Joan Tanner

A curiosity to engage contradiction...might be kindled from memories of listening to my father talk about the perils and challenges in practicing medicine...Disease. Malady. Disfigurement. Imperfection. Structural weakness. I probably did not realize then, but I was already hooked.

I admit, technically speaking, I’m not supposed to have favorites. In the three and a half years since we started IN THE MAKE, I would say Klea and I have been quite diligent about documenting each studio visit evenhandedly. We’ve aimed to simply be guided by our curiosity, and to experience and share our visits with an appreciation for each artist’s singular story, work, process, and space. But I guess it was inevitable that at some point in this endeavor I would, in a big way, take a shine to someone… and that someone is most definitely Joan.

It’s hard not to immediately warm to Joan— she burns so brightly, like a torch flaring up against a night sky, and being around her makes you feel wild with the possibilities of life. Though Joan is in her late 70s and has consistently made work for over 50 years, widely exhibiting her sculptures, paintings, drawings, photographs, and site-specific installations, her aspirations have not ebbed. In fact, there seems to be a howling urgency in how she comes to her work, perhaps as she says, because she is “conscious of the time left to concentrate on what I want to produce.” While visiting Joan, we spent the most time with her sculptural work— which is ambitious, unbridled and quite literally goes out on a limb to push against its own structural limits. Using raw materials such as ropes, wire, cement, corrugated plastic paneling, and plywood, Joan assembles riotous and rocky constructions that appear to be both in a state of development and decay, reveling in their own instability. At one point in our conversation I told Joan that a lot of her sculptural work is reminiscent of a tornado-torn town, as if a powerful force blew bits of material this way and that to create unlikely structures full of trauma and disorder, but also suggestive of a neoteric juncture. She had a good laugh at my comment, vaguely agreed that maybe I was on to something, and laughed again.

Joan laughs easily and often, uproariously, with obvious pleasure… even when she is laughing at herself. While we talked she sometimes rambled, frequently attempted to tidy the stray strands of hair falling out from her lopsided bun, and gave me a rascally smile whenever I asked her to clarify a statement. She also asks a lot of questions, and frequently brings her own commentary to a close by sincerely asking, “Well, what do you think?” After our studio visit with Joan, she invited us to stay on and drink wine with her and her friends Gera Ayala and Bob Debris (who also help her with much of her work). She told us she enjoys time with young people, that she wants to hear about the world as they know and witness it. And so we sat on her patio, surrounded by the lush foliage of her grounds, and talked about books, and films, and swapped recommendations and shared stories, and the hours went too fast and the blue sky went black and then it was time to go. I didn’t want to leave— and it wasn’t just that I was having such a good time, but I think it’s because I knew I had just met someone that reminded me that the world around us is a loud, shimmering, sloppy, exquisite heap of a mess that can only be dealt with by diving right in… that the fun is in the digging around, the getting dirty, and the staying dirty, and to not do so, would be the biggest of all blunders. It’s hard to walk away from someone like that— her vitality is so damn contagious.

Joan, you are my favorite… by a long shot.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
In three-dimensional work I’m interested in spatial discord and reconfiguration by way of stacking, bundling, sequence, suspension and chanced movement. In my current drawing series,donotellmewhereibelong, I’ve strayed to referencing architectural context, topographical symbols and circuitry markings to speculate on geographical imponderables.

What mediums do you work with?
In sculpture: plasticine, Plaster of Paris, concrete; building and construction materials; industrial packaging; coating products; and randomly found, fugitive elements. In works on paper I use charcoal, oil stick, chalk, ballpoint, pastel, colored pencil and graphite sticks.

You have a varied art practice in which you employ an array of materials and mediums— how do you think this benefits your body of work overall? Are there pitfalls?
My current art practice reflects the accessible bounty found in hardware and building supply stores, and material potentially available from Internet probing. The downside occurs when I need only 300 feet, but availability starts at 5,000 feet per order. The loss of time spent prowling a reclusive source, disinterested in a unique use of their product, is very unsatisfying. Unless perhaps during a search the prevailing content generates a more intriguing spin on the idea I have in mind. Then off I go considering a different possibility which is a process, in of it self, very satisfying.

Does personal history work its way into your practice? How might who you are be reflected in your current work?
A curiosity to engage contradiction by layering and stacking disparate elements; by forcing illogical connectivity; and from disrupting assumptions about spatial relationships, might be kindled from memories of listening to my father talk about the perils and challenges in practicing medicine. Surgical technique. Disease. Malady. Disfigurement. Imperfection. Structural weakness. I probably did not realize then, but I was already hooked.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
From a non-expert’s viewpoint, I’m curious about images produced from advanced technology applicable to brain research. And I’m intrigued with discussions related to the contradictory stance between actual presence and real contact. I use the phrase “whiplash inattentiveness” in hopes to counter indifference to knowledge gathering and expertise, except via instant transport.

Other things I’ve been inspired by:
“On Morality” by Christopher Hitchens, “The Tunnel” by William H. Gass, “Adolph Wölfli’s “Creator of the Universe” and Georges “Life a User’s Manual”

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Ladder: a floor piece with numerous elements, full of awkward constructs delicately placed on a horizontal plane, with the ladder forming a grid-like platform. In the accompanying tableau tri-pods mingle with wooden forms that bisect, penetrate and disrupt the density of a fragile populous, in an attempt to subvert any intelligent order.

What risks have you taken in your work, and what has been at stake?
Switching categories to explore various methods of art production to achieve different solutions, such as using photography and video to remove myself from the specific immediacy of making something, in order to transfer the role of voyeur to that of spectator. And in my larger sculpture I continue to pursue incongruity from the displacement of presumed and logical, structural continuity.

How do you navigate the art world?
With appreciation for the efforts from individuals who respond to my work, and with gratitude to art professionals who offer interesting opportunities to show it. Some of the exhibitions are more challenging than others. This is not a unique situation for any artist who has persistently pursued their art practice for many years. Most of the artists I respect and admire have “a story or two” — some bitter, some less so. Ultimately those curious enough to know my work, will know how to convey what I’ve been up to.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
Thomas Schütte, Mario Merz, Christian Boltanski, Martin Kippenberger, and Louis Bourgeois.

The artists’ work I especially admire comes from seeing an extensive show, a magnificent piece, and eventually reading about their work. I don’t believe in attempting to see everything, and am probably more selective at this stage in life, being conscious of the time left to concentrate on what I want to produce. Scale is essential to those listed, at times odd choice of materials, density in presentation and an extraordinary and strange point of view. That’s quite enough for me.

Do you have a motto?
No other than the moniker bosslady. That moniker is used by the fabricators who build my pieces, without whom I could not continue. I direct their assistance with anything out of my range to make, and every piece evolves as an interaction. Of course these sculptures are often awkward and challenging so there is always a dialogue around what we can actually do with regards to the construction, and that interaction is essential to how my work progresses.

To see more of Joan’s work:
“everything could be something else” on Vimeo
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Turnings artbook