An Interview with Jennifer Stillwell
Border Crossings Magazine, Fall Issue 2008, No. 107, by Robert Enright, p. 142-153 (Winnipeg)
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JENNIFER STILLWELL: I chose Chicago because it had an amplified kind of Winnipeg feeling, a similar vibe. I was a small town girl; it was close and felt familiar. There was a little bit of culture shock and, truthfully, it took me a good six months to feel secure and be able to work. I’m pretty sensitive. Now I could travel anywhere and be fine, but when you’re younger it takes a while to adjust. You find the confidence within yourself to know that you’re going for a reason and that you want to use the opportunity to produce and operate at the highest level.

BORDER CROSSINGS: What kind of work were you doing in Chicago?

JS: I was doing a lot of video experiments, but the first version of Bale was done there.

BC: Were you interested in the notion of deconstruction when you did the piece? I mean that as a philosophical and aesthetic approach and not just the practical thing involved in taking apart a room?

JS: I was certainly aware of the theory of deconstruction. I approach theory to add to my own awareness about how other people are perceiving reality. For me deconstruction is a way to take things apart in terms of language. I think it’s an exciting possibility for all kinds of exploration. Because I work associatively, it involves using all the associations that come with the language of the objects. I make my work for the viewer to deconstruct and I want to use it to encourage an engagement of the imagination.

BC: Bale is clearly about domestic space and then its title makes a strong reference to a prairie sensibility and farm practice. Did you want it to have the wide range of meaning embodied inside that frame?

JS: Definitely. I think it’s an exciting project because it can be looked at from more than one direction and it can expand into different spaces. In your imagination you can unfold it back into domestic space, or you can look at it in terms of the title and the form, and take it from there into the landscape. You can also consider it through art history, as a minimalist object stuffed with content. So it collapses the gallery space, the landscape and domestic space into one visual object.

BC: You wanted all those resonances?

JS: Sure. Sometimes you see more in reflection than when you’re creating the work. But I had been thinking about the project for a long time, and part of the inspiration was growing up in a small town. The farmers around my area would sometimes have boots hanging out of the end of a bale, as if a person had gotten wrapped up in the machinery when they produced the bale. So it was a funny image to me, a good farm joke that at the same time was very violent. Yet you know it’s fake, so it’s this fiction that gets placed into the landscape. It was a bit of a conceptual leap from my other work because there was a lot more freedom in creating it. I allowed the form to create its own kind of chaos inside; it wasn’t just me building something. It changed the direction of my work.

BC: It’s curious to hear you use the word chaos in your description because what struck me is how carefully chosen everything was, from the wallpaper, to the sofa and including the picture behind the sofa on the wall. They are tonally very close.

JS: I tend to look at work formally. I really like to play with colour, so those things are definitely a part of it. I still look at how the viewer will be impacted by the colour and the shape, all those very simple artistic things that are still necessary to create something that attracts the eye.

BC: Did you know how demanding it was going to be to actually take apart the room and all its contents?

JS: No, and certainly not with the first one, which I think was definitely the best because I was still so naïve about it. I honestly thought it was going to be huge, that it would hit the ceiling. I didn’t know how it would compress. It was a complete experiment for me, and that’s how I approach a lot of things; one of my creative strategies is to imagine impossible projects and then try to make them work in reality. I had no idea how to take apart a couch, so I didn’t just go in and tear it apart. It was a methodical process and I wanted to use it to create a sculpture. It still had to be visible as a room. I didn’t want things to be dismantled so thoroughly that you couldn’t recognize it. I wanted it to look like it could have been done by a machine because it was still intact. If it didn’t work out it would have become something else. You have to allow things to become themselves. It took five days to take it apart—it was like a workweek—but rolling it up only took about 10 minutes.

BC: What is the nature of the relationship between process and product in your work?

JS: To create any original object you have to come up with an original process. Lately I’ve been moving away from documenting it. Sometimes I add documentation as another conceptual layer, but not necessarily. It depends upon where I’m making the piece and how I feel about it. Right now I feel that you can see the process within the objects I’m making. You can sort of re-imagine it. I think it’s about rewinding in time, and the object will provide you with an option to do that. For me it’s a way to give back an experience and also to demystify the art object a little bit.

