patiently shocking the real
Supplies: Jennifer Stillwell
April 12 – May 10, 2003
a response to the exhibition by Doug Lewis
It’s been a somewhat difficult beginning – trying to put pen to paper and write some intelligent thoughts on Jennifer Stillwell’s new work…which I have yet to see. Her most recent installation at aceartinc., entitled Supplies, 2002/2003, has remained ellusive up and untill the opening. The reason is due in part to how Jennifer makes artwork. Her process is one of situation, beginning with efforts grounded in the practice of neo-reductionist methods and followed up with a combination of stubbornness, grit and the sheer action of doing. Jennifer Stillwell prefers the challenge of the site-specific installation (that can be an artform in and of itself). As site specific installations go, each, of course, is different from the next and most certainly differing from the last. After considering various possibilities, I thought that my response to Supplies had to somehow reflect the kind of effort and respect to method that Jennifer puts into her work.
When I asked aceartinc. if anyone was writing on Jennifer Stillwell’s up-and-coming exhibition, I had been privy somewhat earlier in the year to have spent time with her during her Winnipeg Art Gallery group exhibition entitled Home Show. I tried as often as I could to engage Jennifer regarding her ideas and processes during both the installation and de-installation of her now highly regarded artwork entitled Bale…from its beginnings to its severely recycled endings. During that time, I was fortunate enough to see Jennifer make art. In a very unassuming way she goes about her work, fulfilling her tenacious aesthetic. By tenacity, I mean that Jennifer’s modus operundi is one which is definitely absorbed by the consolidation of things (both content and contents). Even more precisely, she has hung her hat directly on the doorknob of Derridean deconstructionism. Her work (until late, perhaps) is an actual realization of deconstructing context, concept and situation. Quickly, for those who are not familiar with Bale, Jennifer first installs an everyday-styled livingroom to its entirety. This includes paint, baseboards, carpet, pictures and, seemingly, other personal belongings. Installed with sincerity, Jennifer then disassembles the entire living room and begins a laborious process of using the previously laid carpet as a bedroll in which she envelops all of the household contents into one gigantic jellyroll. Bale is an installation that is akin to putting one’s everyday attachments/sentiments into a well-used food processor. In this piece, Stillwell eradicates the language of history and replaces it with a form of amnesia spiraled in on itself, reflecting personal narrative as something unstable.
I am anticipating that the installation of Supplies will act in some way as Jennifer’s own personal rebuttal to Bale. I feel that there is some risk in making this assumption, in sticking my neck out, though there is room for some margin of safety. Supplies finds its beginnings matched similar to that of Bale – testing the underpinnings of deconstructionism (thus revealing an end game). What has changed in this new work is a fastidious relationship to a history built into each object (chair). The concerted difference between the two is that Supplies locates a direct shift between the object/subject whereas Bale disassociates itself from the familiar, via intense deconstruction (though the process is video-taped). In other words, the living room is no longer a room; history is eradicated and replaced with some form of allegory that has no intention of revealing itself. Supplies on the other hand reveals the history of its authorship and openly implies a previous ownership. Derelict chairs discovered in back alleys have a sense of mischief to them: they give you a sense of a previous (personal) ownership without ever revealing anything more than they have to.
So, for participation in Jennifer’s installation, a little detective work must take place. Searching for small clues as to the history of the object, its present reality and its past. Jennifer made mention of a couch she once came across that actually had a pork-chop under the cushion(!). Supplies is not so much about deconstruction as it is about unearthing a transformational shift, exposing the object not as object, but as variations of gathered folds, each one containing non-fictive histories. Gilles Deleuze’ notion of the fold is “conceptual matter that is folded in upon itself and each fold represents a new assemblage of folds”.(Gilles Deleuze. Le Pli: Leibniz et le Baroque (Paris: Minuit: 1988); tr. as The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, by Tom Conley Minneapolis: U Minnesota Press: 1993.)
In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin wrote about the transformation of the artwork…he referred to a comparison of the photographer and the painter to being like that of a magician and a surgeon. Borrowing that metaphor as a stand-in for Jennifer (sculptor = surgeon, performance artist = magician), she borrows from both. She is performing ‘chair-surgeries’ in order to manufacture mythologies of a now you see it, now you don’t ilk. As objects, they are disemboweled then neatly ‘shocked’ into a new state of being. There is something that is so literary about this act – I think of Shelly’s Frankenstein or of Melville’s Moby Dick – in that the spirit of the chair struggles against the ‘folds’ of its captivity.
Having only seen a photograph of an earlier work of Supplies and given a conceptual description of the work (by Jennifer), I feel that I can say this work has a heightened sense of economy and a very specific thread of obedience to what Jennifer calls a ‘back-alley’ aesthetic. Each satchel-like object may seemingly be lifted up and carried offŠ Supplies represents a well articulated concept that reveals more about the ambiguity of histories which consistently loop back in on themselves. So, moving from a deconstuctive, situative artmaking method, Jennifer is not so concerned with the act of de-centering meaning and its various constituents as she is interested in the idiom of transition, or,more succinctly, the translation of ‘things’ – ‘things’ in a process of becoming, transition of object(s) into subject(s) and of circumstance.
Having now fully reflected on Jennifer’s work (once fully installed and some months later), I realized that I missed an important piece of participating commentary: Stillwell’s work is also about a curiosity of the mundane. A defining of a subtle difference located between the completely overused word investigation and a dose of ‘curiosity’. For me, this definition highlights a quiet posturing of which inlays Jennifer’s work above and beyonfd her work, Bale. She seems to be constantly working towards trying to discover specific contrasts that lie between the acts of difference and observation. It is not quite with the same zest needed to propagate the arty term of investigation. Similary as the activities may be, it is Jennifer’s motives in her new work that fully and with an open-minded finality, influence and inspire her making of Supplies. The quest of falling in-between definitions is no easy task.
Doug Lewis makes art in Winnipeg, working with photography, installation, and video. Lewis’ most recent exhibitions have been at the Miami Dade College Art gallery, Gallery 1.1.1., The Mendel Art Gallery and The Power Plant. He is to be included in up and coming shows at the Confederation Centre, Hamilton Art Gallery, The Art Gallery of South Western Manitoba, and in Los Angeles.