These paintings from my ongoing series Broken Land investigate transitions that take place in the landscape. They are informed by media imagery of man-made and natural disasters, machine visions and surveilled but forgotten spaces. As the wind animates oceans and skies, and mountains and valleys erupt and dissolve, the connections between paintings and source imagery become increasingly oblique, abstract and metaphorical.
Interview with Joy Garnett
Questions by Beatrice Helman
What originally drew you to painting, and how have you seen your relationship to painting, or subject matter, evolve over time?
For me, painting has always been connected to photography. For a short period, before my mom fully committed to becoming a professional photographer, she dabbled in painting. She retrofitted a room in our suburban house as a studio, and she put paint brushes in my tiny hands. I have no memory of this, but I’ve seen snapshots of us painting in tandem in that room. My easel was also really tiny.
My dad is a biochemist and cancer researcher, and he put a laboratory with a darkroom in our basement. He improvised a contraption to take photographs of microorganisms and cell cultures—it was basically a camera clamped onto the eyepiece of a microscope. When I got a little older, I would help him take pictures in the lab. We used a Polaroid Land Camera and a Nikon. By then I considered myself a to be a painter and a budding biologist.
I held onto some of my dad's microphotographs (I still have a box of them) and after finishing my MFA I started making paintings based on them. There was never any question of subverting painting to photography, it was the other way around. The cell paintings had all-over compositions—they looked like abstract paintings—but they were actually loose interpretations of the microphotographs. I started to research early photography—particularly Anna Atkins's cyanotypes of British algae and Sir John Herschel's astronomy photographs. I was also interested in scientific drawings that pre-dated photography, like Ernst Haeckel's semi-fantastical nature drawings, where the line between art and science is anything but absolute. I dwelled on the relationship between photography, film and painting, and the historical role played by these different mediums in scientific interpretation. Eventually, I used painting to explore different genres of image-making: scientific, journalistic, digital versus analogue, and so on.
You said that the paintings from this series “investigate transitions that take place in the landscape.” When and how did your interest in the relationship between nature and the things that impose on it arise, and can you talk a little bit more about what you mean specifically by the word ‘transitions’?
I wrote that statement while working on paintings that reference a photo essay of war-torn landscapes in Iraq. The work is not so much about the relationship between nature and culture; it’s more about our relationship to media representations of conflict. “Transitions” is a bitter euphemism. Those paintings do not directly derive from specific source images, instead they draw on the tragic and grotesque energy of what those images depict.
It strikes me that images—whether they are painted or photographic—are paradoxical in that they create the impression of a fixed state. But reality is not fixed, it's constantly changing. The landscape is in constant transition in terms of weather, geology, people, war. Of course, our physical landscape includes a mediascape, a secondary atmosphere that we're steeped in and unable to step outside of. So that is something I've tried to bend a paintbrush around.
To continue with your artist statement, you state that “(The paintings) are informed by media imagery of man-made and natural disasters, machine visions and surveilled but forgotten spaces. As the wind animates oceans and skies, and mountains and valleys erupt and dissolve, the connections between paintings and source imagery become increasingly oblique, abstract and metaphorical.” This is beautiful and fascinating. Could you expand on this?
I was trying to encapsulate, in one statement, the things that have occurred in my painting over the past several decades, and I guess it got a little florid! Thanks for thinking it’s beautiful. For years my projects were wedded to and, to some extent, determined by my source imagery. For instance, after I discovered a cache of declassified night vision images online, I set about painting a series drawn from them and other military imagery. That was in the nineties. Another example is during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Media coverage played a really complicated role in the recovery. I pulled off the web an enormous pile of images of fires and floods in New Orleans, and immersed myself in media images of extreme weather events. Starting with the Katrina images, I developed a series called “Strange Weather.” It was a strong series, but I was bothered by the too-direct correlation between painting and source image. I had aimed to reference allegorical or history painting, from French 19th-century Romantics to the Hudson River School, from Gericault to Thomas Cole. Instead, I ran the danger of appearing to use painting to cover current disasters—painting as a form of journalism or worse: disaster porn. But painting is not journalism. And so, slowly I began to divorce my work from its source images while still referencing them obliquely. It was a challenge to disentangle them, I was basically undoing the methods that I had worked out over several decades. I wasn’t exactly sure where I wanted to take it. The works you see here are emerging from this turn-around. Some of them I have since destroyed.