BC: What I like about Static Lift is that you don’t see the amount of work that went into filling the lift itself. The time the lift takes to move in and out of our visual field has very little to do with the amount of time it must have taken to fill it. I’m raising the question of time. Are you interested in variations on its perception?

JS: Definitely. That has always been something I’ve been attracted to. I use process as a way of allowing the viewer to question time. Sometimes it’s a lot of layering, like when I was rowing through paint and allowing these thick layers of paint to dry on the ends of the boards. When you went into the gallery, you saw that all at once. You have to imagine how long it would take for each layer to dry. When it comes to sculpture and installation, I feel time is a necessary thing to question.

BC: Paint Rows is installed in a way that makes me think of Donald Judd. It wouldn’t be out of place in Marfa. The lumber cuts are so elegantly arranged, the electrical cords from the drying fans are meticulously rewound and precisely placed. That kind of minimal and focused aesthetic is obviously quite important to you?

JS: In a way it’s just everyday stuff posing as art. It’s how I acknowledge the gallery space, by creating really formal constructions in which this stuff from everyday life becomes integrated in the space. These things are objects for you to look at, but they are also objects for you to imagine beyond what the object is. That comes about because of their placement and through the history behind the space they’re in. Art history is certainly part of that. It appears minimalist and then you can look at the objects for what they actually are — a series of house fans.

BC: In this conversation you’ve used the word formal, you’ve referred to minimalism and I have mentioned Kounellis and arte povera in connection with your lift piece. Your art historical pedigree is a layered one. I gather these art movements are natural sources from which you could draw in making your own work?

JS: Yes. I went to art school and took art history, and I really think at this point in time art history can be as complicated or as simple as you want. You can consider the movements of art history in the 20th century as applied concepts. To a certain extent that’s what I do. I select and combine those into layered concepts now.

BC: There are also places where you don’t go. For instance, you seem to resist the decorative. There is no trace of Jessica Stockholder in the work. Your work seems to keep itself at a minimal and formalist level, both tonally and the way it looks to the eye.

JS: I go by what feels right. The piece has to work intuitively as well. I also feel like the work does operate sometimes in a painterly way.

BC: You’ve talked about a “back alley aesthetic.” You really have a democratic sense of material in that you use very common things. Is that a conscious strategy?

JS: It’s just things I’m attracted to in my everyday life. The things that I choose to work with are around me, and I often find them humorous in some way. For example, when I was first working with the Bale piece I’d pick up stuff in the back alley on the way to school. As a student I didn’t have a lot of cash, so I was taking things I could get my hands on for free. It became a question of economics; this was stuff that you could use and reuse. Also, it was another way to break down the gallery space, to work with cheaper materials and allow them to speak outside the box. Things rise to the surface, and I go with them and see where I can take them. That tends to be how it works for me. What I do is take my own experience and open it up to my imagination.

BC: Opening up to the imagination is something I’ve always sensed prairie space encourages, because there is so little to see in the landscape. You open up because you want as wide an angle as the lens of your vision can provide. I look at the titles of your pieces—Bale, Drift and Wall Plow — and they seem to have some necessary connection to having lived on the prairies.

JS: As an artist, all your work can become a self-portrait of sorts. It’s not direct, in that I don’t think of it ahead of time. You have to draw from your own experience and the place you live in, and those things are having a visual impact every day. How you filter it through your own sense of being determines the kind of art you make.

BC: Log Toast is a delight and it strikes me as being very Canadian. Where did the idea come from?

JS: I was doing a residency at Banff, and toast was pretty much breakfast every morning. It was also a matter of things being in my environment. Going for walks around that area you’d see tons of stacks of cut wood everywhere, and even though you were surrounded by this beautiful natural landscape, you weren’t allowed to have a fire in the park. You were expected to be in this space and not really interact with the landscape in a human way. So those two things overlapped in my head, and I decided to apply them to the theme of the residency, which was time. It was in 2001 and was called “SloMo.”

BC: Did you use an industrial strength toaster?

