In the Gallery with Claire Joyce and Bhavna MehtaOctober 12, 2018
CLAIRE JOYCE AND BHAVNA MEHTA are an unlikely pairing on the surface—the stark simplicity of Mehta’s black, feather- light words stands in terrific opposition to Joyce’s dizzyingly-complete, sparklingly- fantastical representations of her reality. But right below the surface, the two are on the very same page in terms of one critical thing: they are both telling stories about pressure, and how it impacts people— women in particular.
Joyce depicts the unreasonable, conflicting and overwhelming set of requirements involved in being an “acceptable” woman, mother, and artist and Mehta expresses the pure weight of responsibility entwined in the ties that immigrants have to their homes and families, while they also navigate what their new environments demand of them.
These are both tales, not of the kind of oppression that we usually think of when women’s oppression comes to mind, such as lack of independence within traditional family structures, lack of control over one’s fertility or inequity in the workplace, for example. They are tales of micro-oppressions that shape one’s identity—by their force or via one’s resistance to them—more along the lines of how corsets once shaped women’s bodies.
Each finds a path to freedom through their devotion to a down-to-earth, everyday medium, using materials that could have been weapons wielded against their full self- realization to tell new stories that “flip the script.”
The paper of the letter that seemed like a weight when Mehta first received it, ends up providing pure lift to her work—an ascent that continues in her current work-in- progress as an artist in residence at Women’s Studio Workshop (WSW). At WSW she brings her two mediums, paper and thread, together in a completely unique way that allows her to tell stories about her experiences that she has not yet been able to tell.
For Joyce, the most little-girl princess medium of them all, glitter, has done what it’s best at: integrated itself into every crack of irrational, convoluted logic behind the messages women get from the world around them, and bringing those into the light so that they glint like the bent bars of a gilded, empty cage.
CONSIDERING THE ALTERNATIVE: GLITTERWORKS AND DRAWINGS
After you get past the bling of it all, one of the first things you notice about Claire Joyce’s glitter paintings is how much compositional division there is. Joyce is there—sometimes once, sometimes many times, and sometimes in pieces—but so are her fantasies, her family, a whole collection of commercial and domestic items. The wider world is there too, including more abstract things, like patterns.
The inclusion of so many facets of her personal experience—ranging from her car keys, to her city’s skyline, to textures that have caught her eye—is tightly in line with the medium through which she has chosen to express herself. Glitter doesn’t lie flat on the page, or sit still in the light, any more than Joyce’s identity can be pigeonholed into one category: mother, wife, artist, wine- savorer, feminist, social critic.
Joyce admits to choosing glitter as a medium “sort of to be obnoxious.” It was an act of resistance to the male-dominated, art- snobbish environment she found herself in when she went to graduate school to get her MFA in painting in 2003. She would show them by giving the art-historical canon an Elvis-on-velvet treatment. But then the capacity of the material, once she really had her hands in it for a substantial amount of time—its subtlety and her recognition of its ability to create photorealistic imagery— made the idea seem actually a reasonable one.
And then the laboriousness of the process (each of her glitter paintings takes hundreds of hours to produce) required her to take the choice extremely seriously, and to trust that this medium, which almost everyone has used at some point or another, could be used for a different final effect. That it could push people to think critically about who and what subject matter can or should be depicted with the kind of investment in detail and nuance as the class of paintings considered ‘masterworks.’
In contrast to her glitter paintings, Joyce’s drawings are both more subdued and more surreal. Though both are autobiographical, the juxtaposition of images in the paintings feels associative, but also very deliberate. Even clever sometimes. In the drawings, everything seems more subconscious and internal—lines are followed to reveal shapes, fears, and facial expressions that read as private. The viewer becomes a voyeur in a way that the glittered works keep at bay with dazzle, even when their focus and framing is similar.
Across both bodies of work are themes of stress, anxiety, overwhelmedness—again not typical subjects of art. Or craft for that matter. And that—beyond just the pure vision and fineness of these pieces—is perhaps the most important part of what Joyce is doing here.
Joyce claims space for, and at the same time declares the importance of, personal, day- to-day life experience. She makes a very strong case for the value of the creating- materials that live in that space as their best, most organic storytellers. The end result is intriguing and inspiring—a reminder that an artist can make imagery about anything they want to, using any tools that work well.
MY FATHER’S LETTER
Bhavna Mehta’s work is typically filled with color—bright, intricately wrought patterns in thread or paper spreading out in space or across cloth, drawing viewers into sense-worlds that feel magical and festive, even when the content of the work is political or challenging.
The magic, besides the pure energy of the color that she uses in most of her paper-based, sculptural works, is in her ability to turn flat pieces of paper into living vines and three- dimensional bodies. Mehta’s training as an engineer, which she received before she felt called to be a full time artist, is gently evident in all of her well thought out constructions.
My Father’s Letter (2018) is a different kind of work for Mehta. Perhaps it marks the beginning of a turn towards more personal subject matter, but it’s also her most explicitly narrative piece. The story of the letter is that her father wrote it to her many years ago, and then she rediscovered it later in life. She was so moved by things that she could read into the letter as a mature adult that she wasn’t able to focus on or absorb easily as when she was younger, that she felt compelled to find a way to work with this piece of paper in a different way than she had ever worked with paper before.
This time, Mehta’s project is four dimensional: the letter has been converted into sculpture—with all of the lyricism and granular attention to detail typical of her work, and shadow is a strong a player as it is with her other 3D pieces, but the emotive power of color has been set aside in favor of the emotive power of language. The text’s meaning, combined with the subtleties of each word’s shape, are creating something that is more than elegant sculpture, and also more than poetry on a page.
The shadow between the pin-mounted text and the wall, and the impact of this tenderly reproduced handwriting becomes a space for audience identification, personal reflection, and feelings. Emotion is the fourth dimension here.
Technically, though Mehta has carefully traced and reproduced her father’s handwriting, including his errors as well as the words he left in place, the piece is not about Mehta or her father. It’s about a set of very common immigrant experiences around parental hopes for a next generation, social mobility, and loss of history and tradition. It’s about new worlds and old worlds, and about love—about recognition on both sides of an immigration experience that moving elsewhere means letting one’s path be shaped by different, unfamiliar influences. The shadows here are the distance between Mehta’s world and her father’s world, and between the time when she first got the letter and now. They are also all of the sacrifice and hope that made the possibility of Mehta’s work now.
My Father’s Letter becomes an invitation for others to talk about their experiences around the expectations that other people have or have had for them—expectations that are like shadows in our own lives, allowing Mehta’s story to extends beyond her personal experience into yours.
CLAIRE JOYCE is a multidisciplinary artist currently working in Syracuse, NY. She tackles different materials for different projects and enjoys the challenge of exploring media in new ways. She wrote online columns for both ReadyMade Magazine, and CRAFT, ran for co- president of the United States as half of the Domesticratic ticket, created puppets and costumes for performances, and worked extensively with glitter. Claire has participated in residencies in the United States, China, and Belgium and her work has been shown both nationally and internationally. She has a BFA in printmaking from the Kansas City Art Institute and an MFA in painting from the University of Georgia.
BHAVNA MEHTA has exhibited widely in San Diego and Southern California. She is the recipient of the Artists Activating Communities grant from the California Arts Council (2017) and the Creative Catalyst grant from The San Diego Foundation (2015). She has won multiple awards in juried shows and she was one of the San Diego Art Prize emerging artist winners. She collaborates with artists making public art, using paper as a design medium. Mehta teaches paper cutting and sculpture at UCSD Extension, Penland School of Craft, San Diego Book Arts, and in varied avenues around San Diego County