The paintings feel like they’re piecing together ideas in the same way that someone might rip out physical photos for a collage and glue them all together to create a larger message and image. While we see the physical painting before us, the intellectual and conceptual background is absolutely there as well. Is that something that I’m imagining?
It’s gratifying to hear you say that! I have been bringing together parallel pursuits to work them into a new genre (for me). At first I was calling it “digital collage”, but I’m not sure I like that term. Basically, I’m pulling together the same kind of source imagery that always interested me—machine visions, surveilled but forgotten spaces, etc.—and marrying it with painting in a different way. I also have this huge body of work that are my own photographs, social media photography and such. The third category are these gestural drawings I made with oil paint on gelatin-sized watercolor paper. For nearly two years, every time I went to the studio, I would first make eight or a dozen of these oil drawings before I began working on a painting. They started as a warm-up, but developed into their own thing, a kind of endurance piece, and then a body of work. They are based loosely on the same two B&W war-torn landscape photos, and are very much about color and gesture. I made about two hundred of them.
So these three elements—found imagery, my photography and oil drawings—now serve as source material for collages, which I put together digitally, along with some graphic elements—colors and shapes. I’m connecting the dots in one medium instead of working simultaneously in parallel universes.
What is your relationship to color, which is so essential in these paintings? How do you decide on a color palette?
Color is everything. My relationship to color is visceral, like making a sauce. I don’t decide.
This idea of translating information, technological or spatial or whatever it may be, into something visual seems to be present in your work on a fundamental level. Are you influenced by the idea of an atmospheric landscape? In some ways these are so powerful that I was sure that I was watching wind blow across water, like in Bluest Eye. Is there a weather forecast that you prefer or are drawn to, on a personal level?
Atmospheric landscape is my jam! I’m out on the East River every day, commuting to and from work by ferry. I love the winter when the tourists and day trippers vanish. In the summer, of course, the light is extraordinary. Lately, I’ve been turning my cheek to the sky in unschooled attempts at 19th-century weather forecasting, since the weather app on my phone doesn’t seem to work. I’m one of those people who carries an umbrella around so that it won’t rain.
Can you talk about your relationship of your visual work versus writing and words, and if you think one can communicate things the other cannot, and vice versa? I mention it because I read that you were the editor of Cultural Politics for a period, and you seem to have a relationship with words and writing.
I think that just as we are slightly different versions of ourselves when we speak different languages, so it is when we work in different mediums like painting or writing.
But unlike painting, which is truly a solitary affair, writing, no matter how solitary the writer, is a collaborative process. By the time a book gets published, many people have had a hand in it. So, there’s a kind of relinquishing of control in writing by the author, a submission to editors and collaborators and copyeditors that doesn’t happen in painting. To paint is to have complete autonomy.
The first thing I ever wrote that got published was an article for ARTBYTE: the magazine of digital art, which my then-boyfriend, now husband, Bill Jones, launched and edited in the late 1990s. I don’t even remember what my piece was about, but I do remember that this nice young poet on staff named Tim Griffin edited it into shape. It was the first time my writing had ever been subjected to editing, and it was a revelation. After that, I started to write a column for artnet called "Into Africa", which was subjected to rigorous editing by the editor-in-chief, Walter Robinson. That experience was especially helpful because it was prolonged, so I kind of developed a sense of what Walter was aiming for when he cleaned up my texts. Then, in 2005, I was invited to write a long piece about my own work for this brand new academic journal called Cultural Politics. That was my first experience dealing with academic editors. A whole new ballgame of crazy-sounding demands. A year later, they invited me to come on board as their Arts Editor. So began my apprenticeship as an editor, as I like to think of it. It was a very particular kind of editing, since it had to do with texts about visual art. I was inviting and cajoling artists, some of whom were shy of writing, to write about their own work for a non-art journal with an international readership. An unusual opportunity and, with the exception of those artists who write well, a challenge. I stayed on for a decade, and then finally passed the baton to someone else, which I think is a good thing to do.
How much does your current physical location play into your work, in terms of the landscape of where you are at the time? Do you see Brooklyn in your work at all?
