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Past Exhibition: Joan Backes

joan backes Tree, North America 2006

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Past Exhibition:

Joan Backes: Newspaper House

Installation • Painting • Photography • Mixed Media

October 17 - November 22, 2008

Opening Reception: Friday, October 17, 2008 from 6-9pm a Gallery Night

About the Show:

NEWSPAPER HOUSE, the center piece of Joan Backes' multimedia art exhibition, reveals little on its outside about how wondrous, even enchanted, it is inside.

In form, it is a simple cube. Its exterior is a patchwork of the most humble of materials, pages from newspapers gathered from the world. The pages have been carefully folded into small, three inch square shingles. There are no doors on the house, only a black, draped curtain at its front, another at its rear. From an inspection carried out by walking around the dwelling, Newspaper House might have the appearance of a structure erected by some ingenious lone wolf, maybe one of those crazies who squat beneath the freeway bridges, or an outsider artist living deep in a woods, withdrawn from society.

There is something else striking about Newspaper House. It is so compact that by comparison, even the smallest New York apartment might seem rambling. In its outside measurements, it is a mere 8 feet wide; 9 feet, 10 inches deep, and 7 feet high. One might wonder: Could anyone really inhabit such a tiny dwelling?

As eccentric, compressed and squat as Newspaper House is on its outside, it may be magical. Just as Alice found her world becoming "curiouser and curiouser" after falling through the rabbit hole, most interlopers are likely to experience wonderments upon slipping back the curtain and entering.

The first great surprise is that the house's inner sanctum, despite its contracted dimensions, does not feel claustrophobic. On the contrary, it seems almost open-ended. That is because almost from the instant of entering the inky atmosphere, one is transported to other worlds. Rather like a natural history museum created for lilliputians, there are small windows, dioramas and peepholes everywhere, recessed into its satin black walls. Each of the glassed-in proscenia reveals sights and quiet dramas that are breathtaking in beauty and strangeness.

One of the dioramas, for example, presents two actual specimens from nature, a pearlescent wasp nest so tiny it must have been home to but a single occupant, and also a curiously balled-up snakeskin that its owner shed and left behind after passing through a wire fence. It is doubtful Tiffany's window ever showcased two baubles with quite the fascination of these found specimens.

EVERY BIT AS HAUNTING is a scene revealed through a small window. Standing alone, appearing like a ghost in a landscape of barrenness, is a single elm. The tree is presented with about the same theatricality the Louvre might employ in displaying the rarest of its paintings, a Leonardo. There is a chilling irony here. Twenty or thirty years ago, in Milwaukee as well as in many cities across the country, most of us only had to peer through our living-room windows to see elms up and down the street. They are gone now, of course, victims of some hungry insect that foresters say was introduced to the US through the importation of cheap firewood from Asia

There is more in Newspaper House: a window looking out on a quintet of plovers, once common shorebirds, but now a species whose survival is threatened because of man's ever-greater incursions on their habitat: a diorama presenting a corps de ballet of Karner Blue butterflies, another endangered species, fluttering in starlit air like tiny chips of lapis lazuli; a small, split-screen slideshow presenting creations from popular culture like Road Runner on one side and, on the other, birds and animals that have become extinct since they were recorded by John James Audubon and other artists; and more, and more....

Newspaper House is one of a half dozen houses that Backes, an installation artist and painter, has created in recent years in places as scattered as Chicago, Los Angeles, Thailand and Nova Scotia. Different building materials and architectural styles have been used for each house, but all the structures, in varying ways, make statements about man's relationship to the natural world.

Backes does not pretend to be a scientist or credentialed environmentalist. She is an artist first and foremost. It could be ventured, though, that she is also an enchantress. She makes us see, re-see or see with keener clarity, that to which we pay too little notice.

Arrayed all around Newspaper House as part of the exhibition, are numerous other works that take us ever deeper into Backes' enchanted woods: a mesmerizing video that, in 11 minutes, distills a year in the life of an oak tree; 15 large, X-ray-like photographs of tree sections; and also nearly a dozen paintings of tree sections that, in manner, not only suggest scrupulously rendered dendrological recordings, but also canvases documenting such art tendencies from the last 50 or 60 years as abstract expressionism, photo-realism and post-minimalism.

