Through a Different Lens/Film Work by Joanna Margaret Paul

Stills from various film works, Joanna Margaret Paul

They just start coming, images, one after the other, a film, with an inner rhythm.

A napkin on a washing line, blowing in the wind. Then two napkins. Then napkins on a line seen diagonally, then glanced from the house, always the wind, a couple of (dark) pauses then a pan, napkins floating in the wind, again the napkins on a line, and on. This simple description belies the wonder of the film. As often with works that are composed, edited in the camera; it has the specificity of recording the moment of creation as it was for the artist.

There is a play in Napkins (1975) between the window frames, architecture, and the white squares of washing. The movement of the washing on the line in the wind contrasts with movement of the rooted bushes and trees. Later, outside the time of the film, will come the gathering and tidying away, ready for use, and the cycle will continue. We do not see this, but it is in the image. The firm window frames and architecture, the soft squares of the cloth. A film pared down, that resonates. A washing line like this will be seen, as a part of family life, in Aberhart’s House (1976). The play between the edge of the film frame and the image in Napkins, likewise with the shipping containers in Port Chalmers Cycle (1972).

With works edited in camera, there is what film maker Helga Fanderl calls ‘capturing’. She writes, ‘In a way my films recreate the moments I have experienced and lived through. To film in a certain situation, in a certain place, in a certain time-space does not mean to simply collect material but to react immediately, ‘capturing’ what challenges and touches me and to transform it into film while there is an interchange between us.’ Helga, as Joanna did, works with 8mm film (film on 3 min reels), with no sound, a focus on the visual. Often Helga responds to movement in the picture frame. For Joanna Margaret Paul it is the image, square on, which seems the starting point; within the chosen place she wants to look at, ‘stalking images’, a phrase which she shares with film maker and poet Margaret Tait who spoke of ‘stalking the image’.

Things laid out to be seen, to be displayed, square on. There is a feeling of how places and objects can become a portrait of a place, a person, as seen in Joanna’s drawing Self Portrait/Still Life from 1999, picking up a dialogue with Frances Hodgkins painting Self-Portrait: Still Life (1935) in Auckland City Art Gallery, just as other work of Hodgkins; like her Wings Over Water (1930) in the Tate London echoes the interest in interior and exterior around a window with objects displayed before it, also with that square on look. At the same time in Joanna’s film work there is an interest in what could be described as a poetic of the urban and the manufactured. Something she shares with artist Prunella Clough and again Margaret Tait. The sharp distinction between images, sometimes filmed almost immediately after the other, sometimes with a longer wait, or at a tangent, is explored in film maker Luke Fowler’s series of two frame works in Two-Frame Films 2006-2012. In Thorndon in 1975 Joanna films herself reflected in a window, just as Margaret Tait incorporates herself reflected in a mirror in Tailpiece (while uniquely individual artists and of different generations, at opposite points of the globe, Tait and Paul were at this point almost working at the same time with the years 1975 and 1976 being Paul’s most productive time in terms of films completed and it being one of the periods of completion for Tait with Place of Work and Tailpiece completed in 1976). Like Tait, Paul explores the local and the films are often a record of family, friends, community, personally important landscapes, as well as works in themselves. Images often on the cusp of abstraction flow with those more closely figurative. There is also a collecting of images, like references for future thoughts, future work.

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Joanna Margaret Paul, Thorndon (1975)

Napkins and Port Chalmers Cycle both go through a kind of introduction, an interlude, then a conclusion or return to the introduction, but with the experience now passed to the viewer. Echoing the description of Napkins earlier, Port Chalmers Cycle also starts in the domestic environment of houses and gardens, but then descends into the town. Where Napkins has a pan, Port Chalmers Cycle has a dolly shot on a pavement along a slight bend.

Motifs return in her films or what she has filmed. They become motifs through accumulation. A way that is perhaps both a becoming familiar with, getting ones bearings, and just being. Resultant works a kind of gift to others for whom these are also local. But then for others it will be that her images captured through her intuition, her filming, will have a meaning they recognise.

Windows, views over roofs, coast, farmland, industrial areas. Sarah Treadwell writes for Joanna “ ‘waste’ space offered positive qualities to a city driven by commercial imperatives.’ And then there are the diagonal lines, of trees, fences, posts, washing lines, rusting and bending metal, concrete, which seem to mark but also break or give a focus. Perhaps giving a shift within the film of the kind she talked of moving between different media. As with the ‘sequences’ of Barry’s Bay 2 (1975) and Body/House (1975).

In her drawings of people, often in just a few dark lines on white paper she captures how a neck runs onto a shoulder into an arm; the outline of a torso. They feel like, and probably were, done in a short time. Things captured and explored. Lines that create the bodies forming them in the whiteness of the paper. Almost abstract. So very felt in Body/House which brings together these two named elements one after the other.

‘When my work is all laid out together the jigsaw puzzle of my life will show itself, I think…It’s oblique, but it’s all there’ Jill Trevelyan quotes. Joanna wrote poems and painted and drew, as well as making her films, probably more so. The dialogue between these medium and disciplines, she saw as positive ones; ‘constantly changing ones lens’ was important.

