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Joan Carney

It was in Pittsfield, MA, in the early nineties, that Joan Carney began to paint on glass and develop her mature approach to her craft. (See second essay, below.) Always looking to the Abstract-Expressionist painters for inspiration and guidance, she has long been interested in paint-as-substance, in the play of chance, and in the rich expressive possibilities inherent in both spontaneous gesture and layered surface.

In one sense she simply transferred her early meditative encounters with paint from one support (paper or canvas) to another, glass. But painting on glass made very specific and attractive new demands, as it requires one to work “backwards.” Carney’s work is viewed through the glass, so that, unlike the typical way of building an image, the first marks she puts down remain visible, while all subsequent layering builds a background which alters and affects, but does not obscure, the initial gestures. What’s more, Carney works from the back, not looking at the original marks as the subsequent layers go on.

Her most recent work expands on the Abstract-Expressionist legacy even further. She has begun leaving unpainted sections on the glass, so that one can glimpse beneath the surface and directly experience the dimensionality of the paint. Furthermore, as she hangs the paintings directly against the wall, the play of light and shadow brings the wall itself into the painting, and allows the glass—with its slight tint, its thickness and its capacity to bend light—to fully assume the status of a material, rather than just a surface.

To arrive at the beauty and seeming spontaneity of her mature work, she’s had to become thoroughly familiar with the qualities and behavior of her materials, and, necessarily, to learn how to give herself over to the requirements of the painterly moment. Working on glass demands a great leap of faith—in the materials and in oneself—and a delicate balance-keeping between the acceptance of the workings of chance and the application of will. That this is both an artistic and spiritual undertaking is what, in addition to the sensual beauty of her images, makes Joan Carney’s work original and distinctive.

(The essay below originally appeared in conjunction with the exhibit, Joan Carney: 360 Degrees Askew, at the Berkshire Artisans (now The Lichtenstein Center for the Arts), Pittsfield, MA, in 1996. This marked the beginning of Carney’s “glass period,” the starting place for a body of work that she has continued and developed through 2009.)

360 Degrees Askew

Joan Carney’s 21 new paintings on old window sash invite us to look both within and without at twin worlds where cosmic events unfold on micro, human, and macro scales. Using skewed circles and spheres as her primary subject matter, Carney’s universe of eggs, cells, planets, seed pods, selves draws much of its visual power from her inspired use of the physical properties of actual windows.

Carney applies her acrylics in a reverse layering process on the back of the transparent viewing surface. In the majority of paintings the earliest marks are easily visible under the glass while the later ones only peek from behind the existing paint, the color literally pushed through. In some cases she also works the front of the glass with translucent washes of color or crayoned lines, which cause the frontmost surface to “float” above the background. In other cases, Carney works both the fronts and backs to completion so that, as with a window in its normal context, there is a view from both sides.

Carney further emphasizes the window aspect of her work and calls our attention to their cosmic-spiritual quality through her well-considered installation. Several were placed in front of existing windows like stained glass. These introduce daylight as yet another layer of complexity, a kinetic one which reveals different layers of marks according to time of day.

She hung the larger pieces significantly above eye level. Like the windows in a church, they coax the viewer, standing with crooked neck and raised eyes, into a reverent mode—one feels humble and awed peering upward at these pulsing, luminous mandala forms (You Can’t Miss and Vegetables of My Labor, for example).

Two small pieces, alone and high on otherwise empty walls, convey the feeling of being confined in a cell (a monk’s or a prisoner’s?), with the windows allowing only a glimpse of a distant meadow or the sky. These pieces each have traces of maps collaged into their wistful green or blue surfaces, titled Precarious Journey and In Roads to Twombly, respectively.

Shade Garden, # 1-6 were suspended from the ceiling, their bottom edges resting on the floor. Grouped in the center of the room, their strong vertical presences suggest figures initially—religious statuary perhaps. In coming closer, their shorter-than-a-person height forces one to bend slightly, invites one to kneel. In this intimate relationship they become icons, their dark, exploding circles praising the forces of expansion and growth which begin in the shady underground.

Carney undertook a rather large task in this series, combining an unusual technique and a metaphor-laden format (windows) with a content that does not necessarily flow directly from the format. Her expert installation provided the links necessary to fully enjoy her original and highly accomplished work.