In recent years Joanne Ungar has transformed found boxes into translucent paintings by embedding them in layers of wax. The forms are abstracted, but the narrative is evident. These beautiful objects carry the burden of their histories – boxes of pain killers, packages of cosmetics, or chocolate wraps. While their vibrant pigments may encapsulate broken dreams and their origin most likely resonates waste, their sheer alchemy uplifts. Joanne Ungar talks with Art Spiel about “Pain Relief,” her current solo show at Front Room Gallery, which just opened in March 1st, 2019. She also elaborates on her process and some of her forming experiences as an artist.
AS: Tell me about the new body of work for your show at the Front Room Gallery, “Pain Relief.”
Joanne Ungar: Every piece in this show is inspired by a pain-relief product. I have been embedding objects in wax for many years, specifically painted cardboard boxes for the past 5 years. The focus on pain relief here is a recognition of the desperation I feel regarding the unbearable political climate and impending ethical decline we’re suffering through. The pieces in this show are meant to be reflective of the pain relief methods we all (okay, maybe it’s just me) use to numb ourselves and alter our reality: booze, OTC medications, Rx medications, cosmetics, digital distractions, cookies, and chocolates.
AS: You have created a unique process of your own. What can you share about it?
Joanne Ungar: I use process as a path to access creativity. Much like doing scales on the piano, I find that for me, repetition leads to ease in method and an ability to banish my prodigious inner critic. While my work is predominantly process-driven, I am deeply involved in both thought and emotion as I work, balancing controlled planning with accidental surprises. I put a lot of effort into knowing what I’m doing while leaving room for randomness.
There is a well defined set of rules that guide this work: the dimensions of the piece are dictated by the dimensions of the opened flattened box within and the title of the piece is taken from what is printed on the box. In addition, each of the smaller pieces is made with three interacting systems in mind: the natural creases and cuts of the manufactured box, my graduated painting, and the top layers of more translucent waxes. Finally, the large pieces include a fourth system, that of an irregular, somewhat imperfect grid.
One difference between the small and large pieces is that in the smaller pieces, as I’ve been doing for many years, I embedded painted cardboard boxes underneath layers of wax; while in the larger scale pieces, to give a fresh viewpoint, I embedded super-large reproductions of painted cardboard boxes underneath the layers of wax in order to capture the visual qualities of the manufactured box at a larger-than-life size.
AS: It seems like this body of work is much more saturated. What is your take on that?
Joanne Ungar: This current body of work incorporates more pigment than I have used in prior works. In addition to the resulting highly saturated colors, you will also see some pigment artifacts—swirls and particulates that are random gifts from the gods of chemistry and physics. Often (but not always) these are created by starting with a base layer of pure beeswax saturated with opaque pigments. As subsequent layers of more translucent pigmented waxes are applied on top with heat, the bottom-most layer melts and the pigments flow upward, mixing with the more translucent top layers. A breeze, a heat gun, or sometimes an unknown random interaction, can cause the organic patterns and pigment mixtures that result.
AS: What role does wax play in your process?
Joanne Ungar: In the 20-plus years I’ve been working with wax, it has often hit me that I am playing at being a faux scientist. I dislike following the accepted rules of art-making, so I make up my own rules, as if it’s a child’s game. “ Alchemy” (with its fantastical implication) feels more descriptive of the way I make art than “chemistry,” although I have consulted with chemists about the chemistry of waxes, along with their possibilities and limitations. I often set up “experiments” with variables and a control group in order to solve a problem of opacity or pigmentation, for example.
I also like to push my materials beyond my understanding of them: seeing what happens when they melt; seeing what will stick to what and for how long; what happens to them at stupidly high temperatures; how much layering can I do and still maintain some translucency; how do different pigments react at different temperatures. I am ridiculously organized and methodical. In addition to cataloging each piece, I sometimes catalog it through its various versions/changes.
