Art as Choreography
by Jennifer Hart
To see Joseph Janson’s wire sculptures at Wally Workman Gallery is like seeing art as choreography—line drawings in space. Reminiscent of the wire sculptures of twentieth century artist Alexander Calder, Janson’s works range from single images to still life scenes, from groups of floating heads that form shapes of objects to simply an energetic expression of movement. Some of the works are described as classic busts, though busts that reimagine the classic form—a commentary on shape, meaning and expression.
All these works are 3D portraits, either figurative or abstract, or unexpectedly both; they are reduced to the essential, an essence of being that expresses the void, and yet still oozes complexity and weight. These sculptures juxtapose emptiness with a commentary on the story of life.
Leaping off the wall in curly cues that wax and wane, the figures flow and, at times, sigh; at other times, they vibrate. Because the forms float free, shadow images are captured, heightening the figures’ undulations. The multidimensionality of Janson’s forms breathes life into his figures, and yet these forms are indeed not real or true, but surreal, cosmic, disorienting and strange.
Strange in the most wondrous and darkly fantastical sense.
We feel the curve of the wire as it smooths the rough edges, softening the figure, relaxing it, melting it, as if there are no bones, nothing sharp, the looping of the metal creating loopy characters. Janson eschews the perfect, choosing instead a beaten, weathered and complex body. Though made of thin wire, his figures betray a heaviness, weighted physically and psychically. At more than seven feet tall, Janson’s male figure in Observation stands slack, one arm clinging to the other, a foot propped against the wall.
One must be humbled by Janson’s view of mankind. These figures are slightly zany, but in ways that reflect humanity’s foolishness and torment. In other words, we are flawed and vulnerable.
Many of Janson’s works are bodiless heads, eyes wide and turned sideways, hair wild, mouths downturned, and yet these faces are in thought and expressionless, as if at rest, but also in agony—as if we’ve caught them in a moment of desperation. Heads are often enjoined to others, like grapes on a vine, such as 7 Heads and Grouping, a collective and diminished gaggle of suffering. These beings are entwined and supported, the foundation of existence dependent on, and perhaps determined by, others.
As active participants in seeing art, we often want to see ourselves, to find a recognizable image in the abstract. In one work, Full Boat/Full Moon, faces shape the object. Do we see a face in the moon? In our inherent narcissism, we often reflect back on ourselves, projecting our own image as if there’s nothing else to see – not the moon itself as an object, which has its own drama and beauty, but a human face. So, if we see a face in the moon, perhaps we see faces in the boat that sits under that lovely moon. Faces everywhere, everywhere.
We can’t get enough of the human face. In Silhouette III, faces make a head, like seeing the DNA of this being and all the history of that person laid bare for us to examine and contemplate. And we are all one body, interconnected through both space and time.
These works also live outside their own bodies. Elemental to Janson’s work is not merely the image he has created but also the shadows on the wall, a second self that leaves an ethereal trace of the physical body. So, when we look at the faces that make up a larger head, like in Silhouette III, we are confronted with a version that distorts and manipulates our act of seeing. A few of the works cast a more serious and darker picture, such as Looking Out and his Classic Bust l and Classic Bust ll. They are less comic, more searching, more tense. These heads are made of denser wire, creating the effect of being shrouded in fabric, the faces obscured by the tangle of metal. Though the expressions are passive, this impassiveness creates an air of expectancy, anticipation, uncertainty and unease in its constraint.
In a gesture of relief, Janson’s largest work, Profiles, hangs from the ceiling, a mobile of cylinders with profiles from every angle as each casing spins quietly from a gentle breeze or a touch. Profiles is ambitious in scale, construction and mood. It’s the quietest and most meditative, even given its size. It creates an air of serenity, very much a salve to the hyper-expressiveness of his other works.
To walk into the exhibit at Wally Workman, be prepared to stumble into an animated world full of strange characters that come to life and draw you into their stories. It’s a show that reveals itself more fully when seen in person.
Janson’s show is on exhibit at Wally Workman Gallery through December 1, 2019.