Installation view of FLAW at Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2021. Photo: Courtesy the artist

The Persistence of Inconsistency: A Conversation with Joan Tanner

For the past five decades, Joan Tanner has pursued a rigorous and sustained investigation into spatial relationships via methods of concealment, combined with ideas of instability, impermanence, contradiction, and disruption. While her early installations employed objects of a somewhat domestic nature (apples, cat hair, lint, steel brads, and copper funnels), her recent choices read like an inventory from the local hardware store (plywood, blister packs, galvanized metal, corrugated plastic, metal rods, wooden dowels, bird netting, and zip ties). A survey of her oeuvre reveals a persistent preoccupation with joinery and casings, an affinity for the uncertain, and an astute application of color.

FLAW, Tanner’s multi-part, site-specific installation on view at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati through August 8, 2021, brilliantly embodies the depth and breadth of her relentless inquiry. The work responds to the challenging architectural confines designed by Zaha Hadid—a narrow gallery, flanked by three obtrusive, concrete pillars, culminating in an end space with a 24-foot ceiling. Here, Tanner offers a resounding refutation to the notion that sculpture has to be impenetrably solid, bound, or mounted, revealing the possibilities left vacant by Hadid through strategically placed elements that put the handmade and the manufactured into constant interplay.

FLAW begins with discrete pieces that feel grounded and fixed; but as one progresses through the gallery, shapes begin to multiply and grow, expanding into assemblages that levitate with the aid of pulleys and ropes, as if abetting the suspension of belief. The work is both rambunctious and intentional: rods are bundled, netting is bunched, scallops and curves are repeated and sequenced, color is used to pierce, punctuate, and enshroud. Corrugated plastic cocoons the Brutalist columns in a soft glow, while plywood and Styrofoam forms stand sentinel before the sweeping Flex Rings that occupy the tall void of the final space to marvelous effect. In its propensity for the tentative and unresolved, Tanner’s installation restores our capacity to wonder, to find beauty in the mysterious and unknowable.

Joan Tanner in FLAW at Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2021. Photo: © Jesse Ly, 2021, Courtesy the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH

Natalie Weis: Your current installation, FLAW, is site-specific. How did you approach the unusual architecture of the gallery?
Joan Tanner:
When I saw the floor plan, I thought, “I’m looking at a U-shaped canyon.” If you get stuck in a U-shaped canyon in a giant storm, there’s no exit, other than to turn back. The yo-yo aspect of this space, with its three solid concrete columns, absolutely drove me crazy until I decided that I was not going to obscure the tallest column. I knew I had to encase the other two, and I came into the space with the idea of using generic construction materials, including corrugated fiberglass panels. I used these to wrap the columns, which I called Bloated Columns. Then, I started thinking about making floors and elevations inside the forms. I wrapped around the first and second columns, but left part of them visible—obscuring, yet acknowledging their presence.

NW: As you walk through the gallery, the pieces seem to become more tentative and precarious.
In engaging with the dynamics of the space, it was important to me to start with works set on the floor, and then to use the middle section of the gallery as a cavity for the suspended pieces and for floor pieces secured by ropes from the ceiling. This approach was tempered as I began to install the elements in the space. The suspended work is stuffed with painted netting—it’s more anatomical, and intentionally a contradiction. There are things on the floor, there are things ballooning out. In the production of all of these objects, my past practice of painting re-emerged through the use of spray paint, which I adore. There’s an immediacy that occurs, which is extremely satisfying. 

Installation view of FLAW, with (left to right): Yellow Mesh and Bloated Columns, 2021. Photo: Courtesy the artist

NW: A few of the elements, like Yellow Mesh, almost resemble animals or imaginary creatures of some sort.
Yellow Mesh is essentially a bundled piece, with an armature made from Flex-C Trac, a common construction material. It’s incredibly useful because I can bend it and bunch it, twist it and tie it off. If you wanted to assign Yellow Mesh a category, most of us would call it a three-dimensional object sitting on the floor. A sculpture, right? I can go with that. I wouldn’t refer to it as an animal necessarily, but as some kind of indeterminate organism. It’s mutable. If I were to lift it up a little, for instance, it would hover. If I were to relax the ropes, it would collapse, hovering from below. So, again, there’s a tentative dialogue.

