An Opportunity to Explore
Catalogue essay for exhibition of paintings by Joe Concra Marist College Art Gallery, New York, 2001
There is an other-worldliness to the paintings of Joe Concra - not exactly tangible but none-the-less manifest in his enigmatic earthbound vistas. Sweeping open plains, mysterious valleys and desolate terra-firma provide the context for quietly dramatic scenes that seem to depict the emotional topography of a private world.
Although resolutely figurative, Concra's work exhibits the kind of poetic ambiguity that invites interpretation. A personal vocabulary of symbols - flags, telegraph poles, hot air ballons and most recently stricken ships, hint at a narrative the meaning of which a viewer can only presume to apprehend. These are works that return to haunt the imagination, their lack of dogma allowing a contemplative relationship between image and audience. Any attempt to ascribe meaning or metaphorical association however, is not only futile (and essentially false), but misses altogether the subtle, existential character of this work. A certain emotional resonance might evoke 'the romantic' but this aspect considered in isolation belies their strength: they are simultaneously dark and provocative in nature.
In many of Concra's works what appears initially to be a scene of calm serenity can, on reflection, be perceived as the aftermath of some troubling event, like action alluded to in cinematic thrillers, it is not the drama we see that carries the most impact but that which remains hidden from view, existing only by implication, that has the power to truly disturb. Physically, the larger of Concra's paintings often reflect the proportion and by inference the stature of the cinema screen, thereby increasing the sense of these images being isolated from a narrative sequence, reliant upon the imagination of the viewer to provide their wider story.
For the most part Concra paints in series, creating coherence through the use of signature objects and locations. Take for example the painting 'Away', I999, (left), part of a series employing the motif of a hot air balloon. In this work we see a familiar Concra landscape - a flat, open, barren looking environment - in it a pair of tall wooden poles lean precariously in opposing directions, their featureless presence broken only by the the small red flags that flutter half way down each. In their desolate surroundings these seem loaded with significance, did they once act as guide, warning or marker? But no further clues exist and ultimately they appear to serve no useful function. A line of small lights strung between the poles provides no obvious illumination, the very idea that they might seems a ridiculous one - their presence, like that of the small, rag-like flags, seems pointless. There is water, possibly a pool or a stream opening out into a river, it is not clear. The few plants that emerge at the waters edge bow, as if moved by the early stirrings of an incoming storm, an air of foreboding reinforced by brooding skies that roll in from the west . This nature looks vulnerable, doomed in the path of an oncoming deluge.
As we explore the image, looking for further clues to the scene, our attention falls upon two small pegs, driven close to the ground, remnants of rope attached to each. Was their charge cut free or wrenched by the forces of the storm? Rising above all this, almost out of view, a box-like form floats towards the edge of the canvas, it has no obvious distinguishing features and is only fully understood in the context of the other paintings in the series, as the basket of a hot air balloon.
So, we have looked and apprehended the actualities of the image, but 'looking' is not 'seeing' and when we engage with a work of art we set in motion complex, subtle cognitive processes the conclusions of which are as wide ranging and individual as those who are the audience. It is true to say that we get as much from a painting as we are prepared to bring to it and it is this level of scrutiny that rewards the viewer of these works the best. True, we are drawn into Concra's private world but it is not expressed in a way that excludes, rather it coerces - requiring us to give of our own memories, experiences and imaginings to complete the connection between viewer and painting.
Most recently Concra has used the form of a single large boat as menacing protagonist in a series of large scale works. These vessels are a long way from any playful or lighthearted depiction of a 'rich man's play thing', dark in mood, they appear immense and mysterious, immobilised as they are, in unknown waters.
In 'Tanker', (2001), the hulk of a large boat looms in the centre of the canvas, the red of it's prow reflected in still water below. What appears to be smoke surrounds a feeble looking cabin on deck - perhaps disaster has struck the crew or controls? Tilting at a pronounced angle, the vessel appears to have run aground.
As with other of Concra's works, it is hard not to be moved by these strange paintings, they exude sadness but also strength - we are challenged to examine our feelings towards them, not in pursuit of judgement but to establish a connection with them and It is this effort, this invitation, that makes them so rewarding.
At a time when logic weighs heavy on all areas of life and a counter-intuitive approach seems to dominate much of contemporary culture, it is dedicated painters such as Joe Cncra who bring us the much needed opportunity to explore our relationship to art and not simply receive it.
© Sophie Morrish, September, 2001 (Edited 2017)