Parallel Practices: Joan Jonas & Gina Pane

Laura A.L. Wellen
July 1, 2013

Installed across the upper floor of CAMH, Parallel Practices divides the museum in two. On the east side, Joan Jonas’s installations and videos glow from within a darkened space. On the west, Gina Pane’s constats d’action—montages of photographs recording her actions (proofs of action, she called them)—are installed against white walls, with the airier openness allowing the viewer plenty of space to feel a prick of discomfort and let it linger. The thoughtful installation allows the two artists to resonate with one another without forcing them into a shared historical context or simplistic frame of reference. These are, of course, pioneering multi-disciplinary artists who might jointly be labeled “proto-feminists,” but, as the exhibition makes clear, their sophisticated and rigorous practices, both physical and conceptual, yield many more interesting and nuanced relationships than these terms necessarily allow.

Installation view of Joan Jonas’ Reading Dante III, 2010, at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; photographed by Paul Hester.

Jonas’s Good Night Good Morning (1976) provides an entrance to the exhibition. In this early video piece, Jonas greets the camera repeatedly, day in and day out, while simultaneously monitoring her image on the live video feed. We see the artist at home, over time, aware of her image as she makes it. She interacts with the camera as an animate thing, a collaborator even. The work greets the viewer—Good night! Good morning!—while suggesting one of the major themes of the exhibition: the relationship between the temporal action and its representation.

The most formidable presence in the exhibition, Reading Dante III (2010) consists of a four-channel video installation with wall drawings, hanging paper lamps, a floor lamp, tables, and benches. In this free-associative representation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Jonas combined videos of her incantatory drawing practice, children building cities with blocks, a black and white street scene, and performer Ragani Haas’s dance-like inspection of anatomical charts and drawings. Threads that animate much of Jonas’s production appear in the expansive installation; movement and time, domestic space and intimacy, as well as the kaleidoscopic layering of imagery, action and objects. Hanging moon-shaped lanterns, elegant benches, and chalky wall drawings situate the viewer within a magical space of play. Taking Dante as a starting point, the work builds loosely from the mysticism of its Renaissance referent to construct a space that is suggestive of, but not confined to, the text.

Installation view of Gina Pane’s Action Escalade non-anesthésiée [Action Non-anaesthetized Climb], 1971, at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; collection Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre Pompidou, Paris; photographed by Nancy O’Connor.

The contrast between Jonas’s encompassing installation and Pane’s more austere documents—photographs, drawings, notes, and objects—is dramatic. Here Pane probes the relationship between the image and the object; the action exists in the space between them. For example, Action Non-anaesthetized Climb (1971) includes a large iron structure fitted with sharp spikes along its rungs. A panel of photographs shows Pane climbing and descending the ladder-like structure, barefoot. Her exploration of physical pain exists somewhere between the image and the object. The result is a suggestive representation of an experience, one that we don’t physically feel but which prompts a gut reaction nevertheless.

On the west end of the gallery, Pane’s St.George and the Dragon, After A Pose in a Painting by Paolo Uccello—Partition for a Fight (1984-1985), counterbalances Jonas’s Reading Dante III. Like Dante, this work alludes to a Renaissance-era precedent and deconstructs it. Pane uses felt, glass, polished aluminum, wood, lead, copper and a color photograph to form her abstracted knight, maiden, and dragon. As in many of her works, the piercing of the body is the central action. She associates the female body in particular with blood and fragmentation, while using a straight beam of wood and a sharp metal lance to stand in for the masculine.

Parallel Practices is striking for how it brings together different modes of making and representing physical and temporal work. CAMH’s curator Dean Daderko has created an exhibition that is multi-layered, witty, and extremely sophisticated. As he did in his first exhibition at CAMH—It Is What It Is. Or Is It?—he gives his audience plenty of credit. The exhibition doesn’t overstate its point. Instead, it allows the viewer space for intuitive connection-making, and it amply rewards viewers who take the time to make those connections.

Parallel Practices: Joan Jonas & Gina Pane ends June 30, 2013.

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