Posted by: Lily DeBenedictis | October 21, 2018

Jone Jonas: 60 years of illusion, fragmentation & (de)familiarization

At 5:30pm in Gamble Auditorium, a small figure made her way up to the podium. Her ascent was met with cheering and applause bouncing off the walls of the theater, the echo of almost 400 people waiting to hear about the journey and life’s work of the “Mother of All Performing Art”, Joan Jonas. Newly inaugurated Mount Holyoke College President Sonya Stephens began the evening by welcoming Jonas back to campus as a graduate in 1958. She congratulated Jones on her many accolades and now new title as the 2018-19 Leading Woman in The Arts. Professor of English, Amy Martin and Tricia Paik, the Florence Finch Abbott Director of the Mount Holyoke Art Museum who introduced Jonas to the audience.

Jonas looked out at the crowd through her thick round Edna Mode-esque glasses with a look of appreciation and perhaps a little apprehension. Preparing herself to speak in front of the crowd. Her red sweater made her stand out from the dull beige walls of Gamble and the lilt of her voice was soothing yet crisp in the silence that met her.

Beginning at the actual start of her life, Jonas took us through her childhood spending her time outdoors with her dog Cindy. She then went on to talk about her early exposure to Broadway, the MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and movies as her introduction to the arts, entering the art circles by way of her step-mother. Jonas seemed to be in awe of all the different kinds of resources and mediums that were available to artists.

Early on in her artistic career, Jonas recognized metaphor and the process of draw, erase, draw, erase as her main modes of creation as she figured out what art was and what it meant to her. The themes of disillusionment, defamiliarization and fragmentation are ones that she has come back to throughout her lifetime. Addressing these themes, Jonas played many of her multi-medium projects such as Beach which focused on how sound carries a distinct sound, or some of her projects that started with one object or shape such as a cone and transformed them into something completely different. Jonas also became fascinated with miniatures. She began creating these shadow boxes that a viewer would look down into and see a particular scene.

In the 1970s, Jonas purchased her first camera and began filming her live performances. In one such event she draped a wet towel over her body and began to draw her own outline on herself. Much of her work is doused in props, mirrors and other devices that act as symbolically. More recently she has focused on form and the culmination of her earlier ideas. Mirrors, fragmentation and illusion. She finished the presentation by talking about her most current pieces which emphasize the dire nature of the changing environment, believing that by understanding where we come from and the beauty in the world we can live in peace.

Jonas produced a captivating over view of her journey as an artist. Working in a field as complex and personal as performance art, Jonas could have taken hours to explain her life’s work rather than a one presentation. The shortened time period, made her speech to feel like we were running through her life, only stopping to look at the pieces that were defining moments in her career. The moments that she chose to stop at were pivotal to the audience for understanding the transformation in her artistic focus and interests. However, it was the question and answer segment where she was able to slow down and really discuss choices she had made where I felt most connected to her work and seemed to understand it more.

By the end, the audience understood the full scope of her work so far. To get even a small glimpse into their world for a one-hour presentation is getting to look at the world through a different perspective, which after all is the aim of her work. As much as the presentation covered the scope of Jonas’ work, it would have been more interesting to look more in depth at a few pieces of her choice and have her talk the audience through her intentions while making the piece, her process to create it and then how it fit into the larger scheme of her work. Although it was fascinating to hear about how her story fit into her work, the presentation of the information felt rushed and too rehearsed. When listening to an artist about their work, it would have been nice to understand why she chose to drape a wet towel over her body and draw on herself or what drew her to using mirrors and bodies as a form of disillusionment. However, this is the opinion of an art history major that is fascinated by performance art.

The presentation that was given was an appropriate overview of her work as a whole. The language was not overly methodological and appealed to a larger audience who may not have been versed in the art world at all. However, what did come across was Jonas’ passion for her work, to keep learning and to continue in this vein work in order to fully explore the themes that seem to reoccur throughout her work. I would be interested to see what Jonas’ up and coming work looks like and how she feels that it fits into the scheme of her work over these last 60 years.

— Lily DeBenedictis

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