Carmen Winant, Notes on Fundamental Joy

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Printed Matter (here). Softcover, 94 pages, with 131 color and black and white archival photographs. Includes texts by the artist and an essay by Ariel Goldberg. In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by Jena Myung. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/ContextCarmen Winant is a visual artist and writer based in Columbus, Ohio, who uses appropriated and archival photographic imagery to examine the representations of gender in visual culture. Her works often explore facets of feminism and pose incisive questions about ideology, power, body politics, and authorship. Last year, her work My Birth was included MoMA’s Being: New Photography 2018 exhibit and was also published as a photobook (reviewed here). It used a vast archive of imagery to engage the experience of giving birth in a refreshingly frank and explicit manner. 

Winant’s new body of work continues her extensive research into women’s engagement with photography and image making. While working on her earlier project Lesbian Lands, she came across photographs taken at women’s communes. These feminist and lesbian communes (women-centered spaces without the presence of men) were created as the result of social movements in the 70s and 80s, and apparently photography was central to many of them. They had photography studios, where so called “ovulars” (a series of darkroom and photography workshops) were held. The term “ovular” was used instead of “seminar” (derived from the Latin word seminarium, meaning “seed plot”) as a way of reclaiming language that was rooted in a male perspective (other examples are the use of “her-story” and “womyn”). Winant’s most recent photobook reconsiders this archive of imagery produced around the ovulars.

The photobook has a long descriptive title: Notes on Fundamental Joy; seeking the elimination of oppression through the social and political transformation of the patriarchy that otherwise threatens to bury us. It is specifically based on the archival materials from feminist and lesbian separatist communes from the early 1980s in the Pacific Northwest. It includes the work of Ruth Mountaingrove, Clytia Fuller, Tee Corinne, Katie Niles, Carol Osmer, Honey Lee Cottrell, and others, and documents the lives of women there.

Notes on Fundamental Joy is a softcover book; it has a white cover with two black and white images of a woman outside in nature looking into a handheld mirror (perhaps symbolically seeing herself and her feminine identity for the first time). The artist’s name and the title appear on the spine. The images and text are printed on thin, slightly transparent paper, making the photographs partially visible through the pages, visually linking them. Text is essential to Winant’s work, and this book is no exception. Her words run along the bottom of every page as one continuous line, giving context to the visual flow and moving her analysis forward. This voiceover becomes an integral connecting element in the book, and also a distinct design detail.

The book opens with a question: “Is it possible to leave everything behind? It is possible to begin again, outside of and beyond every system of living that you’ve ever known, reinventing what it means (and looks like) to exist, as a body and its soul, on the land?” The photographs document women who did just this – left their homes and families to start something new, “with very little knowledge about how to work and live off of the land, how to build structures, to live outside of, how to irrigate, run electricity, how to dispose of human waste.” This model of living rejected “the trappings of male power in favor of intellectual idealism, creative freedom, and fundamental joy.” These women escaped mainstream society, conducted workshops, created photo studios, published magazines, and made pictures, and Winant’s selections document how these women remade the world in their own image.

These archival images succinctly reject the male gaze and the patterns of imagery that typically emerge when women are photographed by men, offering a freshly different and warmly optimistic perspective. Notes on Fundamental Joy primarily shows women engaging with each other and with the act of photography: women sitting in circles talking, women sensitively embracing and supporting one another, women holding cameras, women arranging sitters and discussing aesthetic options, women teaching, participating, and learning, women taking photos of each other and self-portraits in the mirror. In these pictures, both the photographer and the subject generally appear nude, yet the nudity is not sexualized or sold. In this environment, photography becomes a rebalanced realization of freedom and “a tool for community-making.” These photographs document a world without the rules of patriarchy and sexual violence, showing that women can successfully use photography to create a powerful group process that reinforces their individuality. But in her writings, Winant also considers the complex meaning of the photographs outside the subculture they were created in, and asks about her own place within the existing patriarchy – she’s looking deeper than just the surface utopianism.

“Feminism is a filter through which I live my life”, Winant said in an interview with AnOther. With Notes on Fundamental Joy, she uses the book’s design to present the disparate photographs as one collective photo archive, and as we move through these images, page after page, her text reflects on their unique representation, and reconsiders their relevance today. “They helped me understand what I was seeking out.”

As an artist’s book, Notes on Fundamental Joy functions almost like a scrapbook with notes, or an archival study – it intellectually reworks the found imagery while also rethinking its many possible meanings. Winant represents an important voice in a new generation of artists who are tirelessly highlighting the importance of female representation, the female gaze, and female authorship, and who are making women’s stories (many of which have been overlooked in the past) more brashly visible. This book reminds of us the importance of historically radical feminist histories and movements, but also smartly reveals their connections to realities that endure.

Collector’s POV: Carmen Winant is represented by Fortnight Institute in New York (here). Her work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Carmen Winant, Printed Matter, Inc.

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