There is a unique moment happening at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard. Actually, there are many moments. There’s the moment when a snake defies gravity while feathers (belonging to its latest meal or maybe a lucky escapee?) fall through the air in “Silver Snake.” Then there’s the moment when glittery koi float in a sea of stars in “Ghost Fish.” Yet another is when a gloved hand eclipses the moon amidst a swirl of clouds in “Interference.” Defying Darkness: Selected Works by Joanne Julian features drawings that capture moments that challenge the viewer to contemplate opposites like light and dark, spontaneity and precision, fear and joy, youth and age — often in a single vision.
Every detail in Julian’s drawings is perfectly defined, from a thin strand of a feather to the scales on a snake. In many cases, the lifelike renderings are spliced with wild splashes of black or bold color. As Meher McArthur writes in the exhibit catalog, these bold brushstrokes were often “created in a single breath,” while the intricate drawings most certainly required a patient and deliberate hand. Creating an intoxicating mix of freedom and restraint, Julian’s drawings are dreamlike. Some might seem more like nightmares than dreams, like “Raven for PN” or “The Confrontation,” in which inky black birds eye the viewer, gape-mouthed and menacing, or appear slashed with ink. Not one, however, is gloomy. McArthur explains, “[Julian’s] work is balanced by a powerful source of light that illuminates the whole composition and lifts it out of gloom.”
“I don’t see myself as dark at all,” Julian has said, “but I think objects are intensified when they emerge with light from a dark atmosphere. I just happen to like black. I prefer the depth of a dark tone rather than the flatness of a white surface.” Julian’s subjects are anything but flat, and they are indeed intense. “Storm Dream,” for instance, features richly colored, amazingly intricate feathers being tossed in a storm. The image is cut off by a wash of white that only intensifies the blackness of the sky and the luminescent color of the feathers.
Working mostly in graphite, Prismacolor and ink, Julian’s work is greatly influenced by Japanese print designers such as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, as well as Japanese Zen brush painting and calligraphy. This is evidenced in the harmony she creates between black and white, and the balance she strikes between negative and positive space. As McArthur points out, the work reflects her attitude toward life, which she has “consistently faced with a bold, positive spirit.” The daughter of Armenian parents, Julian was raised with a keen awareness of the suffering endured by her ancestors. Her own life has been touched by incredible hardships. She survived cancer as well as being run over by a car, after which she had to undergo intense physical rehabilitation. Through it all, however, she found joy and purpose. She traveled, developed her artistic talent, raised a daughter and pursued a successful career. In addition to being an artist, Julian became an art professor, then department chair, dean and gallery director at College of the Canyons in Valencia.
The same passion, determination and optimism that have fortified her in life are on full display in her bold, beautiful drawings. Defying Darkness delves into a darkness not to be feared, reminding us that there is beauty, even comfort, in darkness — whether it’s a coal-black sky, a flurry of crows or a shriveled leaf. In “Clear Night,” a frayed bird-of-paradise frond stands bright against a night sky. In “Three Leaves and Comet Seeds,” curled leaves show signs of decay while celestial “seeds” promise new life. This celebration of the inherent beauty of imperfection and impermanence, best described as the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, runs through Julian’s work. It reminds us that in every moment there is darkness and light, and that we should embrace them both. Fearlessly.
Defying Darkness will be on display through May 21 at the Carnegie Art Museum, 424 S. C St., Oxnard. For more information, call 385-8158 or visit www.carnegieam.org.