Harper’s is pleased to announce Intericonicity, Joani Tremblay’s second solo exhibition with the gallery. Tremblay presents twelve oil paintings made since April 2022 that largely depict the landscape of rural Pennsylvania. In contrast to the chromatic levity of recent work portraying citrus fruits or the American southwest, here Tremblay hews to a darker palette of rich greens and blues inspired by farmland valleys just thawing at the start of spring. This is what she saw driving from New York City through the Laurel Highlands to reach Fallingwater, the iconic house that Frank Lloyd Wright designed as a nature retreat for a wealthy retail magnate. The exhibition opens on Thursday, January 26, 6–8pm, with a reception attended by the artist.
How we use the land lies at the heart of Tremblay’s work. A road’s placement, a water reclamation initiative, or the machinations of land ownership matter for Tremblay not so much for their factual circumstance as for the power relations that structure them. Behind the myths of the untouched landscape or nature as a fierce inevitable conqueror over human ambition lies a question about our standpoint when we approach a particular vista. Will we simply look? Take a photograph, or retrieve a rock to carry with? Commission a plan to shape the earth this way or that? Wright erected Fallingwater over a waterfall so that it literally straddles but symbolically surmounts the tributary’s onrush. Even its windows are unframed, the better to create an illusion of coextension with the same nature it tames. Built from 1935–39, at the height of the great economic depression, Wright used nearby laborers, supporting the local economy to forge an elaborate private gem amid the picturesque.
In this vein, contradictory impulses about our treatment of the land fuel Tremblay’s paintings, which are, for the most part, each made of three constituent components painted in the following order: sky, ground, and internal frame that focuses our vision like an aperture on the landscape beyond. In Untitled (rain), ice blue shards interpose themselves between roiling clouds anchored by the slender arcs of an emerald frame, while a flaming sky tops amethyst buttes seen through the undulating rays of a cobalt-green opening in Untitled (violet mountains). Tremblay works in oil, building up the texture of certain parts of her internal borders through varying degrees of thickness applied with a loaded sponge, in contrast to the smooth finish of those borders’ flat gradients and the medium texture of her landscape’s painted fields. But as her framing devices and the near-realism of her depictions of earth suggest, the discourse of photography undergirds her work conceptually.
In the nineteenth century, government-funded photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan spread westward, scrutinizing the earth. One of his images records a measuring stick alongside a text left on Inscription Rock by a Spanish invader, literalizing the human desire to regulate nature. Though Tremblay’s landscapes at first seem to aspire to such precision, she deploys lossy processes in the studio that encourage a departure from the indexical, supposedly truthful exactitude of landscape photography. Tremblay projects a digitally-mocked-up composition onto her canvas, but by using a poor-quality projector, she ensures that the image is too grainy to copy fastidiously at close range. And although she initially sourced one of her favorite skies—visible here in Untitled (rain)—from John Constable, she has painted it so many times that it has become her own via the minute changes materialized through repetition. She looks to her own work, not Constable’s, when she paints this sky anew. Thus, Tremblay charts a middle path between photography’s documentary dream and landscape painting’s glorification of subjective experiences in nature, drawing on these themes to surface accrued ideologies latent in the very notion of the landscape view.
Although Tremblay’s vistas arise from her personal travel, they seem uncannily familiar because they draw from a cultural imaginary rather than from specific locales. To wit, Tremblay conducts research on Instagram, where curated landscapes are already shot through with aesthetic codes long established by artists from Ansel Adams to Lawren Harris and Arthur Dove. Photography’s indexical referentiality is at a remove twice over in Tremblay’s work, first through the interpretive act of painting by hand, and second by encoding within it a whole set of images and conventions for their appearance that encircle us in the digital realm.
Unlike a palimpsest, in which a first layer of representation is covered over by a second, Tremblay’s work operates through intericonicity, a term derived from semiotics. Intericonicity offers a way to understand a relation of copresence between two or more images which may appear eidetically or actually as one image within another. This realm of infinite reproduction and false memory offsets a more straightforward mood each painting’s chromatic scheme seems to deliver. The smooth, inky valleys of Untitled (sunset and trees) might suggest placidity, for instance, the sheer height of Untitled (Laurel Highlands) soaring power. But because each work signals allusions to so many art historical or geographic references alongside their ideological effects, that mood resists resolution. Said differently, these are not easy paintings to decode. Their sharpness of focus functions on multiple strata at once.
Written by Elizabeth Buhe
Joani Tremblay (b. 1984, Montreal, Canada) received an MFA from Concordia University in 2017 and is currently based in Montreal. Tremblay’s work has been exhibited at venues across North America and internationally including Harper’s, New York, East Hampton, and Los Angeles (2022, 2021, and 2020); The Pit, Glendale, CA (2022 and 2021); Marie-Laure Fleisch Gallery, Brussels (2020); Interstate, Brooklyn (2019); Zalucky Contemporary, Toronto (2019 and 2018); Pony Sugar, Stockholm (2017); and 3331 Arts Chiyoda, Tokyo (2014). Her work has been acquired by numerous institutions including The Mint Museum, Charlotte; Montreal Municipal Art Collection, Montreal; and RBC Corporate Collection, Toronto.