Joan Jonas, the 78-year-old pre-feminist artist chosen last week to rep the US at the next Venice Biennale, is, not to put too fine a point on it, weird. And not in an easy, whimsical way.
The early Jonas was a tidy post-minimalist with a video camera. In her 1972 video Vertical Roll, she articulated perfectly the imperfect union between handheld camera and female body. She made a video selfie in what should have been a semi-utopic moment of liberation, when portable video cameras were brand-new, but her body gets all busted up on-screen by the deliberately broken electronic feed.
She might say there is no such thing as a self-portrait, because neither self nor art sits still. Her pieces never rest. She turns stage performances into videos embedded in immersive installations, like Reading Dante III (2010), on display at the Henry Art Gallery in a two-person exhibition that traveled from Houston. Reading Dante's previous iteration got noisy praise at 2009's New York performance-art biennial Performa, and I think I'd rather have been there than here. In this sprawling later installation, with video and furniture and lamps, I'm unable to find a thread to start unraveling what I suspect are elaborate, marvelous piles of meaning in there.
But Jonas revels in her remixes. She's counterdefinitive. Certain pieces, and certain parts of certain pieces, are mesmerizing, liberatory, amusing: videos of chalk drawings being made and erased and changed, a video plot involving space travel and Spalding Gray (with early-MTV special effects), a performance in which Jonas greeted the camera every morning and night. Watching Good Night, Good Morning (1976), you want to read into her, piece the glimpses into a story, but they resist. This feels intentional and meaningful—the camera's knack for hiding while revealing.
What's direly missing is live performance, and the Henry says events may yet be announced. Every Saturday in Houston, the exhibition included a performance of Mirror Check. The piece is a naked woman examining her body with a handheld mirror in front of an audience until she is finished. As if she will ever be finished. Whatever Jonas creates for Venice, I hope it will be equally unfinished, and as eccentric and electric as she can be.
The sad subtext of the exhibition comes in its other half, devoted to Jonas's contemporary Gina Pane, a European artist who hasn't had enough attention stateside. Her few works trigger a longing for more; she died in 1990 at a young age. She deliberately injures herself in her art—you see her bleed—but it's as much bloodletting as violence, healing through harmful ritual. She is aesthetic and tight. She storyboards her choreography precisely for a photographer, then assembles grids of the photographs into separate works. Later, she creates wall sculptures referencing the martyrdom of saints, redemption through the piercing of bodies. She scatters clues of her queerness, that she's specifically transforming pain inflicted on a lesbian body into new experiences and images. I want to know what she'd make now.