Safety Curtain 2014/2015

Joan Jonas – Safety Curtain

The stage has occupied a central role in Joan Jonas’s work since the beginning of her career. Her performances, installations, videos and sculptural works are created using elements of the theatre - storytelling, drama, actors, props, costumes, masks, dance, painted backdrops, music, and an audience. In one group of works, titled ‘My New Theater’, long plywood boxes fan out to display portable miniature theaters, each complete with a tiny stage, props and a video projection of a narrative that unfolds like a self-contained magical world. Jonas’s works draw from ancient folk tales, Japanese Noh theater, Chinese opera, literature, Mexican and Celtic folklore, the snake dances of the American Hopi Indians, to create narratives that unfold within a broadly linear time frame, but not always within the conventions of theatrical display. Jonas’s works have been presented in lofts, galleries, a vacant wasteland in downtown New York, and on the beach, where the horizon stands in for the line at which the floor meets the backdrop.

For a work such as ‘Upside Down and Backwards’ (1979), in which two Brothers Grimm fairytales are merged into one, Jonas created a stage set with three different painted backdrops in combinations of primary colors, representing the prince, the boy, and a composite of the two characters. ‘Lines in the Sand’ (2002) adopts a similarly hybrid approach, fusing the space of an installation with that of a makeshift theater and combining two texts by the American poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle): ‘Helen in Egypt’ (1961) and ‘Writing on the Wall’ (1944), later published as ‘Tribute to Freud’, a memoir of H.D.’s psychoanalysis with Freud in Vienna in 1933. A single video projection serves as the backdrop that unites the two narratives. For ‘The Juniper Tree’, based on another Brothers Grimm fairy tale, red and white drawings painted on red and white silk created a composite backdrop against which the live action, including Jonas’s drawing on the silk in real time, took place.

In ‘Safety Curtain’, Jonas addresses the classic format of the proscenium arch on which most opera and theatre depend, treating it as a frame for an abstract drawing composition. The pattern on the safety curtain of the Vienna State Opera evolved out of her study of ancient Celtic rituals, and asserts the vertical plane of the safety curtain through an abstract form whose simplicity obscures the visual and narrative complexity behind it, like a mask. The symmetrical frontality of the safety curtain reinforces the proscenium arch as a framing device.

‘Safety Curtain’ returns Jonas to the roots of her earliest work in a dialogue between depth and distance within framed space, with the usual elements of live performative action displaced onto the performers of the opera, hidden behind the screen. As a result, the proscenium arch shifts from framing perspectival distance to holding the flat abstract form of the large drawing, evoking the sensation of pulling it towards the audience in extreme close-up. ‘Safety Curtain’ becomes a blank screen onto which the artist projects her response to the classical space of the Vienna State Opera. Joan Jonas brings all her theatrical experience to the opera house’s stage and distills it into a single abstract composition whose beauty and line remind us of the hybridity of her practice, in which drawing, performance and theatrical gesture are brought together as one single entity. 

Chrissie Iles
Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art