The south wall of Joan Waltemath's studio.
After I posted a few images of my work on Facebook, I received a thoughtful note from Joan Waltemath, painter, writer and Director of the Hoffberger School of Painting MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Discovering common ground in our painting practices, we decided to exchange studio visits, first meeting in Joan’s loft on Bowery, where she has had a studio for thirty years, and the next week, visiting my studio at the Elizabeth Foundation.
One of Joan's images of work at my studio.
I think there are two kindred views about painting that tightly connect Joan’s work and my own. First, we share the conviction that meaning resides in uncluttered, open space. Second, we both believe that a painting derives significance not merely from the shapes and lines we paint on the surface, but also from the processes we employ in its creation, from the choices we make as to its tangible attributes (size, shape, paint, medium, texture, stretched versus unstretched, etc.), and from the way in which the painting as an object fits into a much wider physical context.
Because we're both writers, we decided to post individual reports about the experience.
Having just returned from a summer spent wandering around the plains of her native Nebraska and working at the Artfarm Residency in Marquette, Joan began unpacking her paintings from handmade wooden crates and hung them randomly on the nails poking out of the bare walls. Each painting features a combination of line and rectangular shape, all aligned either perpendicularly or parallel to the edges of the honeycomb aluminum panels, which vary in size but are generally about 15 inches wide by 36 inches tall.
Joan unpacks a painting from one of her handmade crates.
Joan’s painstaking attention to surface and her meticulous treatment of the geometric shapes’ edges were the first things that caught my eye. Unlike my more haphazardly composed, improvisational approach, Joan’s strategy begins with a rigid grid structure and explores the mysterious Fibonaci Sequence that occurs throughout nature and history. (The first two Fibonacci numbers are 0 and 1, and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two.) She grinds her own pigments and mixes each color with poppy seed oil, which is less likely to yellow with age but is also known for taking a long time to dry. The color relationships are precise and purposeful. Sometimes, Joan told me, it takes years to complete a single piece.
Joan's palette table.
The visually striking compositions are flat and two-dimensional, ostensibly resembling maps or quirky floor-plan diagrams, but the longer I looked, the more the shapes and lines appeared to move, hovering over the panel and shifting positions in space rather than sitting on the surface. As I moved around the studio, the paintings seemed to change. Joan was not just engaged with the formal relationships of the tightly rendered geometric elements, but with deeper, more expansive concepts.
Joan considered most of the work she showed me unfinished.
The sense of Joan’s paintings slowly unfolds, each shape, line and void acquiring multiple identities. I think she is driving at – among other things – the inevitable mutation of all things that endure in time. I was reminded of a James Turrell installation I saw at the Mattress Factory a few years ago. Sitting in complete blackness, as my eyes adjusted, shapes began to emerge. In this light, as it were, Joan’s paintings are both quietly moving on a personal level and magisterial in their existential sweep.
JOAN WALTEMATH'S REPORT
There is always a gap between what an image tells you and what happens when you see the actual pieces. Based on the photos, I imagined Sharon's paintings to be about 6 ft by 8 ft, or something in that range. When I got to the studio, I was surprised to see how small they were, and yet how monumental.
I’ve been thinking about the distinction between Geometry and geometric, and the different freedom that each accords. I was drawn to Sharon’s work because it seemed both so close to my own sensibility and so opposite. Her forms, animated through an inner tension, use point of view to push towards an anthropomorphic read: from certain angles the lines, shapes in her forms seem to be limbs or wings responsible for the animating motion.
Many decisions Sharon has made about the objectness of her paintings contribute to making their materiality significant in creating a sense of ‘being’ that underscores the notion of ‘anima’ I read through the forms.
There is something hidden here and something that is revealed. It takes a moment of time and thought to penetrate into the space these pieces open up. They offer an exhilarating sense of freedom; their non-programmatic process teeters between the random and the idiosyncratic, yet cannot be accounted for by either.
In this little piece the canvas corners are left to fly and echo the forms drawn on the surface.
I kept thinking how great it would be to see all these pieces spread out in a big room with lots of space around them like Chris Martin’s rotunda at the Corcoran, which I saw a few days later.
That installation brought his work into focus for me in a new way; it never appeared to me so clear that all the qualities that a single work possessed could work together and overcome the divisiveness ‘art movements’ set up between different aspects of the painter’s language.
Could the sum total of objectness in painting work in tandem with pictorial language to expand the dimensionality of painted works without falling into sculptural issues?
Chris’ installation in Washington makes this point in a room dancing with high vibrations aimed at ecstasy. He opens the door for works like Sharon’s to operate on the assumption, that in Chris’s case was hard won. We are going to need to see a large exhibition of Sharon’s work to move the dialogue about her work to the next level. There are a lot of things at play in her work, and they need to be seen in relation to draw out their significance.
Thanks, Joan, for participating in this studio visit exchange at Two Coats of Paint.
Studio visit exchange with Kadar Brock