Jennifer Joseph

Jennifer Joseph’s work is the emotively charged product of a life lived at full, nocturnal, intensity. The artist is an expressive mark-maker; described as ‘completing her work at great speed, with fervour.’ In ‘For the Next 300 Years’ at Niagara Galleries, however, with (putatively) flat works that sit between abstract painting and assemblage, the idea of Joseph’s art as a vehicle for expression becomes a little more complex.

Visually, a lot of Joseph’s paintings from the early 2000s have much in common with those of Australia’s Abstract Expressionists, like Tony Tuckson. These earlier works are often characterised by painted lines across fields of earthy colour. Joseph’s new works for this show, however, carry less of the sincere mysticism of expressionism. They turn, instead, on the opposition between expressive mark-making and the resolutely mute materiality – the literalness – of assemblage.

Moody Blues (2018) is perhaps the most emphatically painting-like of paintings, despite the fact that it pushes against two dimensionality, veering into the territory of collage, or even sculpture. It’s so much a painting, in one sense, because the paint drawn across its frame is gestural and intensely expressive. The question of what it expresses doesn’t matter here so much as the fact that it feels expressive. The lines of the brushstroke with which the paint has been drawn across the work are highly visible; the mark is the trace of a movement, and of the thought, the intention, behind that movement. We’re pulled up short of an engagement with this work as some kind of ‘pure expression,’ though, as an emphasis on the work as material object intrudes on any lingering Expressionist reverie. A curl of cotton fabric hangs off of the frame, a bit like a ringlet from a forehead, but no less like exactly what it is: a scrap of fabric peeling from the corner of a wooden frame, intruding onto the white wall of the gallery space. A plank of wood sits diagonally across the frame, too, as if to bar us complete imaginative or affective entrance into the work.

Across the rest of the ‘Moody Blues’ series, the expressivity of the marks and colour pushes against the silence, the foregrounded practicality, and the rewarding pointlessness of the varied assembled materials that comprise the works. The use of deep blues feels significant to the sense of the works’ emotive charge. A long history in painting, in film, in literature, and even in philosophical enquiry positions blue as a colour close to our most beautiful and most human emotional experiences. In On Being Blue: A Philosophical Enquiry, William Gass writes that ‘blue is…most suitable as the colour of interior life. Whether slick light sharp high bright thin quick sour new and cool or low deep sweet dark soft slow smooth heavy old and warm: blue moves easily among them all, and all profoundly qualify our states of feeling.’ The depth of the blues in these works indicates a sort of almost unmediated emotional expression; this expression is amplified by the chalky white scratch-marks that punctuate pieces in the series. It is exciting, in such expressionist territory, to then be called out by the intrusion of geometric drawings, recycled paper with typeface printed on it, or simple lengths of wood reminding us that the ephemeral, emotive qualities of these artworks are only one side of them – the works’ materiality, the constraining physical conditions of their existence, is the other.

In all, this tension between the expressive and the resolutely prosaic is more stimulating than simple expressionist painting, or simple assemblage, would be. Is it the ideas and feelings of the artist that are supposed to last for the next 300 years, or is it the objects which both express and resist those immaterial things? The interest lies in the ambiguity, perhaps.

Jennifer Joseph: For the Next 300 Years
4 – 29 June 2019
Niagara Galleries, Melbourne


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