been easy, as a foreigner, to capitalize on the exotic otherness of the Icelandic landscape. But Perlman's art does not in any way appropriate the landscape. She began with this sense of otherness and allowed herself to be reshaped by the encounter, entering into a relationship with the country in slow and incremental steps.

Perlman gathered images while out in nature, bringing the landscape into her perceptual experience through the physical acts of drawing, making watercolours, and taking photographs…In response to activities of collection and reflection, Perlman broadened her use of different media. Her early work with chalk, graphite, and watercolours were particularly tactile and controlled, while her switch to pouring acrylic paints introduced more fluidity and spontaneity. Her most recent work with video lessens her own mediation of the image.

Between 1996 and 2002, Perlman made large-scale chalk-and-graphite drawings and acrylic paintings that explore the tension between pictorial surface and structure inspired by observations of fields of lava. The works do not depict the lavafields directly. Instead, they capture a sense of incandescent grey green moss seemingly flowing over solid ground. The graphite gives the drawings something of the brittle texture and colour of lava, and metallic pastels suggest the luminous glow of plant life. Perlman observed in the landscape the ambiguous tension between immediate perception of the lava's solidity and her geological knowledge of its earlier fiery, flowing form. This tension is echoed in the visual pull of rendering flow with small, individuated marks that repeat the natural processes of accretion occurring in the lavafields. These minute marks, laboriously applied - Perlman calls the intensity of this process "penitential" - accumulate to become a wash of colour, producing yet another tension between their individual scale and the vastness of the spaces they reference.

Perlman's early fascination with the land had, by 2002, developed into an interest in the element of water. She was initially attracted by the force of glacial rivers, how they gouge deeply into the ground and transmute matter into movement in their ability to carry earth and silt. She experienced the rivers as brimming with energy, and photographed the anarchic details of their movements.

The turbulence and eddies seemed chaotic on the surface, but with time she could see the regularity of individual events since they were responses to underlying patterns of lava and rocks. The same surface-structure tension she witnessed in the lavafields was apparent in the rivers. Her focus increasingly became directed toward Hverfisfljót, a particularly tumultuous and changeable river that dramatically alters in response to actions in the vast Vatnajökull glacier. During the 1783-1784 Lakagígar volcanic eruptions, for example, the river dried up then later its valley flowed with lava.

This shift of attention from earth to water inspired a switch in media to painting, and in working methods. To produce the river effects of multi-directional layers and turbulent action, she spent two years developing techniques for pouring acrylic paints directly onto canvas. This process introduces a greater element of chance and lessens the artist's control, but at the same time produces a fluidity that decreases the experiential distance between the river and the viewer in the gallery.

Colour is also malleable to process: a startling veridian-like green-blue resulted from an unexpected chemical reaction between green and silver pigments. The silver transmuted into an exquisite iridescent effect of opulent sensuousness. The greens and blues of the paintings don't reproduce the exact hues of glacial rivers, yet they evoke their feel. Thus, while the paint pours appear to reference abstract expressionism they extend that visual language to explore sensation and the emotional resonance of colour in memory.

In 2004 Perlman had begun shooting video to explore the surfaces of rivers, but was quickly attracted to the immediacy suggested by its capacity to record the velocity and fierce energy of the water, and the subtle plays of light, colour, and shadow. In the work produced for this exhibition appears images of the differing moods and surface motions of Hverfisfljót and other rivers. The staggered sequencing of the three projections creates varying patterns of turbulence and calm, while time and timing provide the underlying structure. The framing of the projections - the lack of reference points that would allow the viewer to relate scale to their own body - produces a curious sense of suspension reminiscent of the hypnotic effect of gazing at flowing water. The large scale of the wall projections heightens the physicality of the viewer's encounter.

Experienced in its totality, Joan Perlman's art dwells in and, I think, gracefully negotiates a dynamic tension between complexity and simplicity. Through the work's creative and attentive assimilation, Perlman reveals to her audience the intricacy of nature's turbulence and flow. That intricacy is rendered in elemental form, giving us the chance to glimpse something of the sensual, perceptual conditions of being in the world.

1 Heraclitus 2001 Fragments. Brooks Haxton, translator. London: Penguin. p.17

2 Zournazi, Mary 2002 "Navigating Movements: A Conversation with Brian Massumi." in Hope: New Philosophies for Change. Annandale, Australia: Pluto Press. p.220.

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