Joanne Ungar on beauty and pain

Featured Artist

Joanne Ungar is a singular talent. Her work is a luminous masterclass in the manipulation of color and wax. A gifted encaustic artist with a scientific approach to her art practice, she speaks directly through her chosen medium to address questions of beauty and pain. We spoke about living in analog and digital worlds, women’s beauty, and finding your own art world.

MICHELE JASLOW: Let’s talk about women’s place in beauty and art. In your work, you incorporate Botox packaging. Is Botox a connection between beauty and art?

JOANNE UNGAR: When I first started working with Botox boxes, it wasn’t coming from the “beauty” angle; it was coming from the “pain” angle because Botox is also used to treat migraines. They inject it into your head, and for some people, it actually cures migraines. Go figure. At that time, I was working on a series that I called the Pain Relief Series, and all the boxes that I used were from what I loosely determined to be pain relief products.

That is where the Botox came in. At the same time, prior to the Pain Relief Series, the beginning of all this work started with boxes from what I call the “beauty industry.” My part-time day job is tangentially in the beauty industry: I am a digital retoucher of faces, hair, cosmetics, and packaging for commercials and sometimes movies. I don’t feel good about this work that I do, culturally and ethically. For me, it’s fun work, and I’m really good at it, and it’s what allows me to keep my art practice funded. But in my studio, I wanted to subvert it, turn it on its head, and do my own kind of pushback. I don’t pretend to be an effective social activist with it. I just wanted to work with the concept of packaging and the way advertising agencies package women and package what they consider to be the feminine look and, getting back to Botox and surgical enhancements, the way women are socially encouraged to homogenize themselves.

This homogenization of women freaks me out. I find it remarkable that, on the one hand, our society is trying to embrace diversity on many levels, while on the other hand, people are using filters and fillers in order to all achieve the same look!

This homogenization of women freaks me out.

I don’t judge women who opt to surgically enhance their look because, as an older woman, I get it. But overall, it is a cultural situation that I find problematic.

Working with the packaging was initially a double entendre. As in, what exactly gets packaged? Who gets represented by the advertising agency? And, you know, the whole idea of fitting in and what/who fits into the package and what society thinks is acceptable.

A colorful rectangular pieces of art

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MICHELE: Are your color choices ever affected by this idea of packaging color choices?

JOANNE: My color choices are completely intuitive. A lot of it is technical for me. Working with encaustic is tricky. It’s molten when I’m working with it, and when it’s molten, you can’t accurately see what color it is. I’ll know I have a blue or green, and hopefully, I’ve paid attention to the details of the colors that I’m mixing, but it’s not possible to be very sure of exactly how it will cure.

To me, that’s enormously exciting as an artist. To not know exactly what the end result will be. I know some artists are all about control, but I’m not. The lack of control keeps me engaged. I’m always trying to make a perfect piece, and of course I can never make a perfect piece and installation.

The lack of control keeps me engaged.

MICHELE: So how do you know when you are done if it’s never perfect?

JOANNE: A lot of these pieces I make over and over and over. I make a piece, and I hang it on the wall. Sometimes, it’s up there for a year or two, and then I decide it’s not good enough. And I take it down, I melt it down, and I rework it. There’s a piece in the other room that I’ve just made for the third time, and I think it’s not done, but I’m not sure yet. I’ll probably rework it, ruin it, melt it down again, and try again. That’s just my process.

A group of boxes with different colored objects

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Sometimes when I try to improve a piece I ruin it. It happens. To answer your question, what usually happens is that with time, after it’s been on the wall for a while, like for weeks or months, it becomes clear to me whether or not it’s finished.

Before I started this series working with boxes, I was using cosmetics and their packaging, and I made these little assemblages, kind of like tiny Cornell boxes with mascara and eye shadow. Sometimes, I incorporated some of the dead waterbugs that littered that studio.

At the time, I didn’t think that it was good enough work to expand upon. Plus, it was tiny because cosmetics are tiny. But I did show my favorite one in a little feminist group show here in NYC. In that one, I used a pack of eye shadows with four different shades with a plastic flip-up top, and a brush on the side. I took out the little dishes of eye shadow and replaced them with four different grades of sandpaper, ranging from smooth to gritty. I loved it, and all it implied!

A shelf with different colors of paint

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MICHELE: Do you think that is good for you specifically and artists in general to let go of old work?

JOANNE: I don’t. I would love to still have those old cosmetics pieces because I think they were a progenitor for the following body of work. I would like to be able to show them when people ask me how and why I work with cosmetics boxes
MICHELE: Because your work is in part about marketing, how do you take what you’ve learned and apply it to marketing your own work?

