Cyclical Production: A Studio Visit with Joan Easton

by Mira Dayal

What comes first in a work of art– the idea or the physical object? What if the physical object is never produced, or if it is produced without a target idea? This question forms the basis of thought in much of intellectual property law, art historical analysis, and curatorial proposals. For artist Joan Easton, this apparent dichotomy is a productive root of practice.

What does Easton produce?
A. Photographs (of plant bulbs, which she has cleaned, trimmed, and in some cases manipulated after the plants–grown by the artist–have died) whose compositions were directed by Easton but captured by a fashion photographer in a three year process
B. Arrangements of candy wrappers, manufactured by the Werther’s candy company, separated and individually painted after the artist ate each candy over five years
C. Prints of digitally edited photographs (taken by the artist over two years) of trees (planted by anonymous workers, perhaps employees of a landscape company, who were likely contracted by the city government) on the edges of Central Park, a public space
D. Photographs isolating areas of the algae-like growths that have overtaken decaying stone surfaces on sculptures (of unknown people, by unknown sculptors) at the Arsenale in Venice, a site of international recognition for the Biennale.

In each case, there are independent life cycles of both the represented physical object (plant, candy, tree, or sculpture) and the production of the presented art piece. While not all of the series are sculptural, there is a clear sculptural analogy present: the work seems to emerge from some inarticulable idea and is developed, harnessed, and released through the physical process of discovery. There are indices of human presence, manipulation, and the work themselves are anthropomorphic.

Joan Easton, Arsenale series (Photo courtesy of the artist)

But before cleaning the bulbs of her homegrown plants, Easton admits she was not sure what she would find underneath. She was surprised to find that some were green, that there were similarities between bulbs of the same plant species, and above all that each bulb would be so kinetic. These discoveries led to a desire to photograph the bulbs, which led to a need to compose the bulbs into some sort of sensical yet abstracted arrangement. What emerged were “family portraits” of bulbs with individual characters. The bulb in this case is both the beginning and end of the plant’s life cycle; while the plant from which they were cut had died, the fact that some bulbs were green indicates there was potential for further life to emerge. Easton‘s photographs, in a way, give the bulbs yet another life, as an element of an ongoing art series.
Joan Easton's Narcissus bulbs (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Joan Easton’s Narcissus bulbs (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Easton‘s endless curiosity and engagement solidify the cyclical nature of her art practice. The terms of engagement here are infinite, and each project of hers continues to develop through conversations, reiterations, and recycling of the involved materials and subjects. When I asked her about her future plans, Easton eagerly explained how she hoped to create animations of the bulbs to enhance their kinetic features, or larger-than-life sculptures of the bulbs in a park installation. These ideas, too, continue to develop and inform new projects, so that the artist’s labor is not only one of physical objects but also of immaterial thought networks. Of course, Easton is not unique in this respect; many artists today might argue that they, too, are creating more than (or perhaps aren’t creating any) materials with their art.

This year, Easton is beginning a project with household items that she has used as items on a daily basis. Milk cartons are imbued with sculptural potential. There is an idea behind this but, as she says while trying to fold the cartons into each other, “I just experiment… what is the least amount of information I can give?”
The artist demonstrates how she folds and paints each Werther's candy wrapper for her Transformations series

The artist demonstrates how she folds and paints each individual Werther’s candy wrapper for her Transformations series

The relationship between origin and destination, idea and product, is thus confused, and could be more clearly articulated as an artificial imposition on an art practices. The studio, at least for Easton, is a place where idea and object can simmer, unfold, and synthesize. There is no single point of origin, and no single destination–and this is true both of the represented objects and of the art work. It is in this unknown middle ground that Easton finds inspiration: “Underground, covered, everything has more meaning to me.”

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