Sometimes Joanna’s camera seems to ‘flow’ over a place or within a time and her thoughts, at others to echo, or line up, mirroring or just looking, others picking out patterns in places. Sometimes the place seems to set the images, timing and movements and with others this seems to come from within, intuition. ‘All my films poems paintings play more or less between inner and outer events’ she wrote. She writes of Bresson ‘who integrates narrative and visual poetry’. The framing in the films of Bresson is particularly specific, formal, pared down. Geoff Andrew writing of Bresson, which could apply to Joanna, ‘..the camera avoids pictorial beauty to create an abstract timeless world….while the narrative is deprived of climaxes…’. Task (1982) seems like a sequence from a Bresson film, particularly in the first framing used. A number of her films end with a Fin, an acknowledgment of art house cinema perhaps. In her in camera editing, its intuitive montage, and inner rhythm there is perhaps acknowledgment of Eisenstein who she also references.

Mel Gooding writes, ‘It may be that in certain respects it seems quite unlike any other images you have seen, by Prunella Clough or anyone else, but that it is nevertheless in some definable way quite like some thing or other that you have seen.’ As with Clough’s paintings, it seems with Joanna’s films that there are moments when you feel I have seen this or experienced this, and then it moves on and they are hers. But afterwards, you do see things with an experience, that includes hers. We have all seen washing on a line in the wind and been a little mesmerised by it and the patterns it makes, Joanna made Napkins. We have all looked at a derelict building, at a friend lying in the sun, Joanna made Body/House. We have all visited friends, Joanna made Aberhart’s House. We have all explored a local neighbourhood, Joanna made Port Chalmers Cycle and Thorndon. The time Joanna had for her art was what she had after looking after the children, running a household. Moments grabbed for poetry, drawing and painting, films. So everything that got done was important. Time was precious. Her drawings seem like photographic negative images for her films. The spaces of the white paper, with the moments of drawing, picking things out. While the films have their saturated filmic quality and flashes and shafts of light, and colour. Perhaps also working with film helped her focus on her poems and paintings and drawings, not having the white ground of the drawings, the films often have a dark of interior shadows, garden shadows, though which light comes in through windows, or in which light highlights specific patterns or objects.

‘All my films poems paintings play more or less between inner and outer events. (Port Chalmers on the one hand, to Napkins -) The attempt to work in several fields invokes criticism un-spoken and spoken. One may dissipate energy. But by constantly changing one’s lens, one sharpens awareness of the given medium; medium becomes subject ’ she writes for the Cantrills. It is as if film making, painting and drawing, writing poetry all are lens based, about looking.

By its very nature, film was unseen, only realised, when projected. This has changed since the arrival of digital technology, as the moving image is everywhere, and many people in the ‘rich world’ have devices on which moving images can be accessed instantly, constantly, and repeatedly. So our relationship with film, the moving image, has changed and is changing; is more various. In the 1970s when the films were made, to see the films would have meant setting up a projector, putting up a screen or projecting on a wall, waiting for night or putting up a blackout. Often a communal experience, with friends, fellow artists, who can be both of course. And the projectors enveloping mechanical whirring, different, from the silence of the digital now (as I have experienced those of her films I have seen so far, likewise drawings only in reproduction). For Joanna, there would have been the delay in seeing material filmed as it went off to the lab, and returned as a film print, ready to be projected, and seen, realised.

They just start coming, images, one after the other, a film, with an inner rhythm.

- Peter Todd

Peter Todd is a film-maker, artist, writer and curator based in London. See his page on LUX here. Details of the touring programme of Joanna Paul's work curated by Peter Todd (including details for hire) can be found here.

Acknowledgements
Thanks in particular to Joanna’s daughter Magdalena Harris, and to her sister Jane Paul. Also Sarah Christian, Benjamin Cook, Hester Paul, Celia Thompson, Mark Williams.

Reading and references
Andrew, Geoff. The Film Handbook. Longman. London. 1989.
Barton, Christina, and Lawler-Dormer, Deborah. Alter/image: Feminism and representation in New Zealand art 1973-1993. City Gallery, Wellington and Auckland City Art Gallery. 1993.
Buchanan, Ian, Dunn, Michael, Eastmond, Elizabeth, Frances Hodgkins Paintings and Drawings. Thames and Hudson Limited. London. 1995.
Evans, Marian (Marian J.), Lonie, Bridie, Lloyd, Tilly. A Women’s picture book: 25 women artists of Aoteraroa New Zealand. Compiled, edited and with afterwords by Marian Evans, Bridie Lonie, Tilly Lloyd – a Women’s Gallery/Spiral Group. GP Books. Wellington. c.1998.
Evans, Myfanwy, Frances Hodgkins. Penguin Books. London. 1948.
Gooding, Mel, Prunella Clough: The Poetry of Painting in Prunella Clough 50 Years of Making Art. Annely Juda Fine Art. London. 2009.
Helga Fanderl quoted in an interview with Antonie Bergmeier. FRAGIL[E]. Book and DVD. Lowave. 2006.  
Fowler, Luke. Two-Frame Films 2006-2012. MACK. London. 2014.
Paul, Joanna Margaret. Joanna Paul: Shibusha. Cantrills Filmnotes. Nos 47-48, August 1985.
Paul, Joanna Margaret, Like Love Poems: Selected Poems. Edited by Bernadette Hall. Victoria University Press. Wellington. 2006.
Todd, Peter, Cook, Benjamin, Subjects and Sequences: a Margaret Tait reader. LUX. London. 2004.
Trevelyan, Jill, Treadwell, Sarah. Joanna Margaret Paul: Drawing. Auckland University Press and Mahara Gallery. Auckland. 2006.
Tufnell, Ben, Prunella Clough. Tate Publishing. London. 2007.