Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.
A mixed media work on paper depicting a jet-black raven emerging from a bold black splash of ink poetically and powerfully exemplifies the work of local artist Joanne Julian. For over 30 years, Julian has been a master of both meticulously detailed drawings and spontaneous calligraphic brushwork, and has created her own trademark mixed media works that blend the two, bringing together what are generally considered to be contrasting or opposing styles. One is highly painstaking, controlled and associated with Western artistic practice, while the other is vigorous, spontaneous and connected to East Asia, particularly to Zen brush painting. Because Julian has managed to embrace both of these artistic worlds fully throughout her career, there is a fluidity to her work that enables two such distinct styles to co-exist harmoniously.
Born to Armenian parents, Julian grew up with a strong immigrant work ethic and with parents who were strict disciplinarians. Her ancestors had been lace-makers and her grandparents were tailors, a profession in which precision is critical. Despite her parents' concerns, she chose to study art, gaining an MA from California State University, Northridge and an MFA from Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, but as a student, and throughout her career, she has displayed the discipline of her family upbringing. Julian attended Otis during the 1970s, a time when the focus was on composition, rendering and exactitude. While there, she studied with Charlie White, who was an impeccable draftsman and his colleague Emerson Woelffer, an abstract expressionist. Both mentors profoundly informed Julian's artistic decisions, resulting in a career that has focused both on meticulous control and unharnessed expression. In a print class at college, she became intrigued by Japanese woodblock prints. She traveled to Japan in the late 1970s and was deeply and enduringly moved by the country's art and culture. One Japanese print in particular by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), who had designed the series "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon" in the late 19th century, had a profound impacted on her own work. In the print a young woman called Ochiyo had found out that her lover had died and had become mad with grief. Yoshitoshi depicted her with disheveled hair staring at the sky, her love letters from him unrolling in a spiral up toward the moon.
Soon Julian began researching various aspects of Japanese art and aesthetics, an artistic journey that has lasted her entire career. Initially, the emotion she had sensed in the lines of the woman Ochiyo's hair captivated Julian. She began research into Japanese traditional hairstyles, inspiring two series of drawings in the 1980s, "Wigs" and "Tattered Letters," in which she uses the glossy texture of long black hair, both tied and untied, to express feminine sensuality and emotion. In these early works, Julian's control of line and tone is very apparent in the smoothness of the hair, the volume and light effects created with her pencil. In "Tattered Letter VII," we sense emotional distress reminiscent of Yoshitoshi's heroine in the wildly knotted mass of hair, with rough graphite sketch lines accentuating the feeling of frenzy. And, just as the subjects in many Japanese woodblock prints and paintings seem to float in open space, the head of hair seems untethered, further intensifying the emotion of the image. Though she admits freely to the influence of Japan on her work, Julian gives credit to her own heritage too, explaining, "I like to think the Mid-eastern part of me anticipates or adds some passion to the Japanese breath-holding or restraint."
A similarly meticulous approach to line is seen in Julian's drawings and prints of koi fish, also inspired by Japanese painting and prints, that she's created from the 1990s to the present. In her "Fish" series of monoprints, she splashes paint onto the paper and then prints an image of the fish onto the same sheet of paper on top of the dry paint. In these works and in later watercolor-tinted drawings, she gives the fish volume and character with her finely detailed lines, but allows them to swim in the vastness of an empty ground, either plain white or bold black or a delicate celadon pool. According to Zen Buddhist teachings, when fish go through water, there is no end to the water no matter how far they go. When birds fly in the sky, there is no end to the sky no matter how far they fly. Yet, neither fish nor birds have been separated from the water or sky. In Julian's works, the fish swerve and curve gracefully through space, at once representational and iconic. They are carefully formed by lines but then liberated by space in a visual expression of a Zen koan, or riddle.
Although Julian is not a Buddhist, Zen symbolism features prominently in her work, most notably the use of the enso, or Zen circle. Formed with a single brushstroke to represent the entirety of the universe or nothingness, the enso is used as a visual aid by Zen Buddhists in their meditational practice and pursuit of enlightenment. Julian's steady and disciplined hand released by a single breathe has enabled her to create many enso over the decades, in black ink on white, white on black, red on white, and even gold on black and white. However, her most interesting enso, painted mostly in the 2000s, are those in which she toys with the circle, allowing it to interact and sometimes become tangled with other motifs. In one 2005 image, "Angela's Braid," it is a ring to which what appears to be a thick braid of hair is tied (though in fact the braid was inspired by the large twisted straw ropes that mark sacred spots in Japan's Shinto tradition), while in another, it is a red circle hidden behind a delicate black veil -- both of which suggest a femininity restrained. In others, koi fish swim or gingko leaves tumble gently through the circle, images that blend power and playfulness to imply perhaps that enlightenment might be closer to us all than we think.
The themes of hair, fish, Zen circles, and birds have recurred and interacted throughout Julian's career, rendered with a graceful blend of refinement and emotion. In her latest series Botanicals, done from 2009 to the present, Julian follows a path through meadows, woods and rain forests into the astonishingly sensual realm of plants. Although she is not the first artist to make plants sexy, in her "Botanicals" exhibition held at Cal State Northridge's Valley Performing Arts Center Gallery from September 19 to October 28, 2015, we are shown ferns, palm fronds, banana leaves and lilies, depicted with exquisite detail in red and green Prismacolor, that are as luscious and deliciously sensuous as a torn-open fig, perhaps a nod to her Middle Eastern emotions. Again, the cropping of the plants, their asymmetrical placement and the abundance of white space borrow from Japanese aesthetics, but the soft textures and dramatic tones of the leaves and flowers are all her own, evolved from discipline and dynamism and years of artistic practice and pure passion.
More work by Joanne Julian can be found on her website.
Top image: Joanne Julian, "Raven for PN" (detail), 2010, graphite and ink on arches paper, 42 x 30 inches. | Courtesy of the artist.