January 14, 2021

Joan Nelson’s plexiglass paintings an electric switchboard to the divine

Joan Nelson's plexiglass paintings an electric switchboard to the divine


Benjamin Terrell
 |  For The Register-Guard

All eyes on Portland protests have turned the city into an art gallery of commentary, and if the blocks and blocks of boarded windows are her newest creation, the city is a particularly prolific artist.

The serene smolder of the imaginary landscapes of Joan Nelson, displayed last month at Portland gallery Adams and Ollman, has become the city’s sacred stained glass. Never has something so harmonious and holy begged to be plugged in like Nelson’s electric plexiglass paintings. Having previously painted on wood, it’s as if the artist shed surface for shimmer, perhaps next seen on foil as maps and manuscripts to faraway lands. Who among the locked-down and housebound hasn’t evolved into an escapist or a would-be sailor of anywhere but home?

Our current digital home life is a life without landscape and is therefore a life without a place for our authentic selves to roam. In traditional landscape painting, self (most always male) is often at center. Joan Nelson’s work is intriguing and opposite — she paints landscapes taking place before and after “us” and uses reverence to restore agency to her subjects. In doing so, the artist puts the “m” back into what IMAX reduced to “-other earth.” If her work is feminist, it is because she sets landscape free from ownership and paints past a masculine need to conquer. Picture Casper David Friedrich forgetting figure or cross, only to focus solely on the steam off a rock formation or how an unanticipated pink light from an unnamable source suspends the urge to capture in exchange for jaw-dropping awe.

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Sometimes a work by Nelson borrows directly from art history, including details from famous paintings excluded from their original context. The artist even reuses her own imagery. The mystery is how she sews important and incidental parts into a seamless whole so well, like a poem or an ode made from only one word.

In her work, volcanoes foam and glow, meteors swish and swoon, rainbows aren’t reluctant and pure awareness lights up the resplendent unknown. For her show, the plexiglass paintings are placed on ledges, and if you are lucky enough to get to see their opulent other side, then there are further codes to be cracked. Painted, scraped and drawn in with unusual materials like glitter, wax and sealant, expressive colors and shapes reveal a backside becoming a switchboard to the divine.

What I admire most about Nelson’s work is the same thing that I find intriguing about classical Indian satellite radio. Rapturous meditations intimately heard from afar remain nameless (by language barrier over the airwaves) and therefore, ask for all your attention, like a divine secret spoken only once. Also, like radio sounds from a distant continent, details and passages emerge like finding a feather but not the bird. What is known and not known is made more mysterious and resplendent by the detail. Both audio and the artist’s visual are symphonic palaces of the in-between. Both are the “thin places” of creativity, where the curtain that conceals us from everything eternal is at its most transparent. 

We are nostalgic for what cannot be named or can never be known, and for Nelson that quest is center stage. Her artistic visions are like biblical prequels or like discovering the planet’s Lonely Planet guide or, imagine if you can, a Jules Verne book as a koi pond. To reimagine a landscape without us is to look away from what we think is the real world. To make great art from that expression is to gaze higher, discard everything not needed in prayer, empty ourselves out and find patterns in our transformation. If we choose to look at the world through Nelson’s creative spiritual lens, past training and limitations, a coherent world is restored in which nature remains an ally and mystery is always greater than knowledge.

Benjamin Terrell is the owner of Epic Seconds at 11th Avenue and Willamette Street in Eugene with mixed media downstairs and local artist paintings and used records upstairs. Ben’s own paintings can be found on Instagram @moseswaits. Want more stories like this? Subscribe to get unlimited access and support local journalism.



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