I think that being rooted in a place is important in writing and art. How I inhabit my locale, whether it's urban or the countryside or by the sea, directly influences whatever it is I happen to be working on. Brooklyn, definitely. The urban landscape, the streets, the river, it all seeps into my work. I tend to express my affinity for a place by taking long walks and shooting photographs. This also happens on the river, on the boat. I have been documenting the disappearing fallow spaces of New York and its coastlines with my phone camera for a long time—ever since phone cameras were so shitty that I didn’t even consider what I was doing to be “photography”. But then they started endowing mobile phones with phenomenal cameras, and my images, like everyone’s, automatically became less shitty. I started to think about framing and lighting. It was very weird though, because I caught myself behaving like my mom, who was a “real photographer” with an arsenal of cameras and lenses.
What is your own relationship to the media? How do you get your news, do you read the news every day, how do you manage the stress of processing all of that information?
I approach media like its a wild animal that will bite and kill me if I don’t watch out. I stalk it when it’s not looking; I make sure to bring a wide net and a long stick. Sometimes, I bring friends. For news, I’ve come to rely on my twitter feed, which I’ve populated with people who are smarter and more thorough and patient and funnier than I am. I’ve been using twitter regularly since I joined on Halloween, 2007.
In what way do you see painting, or more generally art, and politics existing in relation to each other?
On some level, all art is political and subversive, especially in places where it isn’t acknowledged as a worthwhile human endeavor. To express yourself and your ideas freely often requires courage. I also think that sometimes, especially in fraught, politically polarized times such as ours, people forget that there is a difference between, say, agitprop and art; there exists a distrust of grey areas, even among artists. Painting is all about the grey areas. When I was a grad student, I read an interview with Kerry James Marshall in BOMB. He says he’s not interested in dictating to people what they should think and feel; that painting is not about forcing meanings on people, it’s about allowing for multiple readings, including those the artist didn’t intend or intuit.
What is your personal relationship to social media? Do you find that it supports your work, and your growth, or that it’s dangerous to your creative process? Do you use it solely personally or for professional reasons as well?
Is there a difference between personal and professional? I am constantly on social media, have been for years, I consume and produce constantly. No regrets.
How do you feel that social media can change the previously discussed relationship between painting (art) and politics?
It depends. On one hand, social media has allowed us all to distribute our work. I can’t even remember how it used to be before you could do that. But we are also beholden to these private mega-companies and their Terms of Service. As things stand, so many artists have to contend with Kafkaesque censorship of their work on Instagram and Facebook, to the point where it’s gotten kind of silly. But it affects people, especially artists who have come to depend on social media for their audience, in a negative way. There will be a point where the ridiculousness will reach a critical mass and Facebook, et al., will have to adjust their poorly thought-out prohibitions on nudity in art photography, for instance.
What does a typical nine-to-five day look like for you? How do you stay focused, are you a person of routine or is every day drastically different?
I am a person of routine and every day is drastically different, except for my ferry ride.
Are there any other contemporary artists who have influenced your work or have inspired you to attempt new directions in your own work? Or, who do you just love right now?
There are many artists that I love, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Isa Genzken and her weird array of materials, including found images, but also the way she deals with impermanence. She’s one of the few contemporary artist who isn’t afraid to dwell on mortality. But mainly, I love how she uses photography, wood, metal, paper, oil paint, collage, books, you name it. And she makes it feel effortless, not at all contrived.
Are you a social person while you’re working or more solitary? Are you a person of routine, or more ‘spur of the moment’ in your day-to-day process?
I seem to need routines so I can then buck them. I need to be alone to work but I’ve also collaborated on writing projects, which is a really cool thing to do.
Along those lines, what are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
I’m reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline. I’m listening to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. I just finished watching Killing Eve. How do you top that?
What are some of your other great loves outside of art?
Cooking. Walking long distances. The Atlantic Ocean. Writing.
What’s your process in terms of deciding whether something is finished, or at least ready to be seen by others?
I tend to post paintings (etc) on social media the moment I’ve finished them. The joke in my family is: “It’s not finished until it’s uploaded.”
Do you have any projects, shows or residencies coming up?
Thank you so much for talking with us!
Thank you for your very thoughtful questions!
To find out more about Joy and her work, check out her website.