45 Years of Narrative



Forests engulf 78 percent of Vermont’s landmass, or 4.46 million acres. This glut of earth is almost entirely run by private landowners, who possess 80 percent of the state’s forestry. Joan Lovell owns 15 of these acres, and soon she will live full-time in her off-the-grid cabin in the Green Mountain National Forest. The nearby town numbers 50 or so inhabitants, all of them “ten miles from the closest latte,” says Lovell.

She’s no stranger to these verdant peaks. A self-portrait offers a northern twist on Southern Gothic as the artist visualizes the frozen night she spent trapped in four feet of snow, wondering if she would be found dead or alive. In her painted retelling of this incident, Lovell’s look of peaceful nonchalance seems to mull over fates more gruesome than becoming a popsicle.

Given these annihilating and unkind winters, Vermont is primo real estate for tax evaders, the terminally asocial, and other assorted folk who feel the need to cleave themselves clean from civilization. Lovell is not one of these separatists, though the genesis of her artwork is often hermetic. “[I’ve been] operating in my own nest,” she says. Her oeuvre pursues a correspondingly individualist ethos: an amusing reexamination of social norms and an exuberant embrace of foibles, quirks, humor and inquisitiveness, things sometimes discouraged in the perfectionist aspirations of our culture at large. Personal narrative (part real, part imagined) is Lovell’s true medium and an ideal vehicle for these motifs.

Her subject matter has ebbed and shifted, but her stainless technique has remained. Her youthful images were impelled by curiosity, tempered by comedy: a bartender backdropped by models copied from a catalogue, two men awkwardly kissing, a hazy and peopled urban sidewalk, or a man dressed in a meat suit. Her autobiographical period, continuing from 2004 through the present, is more inward, sometimes emancipatory. Lovell says these pieces concern “critical junctures in the development of awareness: first remembered experiences of guilt, horror, amazement, love.” Unifying all these works is a knack for gestural emotion. The aforementioned bartender’s boyish face is glossed with all the apathy one might expect of a low-wage lad required to wear a fishnet tee at work. (Or maybe it’s his poker face: a nip slip has got to be good for tips, right?)

Even the most lascivious thing here is emotive. In Calendar Boys of ’84, a dozen dudes stand ready to be ogled. Their offerings are varyingly confident, flamboyant, surprised. The props (still a staple of present-day boudoir photography) are patently ridiculous, though no more so than, say, the continued existence of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue. Meanwhile there is something queerly liberating in this display of absurd nudity. Despite cultural efforts to repair women’s notions of body image, there remains a ubiquitous and oft unexamined valorization of the male body. Lovell’s calendar boys can be admired for their unsparingly funny riff on the male physique. Look upon December’s playboy, ye mighty, and despair. Or maybe not: sexy Santa brims with a sense of body positivity that even the fiercest haters could not quell.

Might we still feel slight embarrassment for these boys or any Lovell’s figures? Enticement? (Mr. February: text me?) Maybe empathy, or a sigh and an “I’ve been there.” Perhaps even total bewilderment, as in David Thinks About Stephanie. I wonder what Stephanie is thinking as she steadies the wooden cutout of David’s head and shoulders, herself a seeming figment of David’s thoughts. Is it consternation or concentration on her face?

Lovell’s knack for illustrating imperfection put her at odds with the demands of commercial illustration. With monetary motivations, she says, “The work started to suffer.” An editor once told Lovell, “You need to make the girls prettier.” Obviously the bonehead didn’t get it: Lovell’s figures click with psychic realties more important than the market’s need for flawlessness. Besides, look at Lovell’s ingenue dancing next to her TV. She’s earnestly cute, with an understated sex appeal that never careens into objectification. What we instead derive from her image is a twist of rhythm, the moment the beat introduces itself to the nerves. This thoughtful sensuousness joins Lovell to the lineage of Frida Kahlo and Dorothea Tanning, a heritage rooted in the fantastic as much as it is the introspective. Painting allows a retreat into phantasy, which Lovell construes as having “psychological benefits,” a boost in mental well-being or a calmative effect. The tale is told not only for an audience, but the teller, too.

Lovell’s process welcomes meditation. Some people listen to music when they paint. Lovell listens to movies. Dialogue and drama gift gab to the brush. Speaking of gab, one of Lovell’s formative gaffes comes from third grade, when she was mistakenly placed in a speech class. At the end of each school year, the speech students performed a pantomime. Lovell was tasked with introducing the play. On opening night, she sauntered toward the “dark blue velvet, asbestos-lined curtains,” only to faint from nervousness. An audience of 300 students shrilled into salvos of laughter.

In her paintings, Lovell rectifies this earlier attempt at the pantomime. Yes, the accompanying stories are superbly funny, but to focus purely on the attendant text is to ignore Lovell’s talent for visualizing narrative. When painting, Lovell asks herself what the person is feeling, thinking. Her figures respond. To borrow a phrase from novelist Jeannette Winterson, stories become “written on the body,” and reach their greatest potency in vivo.

The forest, like the body, is too deep to ever fully know, so it trembles with an alluringly vague sense of narrative which the brain might flesh out in image, word or contemplation. I adopt Lovell’s fierce curiosity when I think of what she’ll excavate from those dark Vermont woods, spaces so open they might lead anywhere.


- Alexander CastroOctober 2016

The above essay accompanied Joan Lovell's retrospective exhibit, 45 Years of Housework Successfully Avoided, recently on display at Van Vessem Gallery.