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Distant Latitudes (catalog essay)


by Dr. Derrick Cartwright
University of San Diego   1996

A belief that depictions of nature ought to provide their viewers with something more than a mere record of visual experience presides over the history of modern landscape painting. Joan Perlman's highly abstract, landscape-based images contribute to this narrative. Perlman conceives of nature as a metaphor for a strongly felt sense of belonging. Her work serves as a kind of mapping process through which she intends to locate and give volume to personal experience by vigorous marking on two-dimensional surfaces. At the same time, her images and drawings explore an intuitive, visceral connection to spaces both imaginary and real. Although her current practice makes frequent allusion to the vocabulary and techniques of cartography, these representations will not likely be confused with documentary records of landscape as a seen thing. Instead, as the artist herself puts it, "they reveal an essence of what compels me to a particular place."

The eleven large-scale works that make up this exhibition grew out of Perlman's attraction to enduringly unfamiliar places. In 1991, the artist started dreaming of Iceland, a place about which she knew very little at the time. This dream activity sparked a conscious interest in that country's myths and unique culture. Perlman soon became an avid reader of the Icelandic sagas, and quickly developed an amateur's expertise regarding the mystical past of this remote nation. Four years later, she made a decision to experience firsthand Iceland's austere, strange terrain, and she then received an invitation to lecture at the Living Art Museum in Reykjavik. After exploring the nation itself, Perlman came to understand that the extreme conditions of the Icelandic countryside -- with its combination of desolate tundra and violent geothermal effects--paralleled her aesthetic concerns. Sulphurous yellow earth, brilliant green fjords, blackened lava fields, swirling white clouds rising unexpectedly from steam vents in the ground, and above all the pearly grey light of this extreme northern latitude deeply affected the artist. These stark colors provided the artist with a working palette. Still any suggestion of direct correspondences to be discovered in Perlman's work is held in tension by the insistence of her abstraction. At times the somewhat vague forms that populate Perlman's work appear to be seen from an extremely close vantage point--almost as if they are being subjected to microscopic analysis; in other works these forms hover in a cast, aqueous, horizon-less space. Similarly, the quality of light that Perlman has infused in her views will delicately shimmer in one section and then will suddenly fade in the adjoining passage. Such abrupt shifts in perspective and perception demand that viewers attend to these images as complex, multi-layered representations.

Perlman's effort to reveal not just the surface quality of a landscape but also its emotional resonances finds expression in the boldly physical works that make up Distant Latitudes. To a certain extent, the decision to create such intensely personal visions of natural phenomena places this artist at odds with mainstream attitudes of today's contemporary art market and its attendant critical discourses. The imposing scale of these works can be viewed as a reflection of their primary ambition to convey a powerful sense of unseen places. The works in Distant Latitudes, exhibited together for the first time, communicate something essential about the nature of all landscapes. What makes them even more surprising is that they do so without making any direct reference to the "real world." In the end, these images testify to the potenial of art to transform our perceptions of the earth and they challenge us to appreciate its core mysteries.