- Courtesy of the Henry Art Gallery/Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
- SO MANY WAYS TO READ DANTE Joan Jonas uses live-action video, video drawing, benches, tables, lamps, painting, performance, and the late Spalding Gray in her exhibition at the Henry at UW.
Today's big art-world news that Joan Jonas will represent the United States at the 2015 Venice Biennale is pretty interesting, actually. Not to put too fine a point on it: Joan Jonas is weird. You see evidence of her singular oddity and material looseness in an exhibition now at the Henry Art Gallery, an exhibition whose many moving parts traveled here from Houston.
The early Joan Jonas was a simple post-minimalist with a video camera. The piece she's most famous for from that time is probably the 20-minute video Vertical Roll, from 1972.
As she performs for the camera, the electronic feed is interrupted. Horizontal lines jump and advance in a continuous march that echoes the repetitive forms of minimalism—but this time the repetition is a function not of order, but of haywire. Syncing with the repetitions are the clacks of a spoon hitting a hard surface. The ears are assaulted and the eyes frustrated. The screen is cutting, breaking, and flashing the body you're trying to see clearly. Vertical Roll is a perfect articulation of the imperfect union between handheld camera and female body, made with the first generation of portable video camera, the Sony Portapak. It's a video selfie in a semi-utopic moment of liberation, just Joan and her camera, right? Not at all. She's all busted up. The long and powerful arcs of art and media history—reflecting longer arcs of power over bodies—hide in your video selfie whether you like it or not. Can you find them?
Jonas might say there is no such thing as a self-portrait, because no self can sit still, and neither can a work of art. Hers never rests. She turns stage performances into videos embedded in immersive installations, like Reading Dante III (2010) at the Henry. Reading Dante III is not Reading Dante II, which got noisy praise at 2009's New York performance-art biennial Performa. I think I'd rather have been there. Reading Dante III, the largest work at the Henry, leaves me with the feeling that I'm unable to find a thread to begin unraveling what I suspect are elaborate, marvelous piles of meaning in there.
But Jonas clearly revels in her remixes. She's counterdefinitive, and sometimes I feel counterdefinitive about the works included in the exhibition, which are only a few plucked from a long career. 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. During the exhibition's run in Houston, the fixed exhibition was joined each weekend by an artist performing Mirror Check. The piece is simply a woman examining her body with a compact 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.