DSG Interviews: Joan Backes

Joan Backes (left) and Dedee Shattuck (right) with “Pink Neon House” at the Artist’s reception for “Joan Backes: Home”

Joan Backes: Home showcases Backes’ multiple artistic talents across different media. Backes has shown work and created permanent installations in many countries including Scotland, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Thailand, Canada, Argentina, and Chile. Her current exhibit at Dedee Shattuck Gallery has our visitors thinking and asking questions. We had some questions of our own, here is a selection from a recent conversation with Joan:

DSG: How do you connect the emphasis on trees and leaves in your body of work to the overarching concept of Home?

JB: I grew up in Wisconsin and there was through my parents a great emphasis on nature.  Every holiday, for example, was spent going to the North woods.  My work has always been related to the subject of nature.  Since 2000 I have painted the bark of trees.

Gray and Blue Gray Falling Leaves, Joan Backes, prismacolor on stonehenge paper

My paternal grandfather was an architect.  When I was in early grade school I remember my mother and grandfather sitting at the kitchen table planning the home that he was designing for us. I have been using the general house form for many years and it was later that I made the connection to that early memory.

With this question about home and where is home for all of us including all species I decided to make this exhibition, in part, considering the materials we use to build a home.  This includes the materials of the tree.  Leaves and paper are part of the tree.  Leaves have been a recurring theme in my work with the “Carpet of Leaves” as well as the “Falling Leaves” for many years.  I have exhibited both in Museums and Galleries in Finland, Bangkok, Istanbul, Iceland, Scotland and in the US.

DSG: The innermost column of the Bamboo House features images of endangered, threatened, and extinct animals from all 7 continents, what role do these images play in this piece?

JB: Upon the invitation to work in Bangkok, I began researching the materials that I wanted to use there.  I like to work with local materials when I arrive on site.  After doing this research I knew that I wanted to build a house of bamboo since it is a prevalent material in Thailand.  I also knew that I wanted to work with the concept of species in our environment. The animals are reproduced on recyled paper and backed with recycled cardboard.  I hand cut all of them here before departing for Bangkok, taking them with me. I labeled each on the back with its species name and continent/location. I knew that I wanted to build this house with a sense of removal from the center cages out.  Each roofline encloses a portion of this house with a new wall, suggesting human discomfort and removal from the subject. In my mind it fits the subject of the exhibition “home” with the question of where will home be for all species in the future.

DSG: Can you describe the process of creating the bark paintings, and of translating them into the grid piece?

TREE Wave Hill NY, Joan Backes, Acrylic on Panel

 JB: When I was a little girl all of the elm trees on my street were cut down because of Dutch elm disease.  Our street was a long one and these old elms formed a canopy for many blocks over the street.  When these trees came down the entire neighborhood looked cold and harsh. It was hard to negotiate this once familiar territory.  When I began the TREE paintings this memory was in the back of my mind.  I set the ‘problem’ for myself of making a painting that could read one way (abstractly) up close and another way (representing something) from a distance.  These paintings are made on panels that are archival using acrylic paint.  Acrylic paint is a kind of plastic.  I came to see how these paintings could outlast the species of trees that I was recording.

Grid, Joan Backes, Photographs

The Grid is made of photos that I took of many of my paintings.  Each is now in black and white and what was light in the painting is now dark in each photograph.  They are reversed.  Some people have said that these images look like NASA arial view photos and some have said that some of the photos look like ice.

DSG: In your extensive travels, which place has been most interesting to work and why?

JB: I have had a long relationship with several countries including fellowships to both Iceland and Scotland and my Fulbright Senior Scholar Award was to Chile.  It would be difficult to select a place because I have long and strong friendships with artists, writers, curators, and Museum and Biennial Directors in many places.  These friendships are very important to me. I have loved each location.  It has been a privilege to be invited to work in each location.  When one works in a place or country one is no longer a tourist.  Lasting friendships are formed.  For example: this week I received photos of my “Forest House” from a friend I met in Germany when I made that house for the International Biennial in 2010.  The last three years have taken to me Sweden, and to Germany, first in the Biennial and last year Berlin.  Each has come with funding and airfare, which makes it possible to do these large permanent installations.

DSG: Is the eventual deterioration of your sculptures and consequential impact on the environment a consideration for your permanent outdoor installations?

Berliner Hauser, Joan Backes, permanant installation

JB: I use local materials, most often materials directly from the site.  The plan is that they could decompose there just as if they would had they fallen in that location.  While working in Berlin I was told by foresters that the current theory is to leave the fallen materials on location.  So, working at that site one could see the branches and fallen trees left directly were they had fallen.  There is at least one image that captures this in my video in this exhibition, which shows “Berliner Häuser”, the three houses that I made last year in Berlin.



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