NW: How do you see the individual elements relating to each other?
The installation is designed so that there is an oasis with some of the works, like a soliloquy poised in performance. They could be more purposely interacting as singular entities, but that is not really how I think of them. I think of FLAW as an installation that responds to the architecture, but in distracting ways that challenge a confining space. As you walk through the gallery, it becomes more ponderous as the installation begins to deal with the potential of the height in the last room. I was sorry there wasn’t a skylight, because emanating light would have been interesting, even if I had obscured part of it.

NW: Obscuring and revealing are essential to your work. There is an uncertain quality that resists any particular narrative.
I don’t think in narrative terminology. I was never really interested in painting figuratively, making work with objects that you can name. In other words, I don’t have the viewer in mind when I’m working. I think about solving the problem: How can I make the work relate better to the space? What are those spatial relationships that are out of my control?

CONTINGENt, 2017. Flex-C Trac, plastic netting, metal rods and hardware, and rope, 66 x 160 x 56 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

NW: To me, there’s something playfully defiant about your application of color. Does the fact that you were once a painter still influence how you approach your work?
Color has always been part of my vocabulary. I use it and apply it in many different ways, not just with a brush. When I was painting in the 1960s and ’70s, I was interested in simple geometric forms, things like windows and boxes. I painted ropes that were coiled and twisted. Now, I am doing the same thing, one could say, with physical materials, which has to do with stuffing and bulging, and then twisting, inserting, screwing, and bolting.

NW: How did your transition to sculpture happen?
I stopped painting around 1991 or 1992—not with any irritation, but from a desire to expand my vocabulary. Then, in 1995, I had an exhibition, “Close Scrutiny,” at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum. I was working with apples, incising them and, in some cases, adding metal to them. In Der Apfelwerk Tablewerk, I arranged them on a table, along with other objects, placed in rows of linked metal gutters as if they were specimens. I saved cat hair and put it into cigar holders, then made little paintings and brought them together as a kind of assemblage called Fungus & Shelf. I was also making balls of plasticine about the size of your thumb; the more I made, the more I thought that they looked like kidney stones or something anatomical, so it turned into a cruciform (Polychrome Cruciform).

I was interested in the idea of display and the possibility of change, taking objects apart, doing things related to sequencing, and exposing rawness or awkwardness. I had been dissatisfied, I think, with not being able to interact materially with my work. It’s as if there weren’t enough characters in the play when I was painting. Separating things into taxonomies, and finding means of disrupting them, is something I now see in many ways. I’m endlessly finding ways to expand my vocabulary, but it isn’t a self-conscious thing.

Der Apfelwerk Tablewerk, 1995. Apples pierced with steel brads, metal shelves and strainers, copper funnels, wood and rubber balls, and paint-spattered canvas drop, 40 x 85 x 42 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

NW: Your 2002 installation Standing Yellow at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, was another big shift. 
Around 1999, I started dipping and coating all the extraneous material hanging around my studio in Plasti Dip. It’s a colored coating that adheres and dries to a soft, fleshy surface. The way it disguises the murkiness of what’s underneath appealed to me. It was kind of casual, but the more I did it, the more I thought, “Oh, I really like this because I have converted something, but I haven’t really altered it except for dipping it.”

In many respects, it was not a new way to work, but it gave me a lot of satisfaction because I could almost erase myself, removing the direct hand. When I coated and disguised and combined unrelated things, it was like killing off things in my head that had never been resolved. It allowed me to expand how I could use shape and do it quickly and nonchalantly—an important contrast to agonizing over a large painting and trying to figure out every little thing.

I got very attached to this process, and I then began to blend colors. What really occurred was that I stepped away from brushes and paint and engaged with a spontaneous vocabulary. It didn’t end painting or mean that I was finished with color, but I was done with the handed part of mixing and with consciousness and deliberate ways of application. It allowed me to push ahead in a way that I don’t think I could have until I started working with fabricators.