JOANNE: I don’t have a lot to say about this. I am not a wise marketer – it’s something I really struggle with, and I’m endlessly grateful to the Front Room Gallery for doing as much marketing for me as they do! During my first solo show in Brooklyn in 2003, before I was affiliated with the Front Room Gallery, I had a visit from a successful video artist I knew. She was endlessly frustrated with me due to my lack of worldly communication skills and promotional skills. But she came to see my show and she told me two things that have really stuck with me. The first thing that she imparted was that it doesn’t matter how good your work is. A lot of people make good work, and it’s not really relevant in terms of getting seen and selling and growing in the market. In other words, you have to do more than just make good work! The other thing she told me, and this was just at the beginning of the internet, was that there are a lot of art worlds now. She said it used to be that there was just one art world. It was the world of Artforum and blue-chip galleries. But now, there are many, many art worlds, and you need to find your own art world. Unspoken was that you need to become engaged with this chosen art world, participate in its dialog, and contribute to its vibrancy.

You need to find your own art world.

And I think that speaks to what you were saying before: that you just need a good Instagram account, and it’s a matter of finding your art world. Personally, I like the gallery and the art world I’m in. But I completely agree that my way is not the only way to be an artist.

MICHELE: Let’s talk about validation.

JOANNE: I have a part-time day job as a video artist in the TV/film world. I’d rather not have to have a day job, obviously, but I do mostly enjoy this one. One reason I find it gratifying is that somebody will say “good job” or “nicely done” at the end of a job or a task, which is very validating! When you are alone in your studio, you never hear that. You don’t get any feedback at all. When you’re an artist working in your studio, you’re working in a vacuum, which is upside down, but validation is not on the menu. These days, I have collectors who collect my work, and that has its extremely validating. And I believe in that validation – I know they are buying my work because it speaks to them, and that is priceless to me. I need that validation as an artist.

MICHELE: In social media, the currency is attention. So, when we’re talking about collectors and validation, there could be a connection to attention, and what kind of attention we get may validate or not validate.

JOANNE: I have a lot of issues with social media, but I do participate. Overall, phone and computer screens, in general, are not a good presentation platform for my work. When you see my work online or on your phone, it looks very graphic and flat. And, of course, the colors are never accurate. At best, it looks like a pretty, graphic image. When you view my work that way, you’re seeing the tip of the iceberg, and it’s nowhere close to a full experience of the work. Plus, there is no obvious directive to pursue it further. I do my best to use social media to promote my shows and my studio practice. But I don’t think anyone has ever decided to buy an Ungar from seeing it online. Purchases happen when they see the work IRL. If Instagram is going to be the platform for viewing my work, maybe I should just make my work in Photoshop. I have the skill set to do it.

MICHELE: Why don’t you? Here, you are someone who has the advanced skillset to do it but chooses not to.

JOANNE: It’s important for me to physically do the work. I love making physical three-dimensional art! I may be contradicting myself when I say this, but I would still be making this work if no one was buying it. I’m not a businessperson selling a product!

Photo and video documentation by Daniel Paterna.

You can view an interview with Joanne Unger here:

Joanne Ungar will show her new work in a Solo Show Opening October 21st at Front Room Gallery 205 Warren Street, Hudson, NY

This article is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Radar Curatorial. It was originally published on Radar Curatorial in October 2023.

About the artist: Joanne Ungar is originally from Minneapolis. After several years of liberal arts studies at Oberlin College in Ohio, she moved to New York City, where she earned a BFA from the School of Visual Arts, focusing on collage. She began employing waxes as her main collage agent after exploring and working with shellac, resins, and acrylic mediums. Since the mid-1990s, waxes and encaustic have been her main medium. Her wax “recipe” is a work-in-progress: she is often tinkering with it to get the desired lucidity and luminosity for whatever she happens to be burying or revealing in her layers of wax. Joanne was awarded a NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship in 2017. She is represented by the Front Room Gallery in New York City. She lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with her husband and their 2 cats and maintains her long-time art studio in Bushwick.

About the writer:
Michele Jaslow is an independent art curator based in Brooklyn, New York. Current projects include SPRING/BREAK, Governors Island at Swale House, and a digital art project set in Loire Valley, France. Michele has worked with a wide variety of institutions, galleries, and museums, including the Exploratorium Museum, MIT Media Lab, The Paley Center for Media, BRIC Arts Media, Cranbrook Museum, Waterfront Museum, Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn Arts Council, The Brooklyn Public Library, Open Source Gallery, Spaceworks, Photoville and the American Society of Media Photographers. She was Gallery Director at Brooklyn Artists Gym, a pioneering arts organization she helped found and operate located in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn. Michele recently completed the Appraisers Association of America’s Comprehensive Art Appraisal Studies Program and is USPAP compliant. Michele is a native New Yorker living a mile and a half from the hospital she was born in.