Over the past 16 years, Joan Thorne has spent part of every summer painting in Jaracaboa, a small mountain village in the Dominican Republic. “Mango trees grew everywhere, but they never seemed to produce any mangos,” recalls Thorne, who has been an adjunct professor in BMCC’s Music and Art Department for 18 years.
“After 10 years, I asked my friends about it. They said the conditions had to be perfect for the fruit to bloom—perfect temperatures, the perfect amount of rain and sunlight. They said, ‘We will definitely have mangos—we just don’t know when.’”
When Thorne returned the following summer, “there were mangos wherever you looked—falling from the trees, all over the ground,” she says. “People couldn’t pick them fast enough.” But what struck most was the beautiful orange color of the fruit.
Painting mangoes—without realizing it
From November 25 through December 19, the Sideshow Gallery in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood presented a solo exhibition of new work by Thorne, including her dazzling 66-by-56-inch painting, Mangos. She painted it in her New York Studio, inspired by what she’d seen in Jaracaboa—not that she was conscious of it at the time.
“I titled this painting after I made it,” she says. “I never have a subject or title in mind when I paint—I just paint. Images appear in my mind, but I’ve never set out to paint a particular thing. It’s only after I finish that I realize what the painting is about. When I saw this one, I thought ‘mango’.”
Thorne says she is drawn back to Jaracaboa each summer by its transcendently beautiful light. “The light is so brilliant, when you open a tube of cadmium orange, it’s like seeing it for the first time,” she says. Her quest for the light, which has taken her all over the world, puts her in good company.
“Many of the greatest painters—Gauguin, Monet, Matisse among others—continually went in search of foreign places to follow the light,” she says. In an essay that appears in her Sideshow catalogue [link “catalogue” to www.joanthorne.com], art critic Robert Morgan describes Thorne as “traveling in search of light.”
Even so, Morgan writes, “It is not the light of the American Luminists in the 19th century. Nor is it the light of the American frontier. It [comes] from…more out of the way sources, from other lands and other places.”
Thorne, he notes, “travels regularly to the Caribbean, Brazil, Turkey, and recently to India where she discovers sites in which the presence (or absence) of light has affected the history of the regions and altered the appearance of ancient Hindu monuments and Jain temples carved in granite, and where the shapes of light seem to cut through nature, revealing obtuse angles and curvaceous tendrils, lingering in the twilight of dawn and dusk.”
Thorne’s paintings are also imbued with a sense of transience and mutability, as reflected in a quote from the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, which she chose to introduce her catalogue: “I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple; garlands from window to window; golden chains from star to star, and I dance.”
“For me, Rimbaud has always been very much a poet of the moment,” she says. “He expresses the temporary and the fleeting—and the idea that everything is transient. That’s really what my paintings are about. Everything is shifting, and life from one moment to the next is never what we expected.”
It’s a concept that westerners may find difficult to accept, she says: “We want to latch on to the permanent—which, perhaps, accounts for the materialism in our society. We want to keep our objects, in order to feel comfortable and protected. But to me, there is no permanence. That’s why I paint these paintings.”
By her own account, Thorne is a “colorist.” “I actually can’t paint without color in my mind,” she says. “It’s the foremost element in my work.” At the same time, she also sees herself as a maker of revolutionary art: “When I paint, my intention is to create a space that no one has ever seen before. My work derives from my own personal mythology, and the abstract images I invent come from various sources in my life—my travels, my dreams and even my childhood experiences.”
Four decades of painting
Thorne’s Sideshow exhibition comprised a body of work “that has been coming into being over the past four decades,” she says. “It reflected the research that I have done in terms of color and in terms of creating space and time.”
The show also conveyed her commitment to creating paintings that she feels stand on their own individually. “I don’t believe in bodies of work per se,” she says. “I want each painting to be a work in itself.”
Over the course of her career, Thorne has garnered numerous awards and honors. In 1972, Thorne’s work was included in the Whitney Museum’s last Annual Exhibition and the following year, she was given a rare solo show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In 1979, she was included in Barbara Rose’s seminal exhibition, “American Painting: The Eighties,” at NYU’s Grey Gallery.
Thorne’s work has since been included in two Whitney Museum Biennial Exhibitions and several shows throughout the Caribbean. In 1987 the American Academy awarded Thorne the Prix de Rome in Visual Arts.
Notwithstanding the striking originality of her work, Thorne places herself in “a long, amazing and beautiful continuum” of artists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and Joan Mitchell: “While my work is my own invention, we don’t hatch out of thin air—we are always influenced by the artists who came before us.” Or by forces that are more difficult to articulate, she adds.
“Whenever someone asks me to explain where I get my ideas, I recall Bob Dylan’s reply when he was asked the same question,” she says. “He said, ‘It’s like the ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means. The ghost picked me to write the song’.”