Jaanika Peerna: Cold Love
Estonian-born, New York-based Jaanika Peerna offered a show at the large alternative space Real Art Ways in Hartford. Her work is very much performance-based, in which she comes close to modern dance while interacting with an audience in making drawings on paper. Also, too, she makes uninhibited, messy drawings of her own invention, whose scribbling looks a bit like a relative of the work of Cy Twombly, only more dense. She also draws on Mylar, and then cuts the material up into narrow, connected strips, hanging it on the wall in ways that turn the drawing into a sculpture. It was interesting to see this show in light of the now-established tradition of art performance and collaboration between artist and viewer; Peerna looks at this history and makes it her own, in a fashion that emphasizes the international nature of such actions and presentation. Her performance, occurring a month after the opening, is available in the exhibition as an extended video and looks like an effort to extend avant-garde art into places distant from where this kind of work originated. Real Art Ways, a former factory building now established as a set of exhibition, performance, and film spaces, supports work like this, which earlier on could be viewed as occurring on the edge but now is understood more or less as a mainstream effort.
Indeed, Peerna’s biographical and esthetic internationalism must be seen as underscoring the increasingly worldwide nature of progressive art, tied as it is to mergers of genres and audience and author. Collaboration is increasingly in the mix; the audience, now regularly possessing either the education or background to understand highly sophisticated art procedures, is in a place to participate with the artist looking to join the viewer to his or her art practice. This would shift the connection from one of seeing to one of doing, from looking to experience. Peerna’s skilled, inventive use of a practice that fluidly jumps from one medium to the next occasions more than mere interest--it demands a knowing engagement on the part of those present for the art action or the exhibits, which tend to emphasize something taking place as opposed to finished states of mind or image--even the drawings do so, being records of an undertaking at least as much as completed works. In the long run, it looks like collaborative effort is taking hold in the arts--it has already done so in popular music (likely this won’t work for writing, much more an isolated and secluded art). In visual imagery today, the possibilities are also greater--we are moving more and more toward improvisation and ephemeral states of being as taken up by mediums that used to be considered static. This has happened for a good while; an early epithet for abstract expressionism was action painting. But the barriers between kinds of visual art and that between the artist and her viewers are being replaced with a more fluid connection.
Peerna has taken good advantage of such change. Glacier Elegy: Hartford, her performance video, roughly half an hour-long, chronicles the ties between her and her audience developed during the event, which was staged a full month after the opening. In important ways what took place was an unpremeditated action. When she invited individuals there to add to a narrow white roll of paper she held or the new participant held from above, those taking part made multiple black scrawls on the papers’ surface, with the artist or others keeping the paper as steady as she could. Interestingly, her fellow artists showed no bafflement while taking on the act of making art in the moment; the improvisatory method was fully accepted. This means that group participation in an art event is now fully a part of established visual practice, in ways that emphasize the idea that anyone and everyone is an artist. Whether we agree with that notion or not, it is clear that we are already well established in a democratic art practice, stemming from the Beuysian notion that experience in and of itself will visually present as an image within anyone showing an open attitude toward the material or event on hand. Even though the origins of such thinking are now close to historical, stemming from the Sixties and Seventies, it still feels like a sea change, in which everyday life and the general public are being included as a corrective to what many feel are the privileged practices and congregations of the past. Thus, Peerna’s staging of a drawing is intended to transform the private privilege of her art into something vehemently public, even though the transitory nature of the experience cannot be excluded from our viewing of the material mark. The wisdom of such a process can be argued about, for it demonstrates an emphasis on the moment at hand, as opposed to historical context. The problem is that we are eschewing memory for an absolute present, which is terribly difficult to sustain.
How can improvisation be kept alive in a way that would differentiate experience from art? Is that even the right question to ask? Not all art is unpremeditated; some good painters still make studies before commencing to paint. Peerna’s mark-making is made on permanent materials, so presumably, she wants the works to remain long after her passing. At the same time, there is something Zen-like, something oriented toward the moment along in her practice. Even the drawings are constructed from gestures repeated in what can only be called a continuous present, although the consequences demonstrate a recognition of time’s duration. In Tipping Point 2 (2018), a pigment-pencil drawing done on Mylar, the strokes mass in the upper right, leaving the rest of the paper’s white free. The dense nest of lines demonstrates Peerna’s awareness of drawing as something quite literally on the move so that our eyes tend not to rest but rather to actively engage the design. It is a drawing in motion, as most of the artist’s works are. Cold Love (2019) looks like a series of waves, or a group of birds flying, that proceed from left to right across on the exhibition space’s walls. These forms run into vertical rows of hanging Mylar sheets--as if the organic image on the left would be stopped by a linear imagination on the right! It is an affecting piece, as interesting up close--the cut strips of Mylar are covered with dark pigment, abstractly applied--as it is in a larger sense. Here and elsewhere we find Peerna pushing abstract art into an event dictated by time; one must walk across the wall installation to fully feel its effect.
Big Blue Melt 3 (2018) is a beautiful large pigment-pencil work on Mylar, hung adjacent to the wall installation Cold Love. It consists of vertical lines running the length of the Mylar, with shadowy forms filling the spaces--a squared shape above and an inchoate, more organic shape beneath it. The work is likely best seen in the context of minimal art; its simplicity of design is its strength. Peerna is at her best when she works off of minimalist history via performance art’s attributes, and while the drawing exists only two-dimensionally, it too is linked, if in a more disciplined fashion, to the marks made during the performance, whose sculptural element, in the form of the two sheets of paper hanging in space, cannot be dismissed. All in all, it might be said that the works on the walls of the exhibition space are themselves a single installation, held together by the artist’s actions and her evident belief that fine art can sustain not only the individual making the imagery but the community engaged by that imagery. In truth, I am not so sure that is possible--usually the audience remains an audience, even when they are asked to take part in a shared endeavor. And the final image is inevitably distanced from its circumstances, however participatory they may be. With the passage of time, the rites of communal action fade before the actuality of the image made by them. But it must also be said that there is, in the memory of the audience who saw Peerna’s performance or who drew at her invitation, something else: the internalization of an event that accurately described the process of creativity, allowing the non-artists present during the performance to feel like artists in the moment at hand. This is cultural democracy at work, and it feels like the future.
- Jonathan Goodman, New York, November 12, 2019
Images courtesy of the artist, Installation photos by John Groo, performance photos by Aly Leone