The trees that are the subjects of Backes photographs and paintings -- birches, oaks, palms and others -- may seem prevalent today. But by inconicizing them as rare objects -- as works of art objects befitting museum walls -- the artist may be asking a question of urgency: What if, like the elm, these trees should vanish from our lives almost overnight? We would then have to be content with mere replications -- Backes' paintings and photographs as well as the visual records produced by other artists and documenters.

-- Dean Jensen

About the Artist:

Joan Backes lives and works in Massachusetts and New York

Education: MFA, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

Recent Press:
“Nature Interrupted” reviewed by Johnathan Goodman of Artcritical.com. A group show at the Chelsea Art Museum, NYC, Curated by Elga Wimmer featuring works by Joan Backes. (link)

Selected Honors and Awards

• Brown University Creative Arts Council Faculty Award, 2008
• Embassy of the US Iceland, 2006
• Fulbright Hays Grant, 2003
• Ragdale Foundation, 2000,1999, 1998
• Senior Fulbright Scholar Award, 1994-95
• National Endowment for the Arts/KS Art Com., 1992
• Yellowstone Association for Natural Science, History, and Education Grant. Yellowstone National Park, 1992
• American-Scandinavian Foundation Award, 1991

Selected Solo Exhibitions:

• 2008 Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
• 2008 LA Contemporary, Los Angeles, California
• 2007 Gallery of the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts, Silpakorn
• 2007 University, Bangkok, Thailand. Brochure
• 2007 Thomas McCormick Gallery, Chicago, Illinois
• 2007 Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University, Halifax, NS, Canada
• 2006 SAFN Museum, Reykjavik, Iceland. Brochure
• 2005 Rauma Art Museum, Rauma, Finland. Catalogue
• 2004 Wright Museum of Art, Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin. Catalogue
• 2003 Hafnarborg Institute of Culture and Fine Art, Iceland. Catalogue
• 2002 Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire
• 2001 Jan Weiner Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri
• 2000 Braitmayer Art Center, Marion, Massachusetts
• 1999 Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
• 1998 Hafnarborg, Institute of Culture and Fine Art, Iceland. Brochure
• 1997 Centro Cultural Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Brochure
• 1996 Museum of Contemporary Art, Santiago, Chile. Catalogue

Selected Group Exhibitions

• 2008 Nature Interrupted, Chelsea Art Museum, New York, New York. Brochure
• 2007 Faculty Exhibition, Bell Gallery, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island
• 2006 Nature Interrupted, New Bedford Art Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts. Brochure
• 2006 drawing _ drawing 2, The Foundry, London Biennial, London, England
• 2006 Ragdale Anniversary, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, Illinois
• 2005 Summarize, Jan Weiner Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri
• 2004 A Forest Somewhere, Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
• 2004 Contemporary Drawing, U. of Nebraska Galleries, Lincoln, Nebraska
• 2004 Hands to Work, Mind to God, Borusan Art Museum/Foundation, Istanbul, Turkey (2003-04)
• 2003 Artists and the Cultivated Landscape, Racine Art Museum, Racine, Wisconsin
• 2002 Natural Selections: New England Artists Interpret Nature, Newport Art Museum, Newport, Rhode Island
• 2002 Art Educates the World, Exhibition to benefit the Fulbright Legacy Fund, Sotheby’s, New York, New York
• 2001 Artists Alumni, Block Museum, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
• 2000 Snapshot, Contemporary Museum, Baltimore, Maryland
• 2000 Drawing and Painting, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
• 1999 Landscape, University Art Gallery, UMass Dartmouth, Dartmouth, Massachusetts
• 1998 Libertad, Diversidad, Pluralismo, Museum of Contemporary Art, Santiago, Chile
• 1997 Waking to the World, Fulbright Anniversary Exhibition, Meridian International Center, Washington, D.C. Catalogue
• 1996 a:e,iuo, Centro Cultural Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina
• 1996 Just Add Water: Artists and the Aqueous World, Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, Racine, Wisconsin. Catalogue
• 1995 Total Solar Eclipse-A Collaboration, Boston Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusetts

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