Joyce Brienza's "Floating Points" exhibit explores dichotomous realities


Joyce Brienza's Hands painting

Joyce Brienza's Madonna painting

Joyce Brienza's Hands (top) and Madonna.

Detroit-based artist and University of Michigan lecturer Joyce Brienza received her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from Wayne State University and earned an MFA at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. She has exhibited her paintings nationally and internationally, and her work addresses often-dichotomous themes, exploring her interest in “places between.”

I talked to Brienza about her Floating Points exhibit in the Rotunda Gallery at U-M's North Campus Research Complex, which engages with themes of the unconscious/conscious, male/female, and high/low art. 

Q: In your work you "investigate dimensional incongruencies," speaking to the Buddhist belief that the universe can be thought of as a hologram of sorts. Has this theme been a consistent interest for you in your artwork?
A: Yes, it has. The interest began in my early 20s when I developed an interest in dreams and the unconscious as a way to access buried feelings. I learned that the world of dreams contained an aspect of my authentic self that had gone into hiding as a defense against childhood trauma. I discovered Carl Jung, James Hillman, Carlos Casteneda and his studies of Mexican-Indian shamanism. At that time I also experienced a serious illness and was seeking to understand the interconnectedness of the body-mind paradigm. All of this led me to an understanding of the coexistence of inner and outer realities -- metaphysical realities.

Q: In your artist statement, you say you're "interested in the literary theory of 'unsubjected writing' and how it might apply to visual art." This strikes me somewhat as a surrealist approach; do you consider any early art movements a source of inspiration?
A: The surrealists were certainly interested in the same things and I was, and am, very affected by their work. I use many of the “games” or techniques they advocated, all of which stress free association and chance. Most obviously I use the notion of juxtaposition of two more-or-less distant realities. My work differs from traditional surrealism in that they were intent upon accessing “pure psychic automatism” with the emphasis on PURE. I am not a purist in any sense of the word -- I am interested in mixing as many things together as possible so that automatism is only a part of my process. “Unsubjected writing” has at its core the absence of a supervising ego, which fits into both the surrealist and the Buddhist way of understanding the world. My purpose for bypassing the ego is to get to something like a higher power or God. Essentially, I see “unsubjected writing” as a post-modern way of describing poetry -- nonlinear, nonnarrative, illogical, sensual.

Joyce Brienza's Family painting

Joyce Brienza's Family.

Q: You often work with images that consist of "layered and juxtaposed elements." How do you start on a project? Does it start with a specific idea and then evolve from there, or is the process more serendipitous?
A: Everything has to start somewhere, and for me it’s best when it starts with a strong feeling or attraction to an image -- an attraction I don’t understand and I don’t try to. I just follow it. This is most always a figurative image, be it human or still life. I first lay down some kind of groundwork or grid-like pattern and overlay the figurative elements onto it. As I do so, they begin to interact with each other in unexpected ways. The objects get woven into the pattern that acts like a warp in tapestry. The grid functions like a roadblock that can be negotiated in any number of unexpected ways thereby facilitating my intuitive process. So to answer your question, I really like to start with a feeling or sense rather than an idea. The ideas come along as the work develops. The artwork becomes a kind of “call and response” where it tells me what it wants to be -- hence the “unsupervised ego.” So definitely -- it’s serendipitous.

Q: Is there a specific medium you prefer working in, or do you have a variety of media that you enjoy working with? Do certain pieces demand different materials, and how do those choices play into your process?
A: Most of the works shown here are dry medium -- a whole host of different kinds. Graphite, colored pencil, pastel, charcoal, etc., and similar to the mixed subject matter and styles, there is a mix of many media. Again that mix just adds to roadblocks and juxtapositions. When the chalk of pastel comes up against the wax of colored pencil there is a resistance that causes an effect that cannot be controlled. In some cases, there is acrylic medium or paint, which acts similarly to the wax of the pencils. I love oil paint but have taken to using primarily dry medium for the last few years due to the time constraints of full-time teaching and art making. Drawing is a much more expedient medium for me. The piece demands different mediums at different times the same way that it needs a certain shape object or color, but the need for a specific medium for me does not come from the work.

Q: In your current exhibit on North Campus, you combine three or four separate works, "floating" on top of one another. The images are related but form separate pieces. Have you worked in this fashion before, creating multiple panels and combining them?
A: I refer to the separate pieces of one artwork as modular units and see them like furniture that can be arranged and rearranged however one likes. In one way they are like a “series” in which the individual pieces are similar but different except that a series is usually larger. Frankly, it would bore me to death to make a large series. These are small series of three or four. Unlike a series, I work them as a unit arranging them in different formations to take advantage of various juxtapositions and spillover from piece to piece. In part, I separate them to create breathing space amid the cacophony of images. The separation is also a literal fragmentation echoing the fragmentation of the subject matter. Largely, the works speak about the fragmented or broken self and the effort to reconstruct, repair, and beautify that self.

Q: The University of Michigan Stamps website suggests that in your Floating Points pieces are inspired by "the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the very imperfectly hand-drawn patterns and constructions of roughly glued scraps of paper shows the beauty that comes with wear and obvious repair." Have you worked with this aesthetic in previous works, or is this part of a larger series? 
A: My previous answer partially addresses the notion of the beauty of the used and broken object that is at the heart of the wabi-sabi philosophy. I have always been interested in leaving evidence of process or “pentimente” (reworking). I like work that isn’t over finished or refined. Part of what I love about drawing is that much of the time it’s so transparent. What’s more transparent and naked than white paper -- you can see the dirt, the fingerprints, the smudges that cannot be erased try as you might. That transparency translates for me into intimacy -- the artist opening up -- laying it all on the table. It all feeds back into the notion of accepting and loving things that might be seen as negatives.

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.

Joyce Brienza's "Floating Points" is on display at North Campus Research Complex, Rotunda Gallery, 2800 Plymouth Rd., Building 18, Ann Arbor, through April 16. The exhibition is free and the gallery is open 9 am to 5:30 pm, Monday thru Friday.