NW: How has working with fabricators changed your practice?
It means that I am constantly explaining verbally, or revealing in sketches, what I have in my head. I’m reluctant to make preliminary drawings because I work things out through direct contact with the objects. I need to be responsive to whatever strikes me when I’m in front of the materials. That said, at my age, I am totally dependent on people who can do the real physical fabrication work for me and have the skills and patience to interpret my directions.

Right now, I’m working on small pieces that I can physically manage myself, and that gives me a huge amount of pleasure because there’s an immediacy and I can do them very quickly. They are a collective of smaller works, but they inform the possibility of what could be a much bigger piece. I’m still going through the hurdles of figuring out the material on a larger scale and how I can manipulate it or force it to do something.

Installation view of False Spectator, Suyama Space, Seattle, 2016. Photo: © Mark Woods

NW: There’s a vigorousness in the way that you use common industrial materials like plywood, galvanized metal, and corrugated plastic.
They’re very common materials, and that generic accessibility is terribly important. It’s all right there. All I’m doing is taking advantage of materials that give you a chance to experiment: you can ram them around, manipulate them, and change them. My choices are very deliberate because a material has to do what I need it to do. If I’ve used drop cloth, for instance, it’s because I can bunch it and insert it between parts of netting; I can spray it with layers of paint, and then it starts to get heavy and begins to sag under the weight of what I’ve just done.

My desire is not to reinvent something but to penetrate it in a different way. I have a persistence about finding another way of doing something, another way of seeing, another point of entry. It takes a nice defiance of order to look at things differently, which is the aim of most artists who scrutinize something and try to bring your attention to it in a new way. The idea that the work I’m doing now—the screaming color or the playfulness of taking an industrial material and torquing it—is unique bothers me greatly, because this approach is ingrained in making visual art. It might be better to think of it as a kind of nonchalant adventure.

NW: Is there a tension between wanting to expose and conceal the raw material?
That is a very active part of my inner dialogue—trying to get a material to become what I want it to become. In our culture, you’re obliged to put things into categories—we have certain taxonomies, or name conventions. In my work, I’m trying to relate to the category while simultaneously disrupting it. For instance, in FLAW, I soaked large panels of plywood and then bent and shaped them. But they were still plywood—I didn’t change the aspect of them being a manufactured wood product; I transformed them in different ways.

The first time we did it, I was ecstatic to see the torqued shapes. It’s not a new aesthetic, but the process—going back to my impatience—is fairly rapid. I can do it in my studio and quickly see what’s possible. The immediacy of the work gives the sense that it’s tentative, and it makes things appear as if they were going to fall apart. But if you look at them closely, they’re bolted down and tended to.

Coil & Stack, 1969. Oil, metallic paint, and pencil on canvas, 18.75 x 13.25 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

NW: The connectivity of objects is also critical to how you work.
The joinery is important to me because it’s incredibly informative about how you relate to space, size, and shape. And that’s part of the taxonomy. I’m interested in the connectivity of how things are wound or tied, or how we connect with bolts and screws. They’re like notations. I’m intrigued by how you go about piercing something and finding other methods of connecting things to make a construct.

I’ve always been interested in shapes and the desire to thrust things against each other that have logical relationships. As humans, we have smooth exteriors, but inside we’re a jumbled mess of tissue and shapes and forms and vessels and stringy things. As far as shape is concerned, I think it’s simply a matter of taking things apart to understand that the exterior surface, or the way something looks, does not necessarily reveal how it is formed. This interior-exterior relationship is not illogical. It might be that I’m seeking a way to integrate things that are unexpectedly related.

NW: That goes back to the idea of penetrating the surface and revealing the murkiness underneath.
In a lot of work, I find that the imperfections reflect who we are as Homo sapiens. To insist on an enclosure that has no purpose other than to enclose, to wrap the bundle—those actions speak to how we think, how we are handed, how we work. I’m compulsive about the sequencing of the screws and the joinery; the positioning is extremely intentional. I love the mechanistic aspect of the visual presence. And with a site-specific installation, the dynamics of the viewer’s presence, as well as the architecture, affect the work and the relationships within the space. It is temporary, which is the way we are as human beings—we are not planted.