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The Lonely Painter Print-ready version
December 10, 1999

Joni Mitchell and Amy Adler at the opening of the Tri-Annuale (Part 2): Amy Adler Curates Joni Mitchell, December 1, 1999 at LACE

Interview with artist and curator Amy Adler

Joni Mitchell is an artist; no one would argue that. Woodstock fans know her as the woman who wrote the song (but who missed the event) that epitomized the era. With the new-found commercial success of women singer songwriters, Joni Mitchell is now seen as a pioneer of rock n roll history. As a lyricist and musician, she is unmatched by artists of either gender and even invented her own guitar chords. The legendary figure whose career has spanned almost four decades, and at least as many reincarnations, has been a folk singer, a confessional poet, a jazz musician, and even a pop star. But a painter?

Those who know, of course, know. Fans are familliar with Joni's paintings, which have been featured on the covers of her classic albums Ladies of the Canyon and Clouds, as well as her recent, critically-acclaimed efforts Turbulent Indigo and Taming the Tiger. Many of the songs which will be Joni Mitchell's legacy deal with her identity as a visual artist. As she wrote in "A Case of You," from Blue, "I am a lonely painter. I live in a box of paint."

Now, through the efforts of artist Amy Adler, twelve of Joni Mitchell's paintings, ranging in subject from landscape to self-portrait, are on display at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., LA, CA 90028, December 1-23, 1999). The show is a rare opportunity to see the paintings in person. caught up with Amy Adler via e-mail, and interrogated her on the experience of working in the unique capacity of Joni Mitchell's curator. Where did the idea for a show of Joni Mitchell's paintings come from?

Amy Adler: As you know, the only way really to see Joni Mitchell's painting is on her album covers, in her videos, interviews and lyrics. I wanted to see them in person, if only for a moment, to borrow them from the context of her music.

W: How did the idea become a reality?

A: Quite magically. It started with an introduction to Joni by a mutual friend, who liked the idea and helped me present it to her.

W: How did you choose the paintings?

A: There were a lot of great paintings that didn't make it into the show. We only had so much space and I wanted to fairly represent her concerns so I tried to have accurate proportions of her favorite subjects. We also decided to chose from her most recent paintings so the show only goes back to about 1992.

W: There was only one cat painting that I saw but I know from the artwork on the Taming the Tiger CD that Joni has many more.

A: It's true that there are other great cat paintings. I chose the painting of 'Nietzche' (her lanky gray cat) for a few reasons. One is that Joni painted him one scary evening when he had run out of the house. She didn't have a suitable photograph and so she made the painting, color copied it and passed the copies out all over the neighborhood. Based on the painting Nietzche was found a few days later. Her paintings of her cats really describe their character, Nietzche seems to always want to be a part of everything so it's sort of natural to see him in the show, checking things out, so to speak.

W: Why did you choose not to show any of her album cover portraits?

A: Well actually the self-portrait that is in the show of her smoking in a green jacket will be on the cover of her new album. (The album, called, 'Both Sides Now' is devastatingly beautiful and will be out this February.) This is a brand new painting. In fact three of the paintings in the show will be on her new CD. I am excited, in this case, to be able to see the paintings first.

W: What was it like working with Joni?

A: She is lovely and brilliant and has enormous integrity as an artist.

W: Did you feel like you were working with a rock star or a painter?

A: Really, our interaction had everything to do with her painting. Still, I couldn't resist including her little painting of Jimi Hendrix in the show. "A rock star painting a rock star" as she put it.

W: On the Miles of Aisles live album, Joni states that the difference between being a painter and a singer is that "No one asked Van Gogh, 'Hey, paint Starry Night again, man.'" What does that mean?

A: I wish you could ask her that directly. I couldn't possibly interpret what she means. I do know that Van Gogh is one of her heroes. I also believe that her lyrics often refer to painting. I used to believe that when I'd listen to her music and now I'm sure of it.

W: How does Joni, whose work contains an outsider, almost naive quality, relate to the current art scene? How has the art world treated Joni?

A: One night we were talking and she brought up David Hockney. It startled me because I had just been in this little hotel room in Sweden that had some Hockney prints on the wall. All over the drawings were these sort of tiny moments of failure. I was struck by how they could possibly be so vivid. She respects Hockney, for example, because his work ranges from the transcendent to the ordinary. That happens in Joni's work as well and she recognizes it. She has been painting for many years and there are moments in her paintings that are truly masterful and others that are quite vulnerable. As a viewer you witness her struggle. Joni doesn't often engage in the art world. She is protective of her process which is very personal and profoundly important to her. I think that is why LACE was the perfect place to do this, being a non profit exhibition space. She does not sell her work, all the work in the show is from her private collection.

W:Joni's relationship to feminism has been very ambivalent over the years. At times, she has seemed to be in denial of her status as a woman artist, seeing that qualification as a hindrance to her being thought of as an artist (period). Are her paintings informed by feminisim, a reaction to it, or not related at all?

A: This specific dialogue never came up between us. Honestly, she paints the things she loves.

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Added to Library on December 24, 2001. (7636)


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