Joan Backes: Artistic Intermediary


Artist Joan Backes is an intermediary. Her art is poised in a space between nature and the built environment; between the allure of surface and revelatory layers of meaning; between the contemporary present and deep-seated connections to her past. Backes was born and raised in Wisconsin to parents whose interest in nature and encouragement in art had profound, lasting effects. The work of her grandfather, an architect, echoes subliminally in her recent explorations of the house as a designated place of investigation and awareness.


The roots of Joan Backes emanate from the people and places of her past, but she continues to develop fresh branches in her art. Currently based in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Backes has shown her paintings, videos, installations, and three-dimensional pieces internationally. Nature, and in particular, the form of the tree, has been a significant metaphor in her art, and one that lies at the heart of the exhibition, Murmurs in the Trees.


A tree, transformed from its raw state, becomes building material for a house. It is a place of shelter and protection, and one that we may identify strongly with as a private refuge shared with family and friends. Backes’ large-scale installation, Paper House, appears on the exterior as an ethereal delight: a cottage covered with a heavy white coat, like a gentle, domestic beast. This lively surface is made from shreds of recycled computer paper - the ordinary office variety. We may touch the stuff everyday, and even in our technology-saturated society, paper is still abundant around us. Paper House takes it as its most obvious building material, and reminds us that these document shreds are but trees in another form. Nature appears in many disguises.


The charming exterior of Paper House beckons us inside, and our attention is drawn even deeper. It is like a visual laboratory, a place for examining and considering the niches of objects and collections, retrieved from unknown origins and presented for examination. Not just a place of repose, this house has an intellectually engaged purpose. In a 2010 interview in Darmstadt, Germany, Backes discussed her ideas of a house as a place that may be acutely functional though evocative. The sense of purpose, of practicality and investigation, is apparent here. In her analytical approach to form, Backes is a technician, an artistic scientist.


She is deeply sensitive to essential elements, drawing out the defining contours of an object or the unique properties of material. She works in themes and variations, notably in her small-scale constructions of trees and houses. They are elegantly sparse creations, like line drawings rendered in three dimensions. Changes in material and details fundamentally alter the character of each. A pair of houses in raw and finished wood stands firm next to a Plexiglas version, which seems to disappear in an unreal blend of transparency and shadow. It is as though the environmental connection vanishes with sterile clarity.


Nature is resilient yet fragile, and our complex relationship with it are implicit in Backes’ sculptures and her paintings. Her acrylic renderings of tree bark are exceptional for their veracity. She is again a visual technician in the thorough capture of color, texture, and form. The surfaces are mesmerizing, and appear like a strange new world. The smallest section of tree becomes a topographical map of a wondrous place; it is stimulation for vicarious exploration and adventure.


These paintings are engaging for their immediate effects, but over the longer course of time, have a documentary quality in their construction. Backes recalls the cutting down of diseased elm trees in her neighborhood when she was young. The loss of these trees left the street cold and strange. In our changing climate today, the threat of environmental loss and destruction looms with terrible consequence. Backes notes the purposeful irony in her detailed paintings, which capture with great specificity a variety of tree species. They are painted in acrylic, which is essentially a type of plastic, an industrial material with significant longevity. In centuries to come the survival of trees may be threatened, yet the images remain.


Backes encourages us to enjoy the beauty of nature, but also to pay attention to the experience of it. The aesthetic values in her work are a way of connecting with the viewer, and as she describes it, “a way of bringing people toward the art.” Beneath the surface, we are of the same organic world. These pieces are studies of admiration and fascination, but tinged with uncertainty. Ultimately, what is our place in relation to the environment around us? Backes brings us to these considerations. Her work joins us in the pleasures of natural beauty and constructed art. Like the metaphor of the house, it is created from the substances of the world outside, functioning as a place for interior contemplation.


Katherine Murrell

Art History Lecturer

University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design