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ice as a drawing tool: on jaanika peerna’s cold love

In 1943 Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Jackson Pollock to paint a mural for the hallway of her Manhattan townhouse. Following the advice of Marcel Duchamp it was decided that the painting would be on canvas rather than directly on the wall, thus providing a more portable structure for the artwork. Having stretched the canvas in his studio Pollock proceeded to stare at it for weeks, playing chicken with the looming deadline for his first exhibition at Guggenheim’s gallery in which the artwork was to be featured. With time running out, Pollock overcame his indecision and completed the painting in a matter of days.

Mural measures 6’ 9” 1/4" x 19' 10". At the time it was the largest canvas painted by any member of the New York School. In order to address the surface on its own terms Pollock had to abandon an approach that concentrated the painterly gesture into actions by the wrist or even the entire arm. His whole body had to be invested in the act of painting. He bent at the waist, squatted down on his haunches and extended his reach to the top of the canvas. Following up on his experience with Mural he evolved the manner for which he is best known. With the canvas laid out on the floor he would walk around, step into and lean across the painting. The whole of Pollock’s body was participating in the act of creation.


The critic Harold Rosenberg described such a physical engagement with the act of painting as having produced “an arena in which to act.” This characterization of painting in terms conventionally reserved for masculine pursuits turned painting into a gladiatorial contest or at least a sporting event that served to marginalize those few women painters who were grappling with the same issues that engaged the male members of the New York School. Women artists were square pegs while the mission of art was a round hole. Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, was said to have struggled with a gestural language that was so completely embedded with notions of machismo that her involvement with it became an introspective investigation as to how her own body was inscribed as female.


In the late sixties the overwhelmingly masculine nature of the large-scale gesture was transformed by Lynda Benglis. Benglis’ latex works involved her pouring colored latex out onto the gallery floor. The formal conditions of the pours were based on the limitations of her own body, how far she could reach, how much she could lift, how high she could lift it and the degree to which she could control the act of pouring. In addition to the floor-bound pieces she produced a number of sculptural corner works from pigmented polyurethane foam. In these the sweep of the gesture was truncated, reduced to pouring the liquid foam into the corner of the room, but the resulting dimensions of the work were determined by her own height, once again calibrating the resulting form to her body. Benglis significance in the context of this discussion is that the productive gesture was still related directly to the body, but that body became individualized and not insurmountably gendered.


Pollock and Benglis worked primarily with abstract, formal concepts. In the Modernist spirit their artworks did not allude to ideas outside the works themselves. But in 1993 Janine Antoni employed this gestural tradition in such a way as to lend it an inescapably feminist aspect. In Loving Care, a performance that is simultaneously dead serious and satirical, Antoni would dip her long, dark hair into buckets of Loving Care hair dye, at which point she would sweep her hair across and around the gallery floor like the bristles of a brush. Antoni’s slender physique, clad in black leotards, resembled the long handle of a brush. She continued this action until she gradually chased the audience from the room. The grand gesture that had been initially understood as a masculine act had been bent to address the issues of gender equality.


The work of Jaanika Peerna inherits the multi-faceted heritage of the full body gesture, its formal, performative and polemical potential. Whereas her antecedents worked within the tradition of painting, either directly or obliquely, Peerna chooses to draw. Drawing is the most basic, elemental means through which to convey information visually. Anyone can draw, perhaps not well, but before the ubiquitous spread of cell phones anyone making a phone call was familiar with the time killing act of doodling during a conversation. All children draw, sometimes to the consternation of their parents, and adults commonly sketch out a few lines or squares to indicate the spatial relationships of things as commonplace as living room furniture or the relative positions of drivers involved in a fender bender. But Peerna’s drawing forsakes the tight constriction of hand-eye coordination. As the artist herself has noted, “…every line you see comes from the motion of my own body, drawn with pencil or pigment in strong movement, cut with a knife, moistened by a wet brush or a melting brick of ice.” In one performance drawing, Glacier Elegy, her gestures border on the violent when, standing beneath a long roll of mylar, her preferred drawing surface, she pokes and bashes the plastic roll with pencils and whatever else she grasps in her hands, threatening to violate the picture plane and generating a considerable amount of noise.


Born and raised in Estonia Peerna learned to ice skate and studied dance. The physical grace associated with these two expressive disciplines carries over into her drawing performances. Am Rand, performed in 2013-2014 when the artist spent a year living in Berlin, is a case in point. A series of plate-glass windows is covered with a powdery substance that is easily and completely removed when the artist pulls her hand or fingers across them. Dressed in her signature costume, black tights and a cylindrical hat pulled down to her ears, she fluidly moves from right to left and then back again, dragging the palm of her hand to produce wave-like lines from one side to the other. Shorter, more feathery lines are the result of her lighter, almost tickling attack with the fingers. All the while her body moves with the elegance and coordination associated with her youthful pursuits. The gestures combine visually to produce an elegant counterpoint of rhythms corresponding to her own refined dexterity.


The same finesse is evident in Peerna’s more intimate drawings as well. In some of these she incorporates the act of cutting or slicing, not only to break the surface of the drawing, but also to allow its extension into three-dimensional space. Attached to a wall or hung from above the sheets of mylar cascade out or drip down from the support resulting in rhythmic patterns extending into the viewer’s space. In that the mylar has been previously marked with linear arrangements arising from the artist’s having held bunches of pencils and pens in her two fists and dragging them across the plastic there is a confluence of two- and three-dimensional organizations, one of patterning devised by the artist and the other resulting from the introduction of natural forces, most notably gravity. Each time one of these pieces is hung in an exhibition space the outcome is different, thus introducing an element of performance into otherwise object oriented works.


It is the conflation of the natural and the hand-made that serves as whatever polemical foundation may be found in Peerna’s work. In an interview with IdeelArt she states that she is not an activist, but that her processes embody relationships with the natural world that may convey ideas concerning current issues to the viewer. Some of these ideas may contain hints of action and responsibility that are necessary on the part of the audience. This is most poignant in Peerna’s use of ice as a drawing tool. Having embellished a piece of mylar with drawn marks she will take anywhere from a snowball sized piece to a block of ice and introduce the two. The drawn marks dissolve, melt, or run across the drawing surface in response to the melting ice. The ice operates simultaneously as a positive drawing tool and as an act of erasure. The Nietzschean feat of creation and destruction contains a formal resonance with environmental degradation.


The performance Glacier Elegy makes the most explicit statement on this subject. The white, powdery coating on the panes of glass resembles the wintery morning frost that accumulates on windows. It is removed with a touch of the hand, just as easily as the frost, but without the dripping that comes from melting. It is Peerna’s human intervention that precipitates the disappearance of the icy surface, just as it is our human actions that cause the destruction of glaciers. Peerna becomes one with nature, its active agent, a representative on the scene. She has said, “While I can never compete with nature, there is much I can learn from the workings of it in order to embody its force, which ends up making my works through me.”


            —Gil Scullion, catalogue essay for exhibition at Real Art Ways, 2019

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