To have a talent is not enough for you; one must also have your permission to have it, eh, my friends? -- F. Nietzsche, "Beyond Good and Evil"
Joanne Kent drags hard on her cigarette and stares at the painting on her studio wall. Her eyes are red-rimmed, tired.
The painting is a massive affair in heavy white monochrome, dominated by a rigid triangle and bisected by bold, tape-edged lines. The paint has been so heavily applied that the canvas sags under the weight of it. The surface of the painting has been distressed, scumbled and gouged -- in places scraped away to reveal almost watercolorlike underpainting.
The overall effect is like the ancient weathered wall of some Egyptian tomb. Or the cracking plaster wall on which it hangs. The painting broods -- it is about tragedy.
But Kent does not describe her paintings in terms of tragedy. She describes them in terms of mystical allusions, and gives them whimsical titles such as "Love and Stuff" and "Cephren" (the middle pyramid at Giza).
"I went to visit the pyramids in 1969," she says. "They influenced me more than anything. When I saw them, I felt that something had happened, but I didn't know what. Someday I'd like to go to Mexico and study the Mayan pyramids. I'm interested in the mysteries, the secrets. I use the pyramids a lot in my painting, because I can feel the energy coming down."
Kent, 43, meditates, dreams and paints. Her 11-year-old son is studying the violin. The two of them live in a studio apartment, in a dismal tenement on a rundown street in Adams-Morgan. It is not safe for Kent's son to ride a bicycle down this street -- even in the daytime.
Kent muses about visitors from outer space, mystic influences, supernatural visitation and ancient peoples. And painting. But there is something missing in her talk -- a sense of humor, even black humor.
"My paintings are about human vulnerability, and how this relates to everything." She indicates a photograph of Arlington Cemetery pinned to the wall. "I'm inspired by that," she says. "The beautiful, serene formality of that cemetery -- it's all so unreal."
Joanne Kent's paintings are powerful, and painterly. They demand attention. Stacked against the walls, almost entirely blocking the narrow corridor leading to the bedroom, they are almost overwhelming; depressing. But liberated from the ranks to hang solo, they become intriguing, enigmatic. It is their surfaces, more than anything else, that catch the eye. The sculptural effect is enhanced by subtle shading and coloring. Some are reminiscent of Jasper Johns' "Alphabet" series. This impression is reenforced by Kent's use of graphite pencil over the dried paint -- vigorous scrawls that could be cryptic writing.
"There is a lot of symbolism in the paintings ," she says. "The titles are very important to me. It's like the history, the evolution, the process. I never really get at the meaning of them. Most of what I put on the canvas gets destroyed in the process of painting -- only a fragment remains. I have to meditate on the titles. Usually they don't come until the very end. Then I get a word, maybe two words. Gradually I get the whole thing.
"I'm a very tactile painter. Painting is my real challenge. The whole physical involvement of making a painting is what it's all about. It's a highly physical activity. It's all a matter of surface -- so that it feels just right."
A native of Minnesota, Kent has been a resident of Washington since 1964. She has traveled widely, having worked her way across Europe and to India in the early '70s. She returned to the United States to earn her master of fine arts degree at the University of Minnesota in 1978, and moved back to Washington to work and paint. She supports herself and her son by taking part-time work in word processing and graphics.
But mostly she paints.
"And now I'm interested in incorporating computers into my work. There are so many possibilities with computers. I'm especially attracted to the color possibilities."
It is a curious comment coming from an artist whose paintings are dominated by gray, black and white. But in some of her more recent work a little color is beginning to come through. Perhaps it is time for the color -- like sunlight through a crack in a gray wall.
Joanne Kent's first one-person show opens tomorrow at the Anton Gallery on Capitol Hill.