Plus, to answer your question more directly, molten wax is mesmerizing—I am endlessly fascinated with it, even after all these years.
AS: I keep hearing “method“ “categorization“ and “science.“
Joanne Ungar: My dad was a scientist. His avocation was painting when he was younger and photography as he got older. He liked to talk about how art and science were really one and the same thing: a methodical exploration of ideas crossed with joyous creativity and some random surprises. My parents expected me to study sciences and become either a scientist or a doctor. And it looked as if I was going to have the aptitude for it — I was a good student and a dutiful one. But once I got to college it became clear that I wasn’t interested. I really wasn’t interested — to the extent that I left the pre-med-heavy college (Oberlin) they sent me to, and moved to New York City to become an artist, eventually getting a BFA in fine arts from SVA 5 years later.
When I was little, I liked to draw faux-science experiments. I liked to draw beakers and smoking bubbling-over test-tubes and dungeons, all with (what I imagined) was a meandering Rube Goldbergian sensibility. I can only guess that this was my fantastical twisted expression of our family outings to Dad’s biochemistry laboratory at the Univeristy of Minnesota.
I have always loved “making things”—it was my favorite game when I was a kid, and it’s still my favorite thing to do. I can understand and accept my artistic proclivities/activities much better if I view myself as “making things” rather than through the more intimidating lens of “being an artist.”
AS: Let’s take a few examples from your recent work in the show. For example, “Botox“ – how did it start?
Joanne Ungar: I was trying to flush out the range of boxes I could use to drive home the Pain Relief idea. My sister suffers from terrible chronic migraines and as last resort she turned to Botox injections as a pain-relief method. Apparently it’s very effective for some migraine sufferers. Sadly, it didn’t work for her, but I did get her to ask her doctor to save those boxes for me. And so my sister gave me 10 Botox boxes.
AS: And how does “10xBotox“ differ?
Joanne Ungar: These are the 10 actual boxes! The bright colors and playfulness are intentionally antithetical to the actual experience of a migraine (I have first-hand experience with this), while the primitive pattern and figuration they evoke speaks to the age-old intractability and mystery of an actual migraine (or series of migraines). A photograph of one of these 10 painted boxes became the source image for the larger “Botox” piece.
AS: It seems like you shifted to much larger scale in these works. How does the scale inform your approach?
Joanne Ungar: The scale is new. I have made large-ish works in the past, but it turns out my particular process is not truly scalable, and I’ve been frustrated with the results I got in the past when trying to make the final object match my vision. I’ve been struggling with finding a solution for going BIG for nearly 5 years.
I don’t move terribly fast in the studio, and after wading through some big fears, I finally had an “aha” moment. The 3 very large pieces in the current show are a representation of that epiphany. The planning, construction and implementation of proven and not-yet-proven methods of how to create larger work ultimately tickled me in a very special way. Everything started to make sense. It was huge. It’s been an amazing ride.
In answer to your question about how the scale actually informs my approach, I’ll let you know when I figure it out. It’s still a living exploration for me, and I don’t totally understand it yet.
AS: Color is evidently central in your work. What is your approach to color?
Joanne Ungar: I’m sure you hear this a lot, but my use of color is mostly intuitive. I use R&F encaustic pigments in the wax layers, and they are delicious. I really enjoy figuring out how to mix, use, and misuse different pigments. In the past few years I’ve been exploring a lot of dense dark colors, so I had to choose carefully for this show: I have so many dark things in my studio and I didn’t want the show to be dark overall. In general I struggle with prettiness – I love color and making pretty things, and I seem to do it fairly naturally; yet I never want my work to feel trite or just pretty.
AS: Where do you see your work going?
Joanne Ungar: I am thrilled to tell you that I don’t know. It’s an exciting time for me in my studio, and I honestly don’t know what’s coming next. As I mentioned before, change (for me in the studio) is slow. I know I will keep plowing ahead in both a small format and a large format. I’ll let you know when the next “thing” arrives!