The art of living well.

A Moment in Time

Artist Joan Moment reflects on an upcoming Sacramento exhibit and six decades of adventurous art, including landing a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum at the age of 36.

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The exhibit during graduate school in Colorado that gained her the attention of legendary funk artist William T. Wiley (who, along with Moment and fellow former UC Davis professor Roy De Forest, earned a spot in the 1973 Whitney biennial show) was a room where she had lined up small piles of fecal matter. It was a characteristic Moment move: an earthy if controversial material, with an emphasis on decay, and an inherent testing of boundaries. And it was Wiley, then a faculty member at UC Davis, who would later recommend her for the Sacramento State position. The work also made newspaper headlines for weeks, as reports tweaked the work as outlandish. Speaking today, Wiley credits Moment’s “nice balance of energies” as one of the reasons he felt strongly about her potential way back when. “[She had a] willingness to step off into the unknown, and yet there was a calm presence,” he says.

Moment typically works six hours a day almost every day in her East Sacramento studio. (Photo by Max Whittaker) Beth Jones, who now runs JayJay gallery with Lynda Jolley, talks about a time in the late 1980s when she was working at another local gallery and a “monumental” exhibit of Moment’s paintings was in the planning. But because Moment was temporarily working from the East Coast at the time, Jones was unable to witness the art as it was being produced. When the work arrived in Sacramento, she recounts, “I looked at it, and I think at one point I cried, [thinking] ‘My God, I might not be able to do anything with this.’ ” The work was too new, too different from what had preceded it, and she feared for her ability to find its rightful audience. Needless to say, all went well—and Jones represents Moment to this day.

Even when Moment’s work does not make radical shifts in style, she has continuously distinguished herself in the broader context of the Sacramento art community. There is a centrality of abstraction to her catalog, and that differentiates her among the area’s renowned figures. So many of the artists to gain fame in the area are firmly rooted in the figurative, in the objects of everyday life—from Gregory Kondos’ placid landscapes, to Wayne Thiebaud’s radiant desserts, to Mel Ramos’ luscious women. Each of those men in their own way wrestled with abstract expressionism and found a subsequent, more realist means to view and portray the world. Moment, to the contrary, managed to make abstraction her own.

Not that there isn’t a figurative impetus to her work. Early on she portrayed landscapes herself, and she uses impressions of foliage from her garden in some of her more recent efforts. She looks to the rough images of early cave art for a place in distant art history where the figurative and the abstract were one and the same. Philip Linhares, former curator at the Oakland Museum of California, has known Moment and her output even longer than has JayJay’s Beth Jones. He accompanied the Whitney curator Marcia Tucker on the numerous California artists’ studio visits that led to Moment’s inclusion in the 1973 biennial exhibit. “She was interested in biomorphic forms,” he recalls of Moment, “which would represent a seed or a pod or a bubble, or the center of a flower. The work changed from being figurative to boldly abstract, but still maintained an obsession.”

As chief curator of art at the Oakland Museum for over 20 years until his retirement in 2011, Linhares included Moment in shows and added her to the museum’s permanent collection. Locally, the Crocker Art Museum has acquired three of her pieces, and in addition to the airport, her work is displayed at the University of California Davis Medical Center, a bright triptych to calm nerves. Museum curators and leaders themselves have purchased her work for their personal collections, including the Whitney’s Tucker and Lial Jones, director of the Crocker.

2010’s "A Question of Magnitude" is awash in blue, one of Moment’s signature colors. (Image courtesy of Joan Moment)Despite the national appeal of her work and Moment’s own East Coast youth, JayJay’s Beth Jones sees a strong California impact on the transplant’s fixation. “Turning her attention to nature, as she did in the 1980s,” explains Jones, “meant looking at biology and archeological ideas: think of the Sierras, the ocean, but also the space industry, California being out on the frontiers of certain kinds of thought.” In regard to the deep thoughtfulness in her art, Linhares credits what he calls Moment’s “meditative quality,” which comes out in the “rituals and process” of her practice. Moment herself refers to some of her starry portraits as “cosmic nets.”

The work at JayJay will all be recent paintings, with the majority of pieces created during this year and last. Moment is hard put to verbalize a specific theme to this set, but confirms that primary colors (deep blues and yellows) and elementary shapes will rule the gallery walls at JayJay. There will be an emphasis on bright, immersive fields of carefully layered patterning. A piece titled Jiggling Polarities balances black and white circles atop a sunflower-yellow canvas marked with wavelike brushstrokes. One of the “blue” works, titled Planetary Realm, seems both macro and micro—the vast cosmos envisioned in the colors of a day sky, and also, on the other end of the spectrum, a life-giving petri dish as viewed through a massive microscope.

This is the mortality she speaks of as her lifelong subject—she pays witness to the tininess of human life in the broad universe, and yet the complexity of a living organism that is even more infinitesimal than our own. Asked about the biological undercurrent in her work, Moment mentions the nursing studies she pursued before attending art school. “The bacteriology class got in my blood,” she says with a wink. S

Joan Moment’s paintings will be displayed at JayJay gallery (5520 Elvas Ave., 453-2999, jayjayart.com) from Nov. 6 through Dec. 21.