Walking into Jennifer Stillwell’s exhibition at Plug In ICA is like entering a construction zone gone haywire: slices of tofu spew out of ventilation slits and cracker crumbs cover black logs of asphalt-like material. Everyday objects have been de-familiarized from their identities and functions and estranged into new assemblages that call into question their signification. Curated by Steven Matijcio, the new exhibition includes installations created over the past several years and shown in Toronto and New York, as well as two new pieces created specifically for Plug In’s gallery space.
Image credit: Grate, Jennifer Stillwell, 2006. Medium: tofu, vent, drywall. Photo: Jennifer Stillwell
Wandering around the mostly floor-based works, Marcel Duchamp’s readymades came to mind, especially with Stillwell’s newest pieces involving slurpee cups and beer bottles: two beloved prairie staples that account for a fair amount of Winnipeg street litter. Once drained of their sugary liquids, these appropriated products have been altered to create something recognizable, yet entirely new. In Brainfreeze, a grouping of three differently coloured net-like arrangements have been applied to the wall. Like magnified models of molecules, they also give off a vibe of Christmas ornament-like festivity. They provide virtually the only colour in the show; aside from an orange extension cord coiled up beside a row of fans.
Across the gallery, a piece called Range features 97 bottles of beer on the wall. The labels have been covered over with white so that only picturesque snow-capped Kokanee mountains remain. Placed upon a shelf of differently leveled vertical 2 X 4s, the rugged landscape humorously depicts several Canadian icons at once: mountains, lumber, snow, and beer.
Image credit: Dock and Propeller (detail), Jennifer Stillwell, 2004. Medium: fans, power cord. Photo: Jennifer Stillwell
One of the main attractions of the exhibition is the opportunity to puzzle over the processes that went into each installation. Stillwell’s work can be usefully viewed within the context of minimalist artists whose artwork explored repetitive processes. German-born Eva Hesse used materials new to sculpture in the 1950s, like fiberglass, latex and plastic, and created pieces that were labour-intensive and meticulously made. Stillwell’s approach to sculpture also involves a consideration of time and work. This can be viewed in many of the pieces, from the hours she must have spent peeling and pasting slurpee cup decals, to the boards that have been dipped in several different shades of grey and are exhibited in front of the fans, suggesting that they are still being dried.
I was slightly disappointed that nothing from Stillwell’s exhibition Bale (a 2004 solo exhibition at YYZ Artists’ Outlet in Toronto) was on display at Plug In, since the bales so cleverly demonstrate her laborious working process and her Prairie-tinged sense of humour. Setting up a complete living room, Stillwell then dismantled every piece of furniture, rolling up the contents in a carpet to create a hay-bale of domesticity and thereby punning on methods of theoretical deconstruction.
Even without the bales, there remains plenty of opportunities to ponder processes of production, recognition, and identification in the making of Stillwell's work. The video Wall Plow is included, and features another reference to the prairies as the artist slowly pushes a white wall-divider over a trail of rubble, plowing until it reaches the front of the screen where it becomes indistinguishable from the gallery wall on which it is projected. Repeating itself over and over, the video demonstrates the labour that Stillwell puts into her creations, raising questions of purpose and futility in art making.
By some strange coincidence, an orange construction sign is very appropriately positioned just outside the gallery on the street and can be seen through the large windows in between Propeller, the fan and painted-board piece, and Collisions, in which small clay rectangles have been shaped by the grill of a Chevy truck. The sign serendipitously reminds viewers of the thoughtful construction, both in terms of materials and ideas, that Stillwell has made visible in this exhibition, and the technique of deconstruction visible throughout the different states of incompleteness we witness. Laborious processes are on display, and yet an element of play remains in the perplexing, unexpected, and provocative transformations of once familiar materials.
- N.B. Winnipeg