Making it ‘BIG’ in Williamsport

Joanne Landis is a local painter, formerly based in New York City. She currently has a show entitled “BIG” at the Pajama Factory. Her work moves back and forth between primitive and figurative art, with a very emotional and expressionistic brushstroke conceived to reinterpret reality without following any trends or movements.

The figures in her paintings act as mirror and subject at the same time, as she identifies herself in the female figures and the stories that gradually take form around them by stimulating perception and suggesting fragments of poetic and narrative elements.

DEIANIRA TOLEMA: Why is the title of the exhibition “BIG”?

JOANNE LANDIS: “BIG” because this is the way I like to work, although this is the kind of show during which I don’t expect people to be taking things home … But there have been a couple of years when the big work has felt like the most important work, so I wanted an opportunity to show it.

DT: How did you develop your style?

JL: Well, I started as an illustrator, by painting the figures and then it became more and more personal, so that even though now they don’t look like me, they demonstrate an aspect of myself and have an emotional spiritual presence that represents my connection with the archetypes.

DT: Is your work about women and femininity, as it looks like, or is there any other meaning?

JL: I wouldn’t call it “feminine”; I use the female body as if it was my own body and I feel very attached to what’s going on with the figures.

DT: Apparently right now abstract and conceptual art, especially in New York, are considered to be “high level”: what’s happening to figurative art in general?

JL: That’s one of the reasons why I left New York. I was looking around the galleries and I noticed they were on a different track, much more intellectual and political, but at the same time I felt like my work was “on track enough” that I could take it some place else. Because of being here my work changed, you know, responding to the environment. I thought I would come out to Pennsylvania and hide into the woods for 10 years and come up with my own language and then bring the work out, but it ended up … becoming very natural and real, at least to me. [I am] still responsive to the outer influences but immune to the urge to catch on to a trend or what the other people were doing.

DT: You are from New York. Were you there in the ’80s? I think the current state of contemporary art is a consequence of what happened in NYC during that period.

JL: In the ’80s I was in New York. The whole East Village (art scene) grew up around me: the galleries suddenly were present and people in limousines were coming down. I ended up having a gallery in the midst of all those galleries – I think it was called “On The Wall.” I was showing in the East Village but all of that was going on in Soho as well. At that time figurative art came back under the name of neo-expressionism and I was kind of scooped up on that wave.

DT: What has been your experience with galleries so far?

JL: One day somebody saw a few paintings that I had at a coffee shop, called me up and said, “I would like to represent you.” Then the same person ended up opening a gallery with a partner in the East Village. One of the partners then opened a gallery in San Francisco and that really helped. I’m glad it happened like that, I couldn’t make that happen I’m so terrible with business!

DT: When you were in New York, did you have a chance to hang out with all those artists who later became internationally recognized, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel?

JL: I love the early works that Schnabel made before he became a filmmaker, but what happened in the East Village was different from what happened in Soho, although with some of those artists we did cross paths at least once. For example I was just in New York a couple of weeks ago and I found out that Ai Wei Wei was in the East Village when I lived there, at exactly the same time – he was probably working on the series “Thompkins Square Park Riot.”

DT: How do we tell art from handicraft, in your opinion? Sometimes there’s a very fine line.

JL: On a personal level I believe it’s intuitive. Part of it is being aware of what’s going on in the art world.

DT: The work “Attending The Bride, 2014” is one of my favorite paintings. What’s the story behind it?

JL: Really? I almost didn’t include it in the show! This painting was on my studio wall for like a year. I kept looking at it. I like to repeat figures, as you can see, so either exactly the same or slightly different. When I’m not sure about what to paint I just kind of arbitrarily insert figures in the composition to see if I can get any energy off them and then I try to imagine what’s going to happen.

At first I didn’t know what these figures were doing, yet, I didn’t know why they were there and actually their arms were down: I just wanted them to sort of stand absolutely neutral. At some point I realized that I wanted to change the scale and then I found myself wondering: “What are they doing? Why are they there, in that space?”

I went very close to marrying someone – I’m so glad I didn’t! – and I attempted to chase and reconstruct that memory and that’s how I finally decided to put these figures in the water. Then I thought that before marriage there’s this kind of cleansing thing that you’re doing: I tried to describe my anxiety through the figure in the water and the other figures waiting but also imprisoned in the background; at that point I made them wear the puffy dresses that are typical of brides. The next step, after the narrative aspect, was altering space by “moving things”: I moved from story to color and the opposite and then it went back and forth like that until I was satisfied; the pattern in the background maybe represents the giving up of freedom and the concept of individuation. After the arms came up, almost like soldiers, the figures all of a sudden were carrying bouquets.

The tension between the empty spaces, beautiful and serene, the blues (that particular blue is like a base color for me), the quietness and the churning energy incarnated by stars and circles, swirls and things in movement eventually acquired the features of a more dynamic reality.

DT: That is a very interesting explanation. Moreover I really enjoy the aesthetic juxtaposition between decorative art on the left and the expressionistic brushstroke on the right.

JL: I had been doing very rendered figures for a while, but then I figured that I needed to be rough and more primitive.

DT: Is there anything else that you want to say to conclude?

JL: Yes, I will have a talk here at the Pajama Factory on June 27th at 7 p.m. to analyze my work more specifically.