To celebrate the closing of our first digital exhibition PHOTOFAIRS PRESENTS: Cyanotype, we talk to visual artist Joanne Dugan about the thinking and process behind her practice.
What would you say about the themes behind your exhibited works?
I use traditional analog photographic materials in unconventional ways to create multi-image works that explore photographs as three-dimensional, contemplative objects. These exhibited works are part of the series, “Seclusion Meditations.” They were made from March to May, 2020, as a personal response to living and working in New York City as it became the first epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States and later on site in a rural area.
The themes of stillness and contemplation were particularly useful to draw on while working through such uncertain times. Each final piece is hand-painted, printed and mounted and took many days to complete. Working this way, very slowly and repetitively, allowed me to focus my thoughts on finding calm. I wrote in my journal at the time: “Within the noise also comes the quiet.”
The repetitive grid forms are also directly inspired by an ongoing meditation practice. They are influenced by a tradition in various spiritual disciplines of using visual aids to deepen awareness, including the Tantric yantra, a form of mystical diagram that uses geometric shapes and patterns to represent contemplative mindsets. One goal in creating works is to engage myself, and then hopefully the viewer, to use mindful, careful looking to evoke an experience of quiet contemplation.
What is the original inspiration of the cyanotype exhibited works?
These works are about finding quiet within the noise, calm in the chaos, and channeling creativity in isolation. From a process standpoint, I first became interested in the cyanotype medium because it allowed me to take my artistic practice out of the traditional analog darkroom into more natural and rural conditions. Working in the open air and sunlight during the Covid-19 lockdown allowed me to express an intuitive, more organic approach, particularly within the brushstrokes used to render the pieces. It was inspiring to be able to combine painting and photography and I kept a quote from painter Gerhard Richter nearby: “Art is the highest form of hope.”
How did you feel during the whole working process?
I channeled various emotional states evoked during a regular sitting meditation practice into the project. My intention during the entire process of rendering the works—preparing the works by hand via brushstrokes, then cutting and assembling them into the final gridded pieces—was to activate a mindfulness practice. Also, working very slowly in quarantine conditions allowed a heightened awareness of various emotional shifts. Ultimately this way of working led to a feeling of relief that I was still able to be artistically experimental, even while fearful. The process of making became meditation.
What is the most difficult part of the creation process?
I need to let go of all of conscious thought when I’m working; instead I draw on a heightened state of intuition and instinct. Because the work is exacting and labor-intensive and because I work by hand with very sharp knives, a focused mindset free of stress or discomfort is absolutely necessary during the process or else I can actually end up hurting myself.
What is the biggest breakthrough while creating this series?
My biggest breakthrough was to realize how much the specific painted brushstrokes of the Cyanotype process could communicate various emotional states. I like to think that the final works are a form of mirror, and that viewers might see reflected back a part of themselves when they take the time to look closely. It’s less about what they might see when they’re looking and instead about how they feel.
Do you have a new understanding about the cyanotype and if so, what is that new understanding?
Cyanotypes are living things. The process of rendering them is an emotional as well as a very physical one. They are highly sensitive to environmental factors, which can be channeled very directly into the works in unconventional, spontaneous ways. This makes cyanotypes the perfect medium for deep, ongoing experimentation. Every time I work, I learn something new.