The Residue of Interchange: An Interview with Painter Joan Curran

Philadelphia-based painter Joan Curran creates urban still lives inspired by the interaction between humans and nature–a constantly fluctuating relationship that reveals both beauty and excess.

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Alexandra Tursi: What are you currently working on?

Joan Curran: I am working on a large painting of an urban lot covered by a screen of chain-link fence. Woven through this fence is a dense tangle of vines, barbed wire and trapped detritus. I am also working on a series of drawings that contrast urban material with weeds and vegetation.

AT: What do you need in your studio before you set to work?

JC: I need some sense of clarity and order. This might start with cleaning and organizing the studio space. I sometimes feel like a dog circling around and around trying to create a feeling of comfort in order to begin. There is some anxiety and tension in thinking about content and how to best express this in an image. I also need the material that I will work from–objects, photographs, drawings and other images that connect to my ideas. A cup of coffee–or tea–and NPR help me get down to work.

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AT: What is the creative process like for you?

JC: The creative process varies but always includes certain elements–a strong connection to subject, a resonant interior content embodied in the visual attributes of form, and research that includes collecting the elements that I will work from; gathering objects, images, drawings and photographs, and an idea of what I want to say. The process of drawing and painting involves discovery, alteration and finding mediation between the exterior physical world and its ability to trigger an intangible response.

AT: Some label your work as urban still life. How do you think your work conforms to or challenges that label?

JC: I see my work as a kind of hybrid, part still life, part landscape or nature study ,and part portrait. Painting gives me a chance to distill what interests me in the world to an image meant for contemplation. I find the stillness of the language of painting to be a way to create a connection to a significant moment in our excessive world, a moment of contemplation amid chaos and cacophony. My work is about contradiction between cycles of decay, growth and regeneration, beauty and ugliness, strength and vulnerability.

I intend my work to speak to the boundary between the physical and the elusive, between the known and the unknowable. The representational content of my work makes it accessible to a general audience, and I hope this accessibility allows entrance to the work on another level. I want my work to seduce, yet to raise questions about the nuances of physical appearance and how objects and situations can be inflected with psychological implication. Like portraits, I want my images to be “read” and discovered, to be personal, intimate and enigmatic.

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AT: What about the human relationship with nature intrigues you?

JC: I am interested in human intervention in our environment. This includes issues of control, nurture, longing and desire. Human interaction with the environment leaves a residue of that interchange. I am attracted to what exists on the periphery of our daily lives and is often overlooked.

AT: Why choose the title "CoExistence" for your latest series?

JC: ‘CoExistence’ refers to the evidence of human activity in the urban environment. Inherent in this is the existence of contradiction, strange or startling moments when human activity, the built environment and the natural world inhabit the same space.

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AT: What can you say about your work that might not be evident to the viewer?

JC: The subject of my work might not be the same as it appears at first glance.

AT: If you could have any piece of artwork in your personal collection, what would it be and why?

JC: Just one! I’m not sure if I can limit my desires! An Indian miniature, a late Goya, a Lucien Freud, a Paula Rego. These pieces all pay careful attention to the world and our place in it.

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AT: You have taught for nearly 30 years. What have you come away with from your interactions with students?

JC: My students force me to constantly rethink everything. They ask questions which keep me on my toes. That’s very important for an artist and for creative activity–you must always question everything. My students help keep me open and curious. The studio is solitary; the classroom studio is an intellectual and social antidote to what can be a solitary and hermetic existence. The correct balance is difficult to achieve, but it’s invigorating.

AT: If you had the time, what else would you do?

JC: Garden, read more, travel, cook, prowl through junk shops, and constantly look at art.

Images copyright Joan Curran

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