Joan Banach
One Great Jones Gallery through May 3

by Dominique Nahas

In an artworld that pretends to celebrate individuation and diversity, but which in reality is deeply suspicious of artists who eschew the party-line and high- school politics that makes the art world so tediously infantile, Banach's work will be considered louche, if not eccentric. If that be so, long may eccentricity exist: long may it thrive because we need as much of it as we can get.

And Joan Banach gives it to us in lush and exciting ways. It's hard to relate precisely the mixed rush of emotions and thoughts you're likely to experience on looking at these mysterious oil paintings on wood. The fact that so many currents of associations are generated as the eye scans the veil-like surfaces of her iconographically rich works is a strong point in favor of making heady speed towards this gallery on tiny Great Jones Street, two blocks north of Bleecker Street, just off Broadway.

Be prepared to be in a state of optical exaltation at the Blakean intensity and opulent complexity of Banach's five large-scale, visionary paintings. Each plays with scale and space to suggest the unfolding of layers of hidden realities; each separate universe peeking in and out of their pictorial frame.

Banach's mind is a lively one; she uses ornamental devices, frames, cartouches, niches, floral embellishments, scale shifts within scale shifts, frames within frames. She does this to poke fun at systems suggesting traditional visual hierarchies, and creates strange spaces in doing so.

Banach's worlds are enfolded one within another to create parallel universes, in which scrims of memory seem to wash over other scrims, revealing other more distant realities (as in The Convent of L'adoration Perpetuelle, 1995). In this work there is a celebration of the transitory exemplified through the artist's stunning brush work of after-images laid over after-images. Her painterly control over suggested-form and evanescent space is made taut through Banach's control and use of visual elements traditionally used as presentation devices. Banach's enlarged or miniature ornamental motifs, along with her framing devices or cartouches of space, are further embellished with in-set little scenes or tiny still-life arrangements. These cartouches, niches of space, either hover in the picture field or is embedded in it. Larger areas around these niches are either rendered insignificant and pictorially weightless. Or else Banach will insert tiny living universes of landscapes or rolling hills which act as imagistic counterweights to the larger pictorial fields surrounding them.

A Visit to the Spiritualist, 1997, is a standout in this exhibition. Its decorative, framed, ornamental motifs of interlaced branches and rococo filigree at the top left and right hand corners of the work are painted to act as the bearers of the information transmitted in three pockets of space tiny cartouches within the dense foliage that contain within them exquisite miniature landscapes. In this case, Banach is interested in the metamorphosis of form as it mutates across the surface of the work and develops its own life force, and how it digresses from the expected symmetries of ornamentation. It's an extraordinary experience to allow the eye to travel through the maze of tree branches in this work as they disgorge their worlds within worlds to the viewer. This remarkable painting addresses many of the artist's stylistic, ideational, iconographic and intellectual concerns. Banach has a miniaturist's touch and the mind of a medievalist equipped with modern-day resources that when finding herself caught in the wrong century, she finds mystical revelations in particulars as well as from universals.

Banach's work is both off-beat and traditional, and painted with confident self-awareness. Her art, while referring to the mystical body and transcendence, is on the pulse of many contemporary concerns, primarily the fascination with imagery of circulation and recirculation of matter, and fluids, both inside and outside the body. In Penumbra, 1996, within an illusionistically painted frame, an engorged heart without its casing emerges from the top edge of the canvas, above the scene of an infinite ocean.

With her oblique reference to the Sacred Heart, Banach is doing something significant in these works: she's been able to produce strangely voluptuous, quirky, open ended images that are composed in such a way as to give the Jamesian term the Doors of Perception a new twist. Her paintings are explorations of the unconscious, the meandering imagination. They are hallucinatory, epiphanous celebrations of the liberated spirit and mind.

Banach's ladened symbolist images, where memories seemingly wash over one another as waves in an ocean would give way to new, freshly-formed ones, recollect psychic experiences. The ethereal character of Banach's worlds within worlds convey a sense of pantheistic continuity between evocative moments in time. This exhibition is a must see. Don't miss it.

Copyright ©1997 Dominique Nahas & REVIEW All Rights Reserved