Joan Wulf: Special Topics in Elemental Physics
In both style and substance, Joan Wulf’s artistic practice exists at a poetic nexus of nature and science. Her art has stemmed largely from her observations of the environment, both as an independent, self-governing system of matter and energy, and as an interdependent context for a range of cultural, scientific, philosophical, and industrial human activity. At times her investigations have yielded depictive landscape painting; at others her images took on the more esoteric, abstract motivation of articulating the underlying patterns that constitute the order of things. Increasingly, Wulf’s impulse to deconstruct and examine nature at its most basic, structural levels has brought her beyond abstraction or representation, to a method for creating images and objects through direct dealings with nature’s most foundational components. Simply stated, the elements that have always been Wulf’s subject have become her actual studio materials as well.
There are certain variations to how the elements are traditionally itemized, but it’s a general accounting of wood, air, fire, water, metal, and earth. As Wulf’s personal and creative relationship to the natural world has evolved within the arc of her studio practice, this has meant bringing examples of such pieces of the world inside, and devising strategies for both liberating and harnessing their innate qualities in the service of art. Her studio often looks more like a some kind of avant-garde science fair than a painting atelier -- and that’s not too far off. She basically sets up situations in which the materials can just be themselves and her task is to contain in fixed images a series of impermanent moments. Previous manifestations of what Wulf calls her “collaborations with the elements,” have used wire, stone, and rain, and addressed the balanced, fractal asymmetry and primordial beauty of water, rust, and wood grain. But for the moment, she is in something of a fire phase.
Following her strategy of catalyzing elemental reactions, her works on canvas, paper, and wood center around the active properties of flame and smoke. It’s tempting to call them charcoal on wood with a bit of an art-historical wink -- but in a very real sense applying fire to these surfaces produces carbon-residue pigment, which is both the vehicle and subject of the compositions. This metonymic derivation tickles the mind, animates the eye, and catches the heart in the visceral melodrama of the burn. Whether in gridded arrangements of small panel works, organized rows of circles burned through stretched canvas, or larger, architecturally scaled panels, these images do the expressive, gestural work of abstract painting and drawing, occupying sculptural space with inescapable physicality, and at the same time depicting an elemental phenomenon of disintegration and metamorphosis with a pronounced emotional dimension.
She invokes Henry David Thoreau in her gift for patient contemplation and conviction that questions of the spirit may be answered by nature, and admires the arte povera movement for its embrace and elevation of commonplace, recycled materials -- a sensibility shared by the artists of the Mono-ha movement -- a loosely organized group of Japanese artists active in the middle of the 20th century who shared an affection for unconventional post-industrial materials like steel, glass, wire, rope, and wood, recontextualizing them into relationships of interdependencies both with each other and with architectural and natural environments. “For me, it’s really about intense materiality; the cyclical, cellular connection between wood and paper, fire and ash, and how it all comes full circle. What happens in this work expresses the coexistence of destruction and creation in the same instant, a paradox contained in a single gesture.” It is a paradox that perfectly expresses what Thoreau called, “the naked and absolute beauty of a scientific truth.”
--Shana Nys Dambrot