JS: No, I just went down to the Banff general store and bought what they had. It had a gradient control from light to dark. The performance was about an hour long. I was outside, and I had a long power cord coming from my residency bedroom. I was just sawing off these inch-thick slices and toasting them.

BC: Why not use an electric saw? Was it necessary to do it manually?

JS: It was just funnier to do it by hand. It was like using a bread knife. A lot of my work involves processes that I want people to associate with domestic space. With Bale it was a more aggressive form of cleaning. What I’m exploring is an amplification of the processes that we do in everyday life so you can consider your own relatively.

BC: One of the pieces in Packs looks like a mangled character from Babar. Did you want the pieces to become anthropomorphic?

JS: I’ve never heard that before. It wasn’t my intention, but when art becomes abstract it opens itself up to interpretation. My intention was to invert the object: it’s an armchair that has been packed in its own cushion cover. I knew from making the Bale piece that I could potentially pack the whole chair inside the cushion. I was thinking again in a deconstructive way. I wanted to take the language associated with an armchair—about comfort and being in the home—and turn it inside out. I was thinking about the objects becoming little backpacks or satchels of some sort. So it would be a burden on your back that you would metaphorically take outdoors in the landscape.

BC: What was the backstage dimension to Paint Rows?

JS: In part it was documentation that took place over the three days before the exhibition opening. The maquette for the whole piece was the sculpture of a series of Pringles on a nail on a little board. There was a nail through the board and the Pringles are pierced onto the nail. I just really liked their form because they look like they’re animated, as if they’re flinching. They also looked very beautiful next to the grain of the wood. Paint Rows was a time-consuming project; I had a series of paint trays lined up, five on each side, with a gradient moving from a darker to lighter shade and then deeper to shallower trays, as if you were going towards the shore. So it became shallower as I went along.

BC: You’re quite thorough in your conceptual underpinnings for the pieces.

JS: I think they’re very simple concepts, but when you combine them they become very complex. I was trying to create the image of a propeller going away from a dock and then have the wake of the propeller come and hit the edges of the dock. That’s what was in my head, but to allow that image of speed to happen I had to go through this very slow process. I wanted there to be a loop of time happening between the process and the actual image of the piece. I had to wait between dips, so that’s what the backstage was—an area where I’d relax, drink Gatorade and make these little Pringle chip sculptures.

BC: Were the Gravel Rolls as satisfying to make as they look to the viewer?

JS: For me it was satisfying because it was very sculptural. Again, it’s an amplification of a domestic process, the sort of thing that happens when you roll crackers for cooking. These roofing papers (I think they’re called tar rolls) are very heavy, so as a piece of sculpture their weight is something you have to consider in relation to the lightness of the crackers. Because of the colour and the shape of the objects, it becomes a beautiful minimalist form. You can look at it as sculpture, but I was also thinking of it as a paved road going into a gravel road — sort of bumpy. As I said, in a lot of my pieces the process is an amplified domestic one, so it’s a matter of rolling these heavy objects into the glue and then into the crackers to create these forms.

BC: How many crackers did you use?

JS: I don’t know but it was quite a few boxes I crushed.

BC: I mention Ann Hamilton, whose pieces are about work, because as she shifts the scale of her pieces she has to engage more volunteers. You’ve had to use them too, especially in the tearing of sheets of paper. It makes me wonder if you’re a solitary artist who works alone, or is the work moving in a more participatory direction?

JS: I think it depends on the situation. In New York and Montreal the spaces where I needed assistants were 5000 square feet each. They also used to be factories, so having a workforce was a way to acknowledge the spaces. Those things happened naturally because of the circumstances. I’m working on a solo exhibition for Plug In ICA, but now I have a studio space with a decent amount of room in which I can make objects. I’m working by myself for the most part.

BC: Is paying attention to the history of the place where you’re either going to perform or install important?

JS: It’s something to play with. It’s there and it seems pressing, especially in those factory type spaces; it’s like a ghost that you can’t really ignore. The gallery space and its pressing kind of history is also a ghost you can’t ignore. Even though it’s supposed to be a neutral space, it isn’t at this point in time. It has it’s own set of associations and connotations.

BC: You did a maquette for Wall Plow. Was it a question of going through the action in a smaller scale before you could realize the larger piece?

JS: For that particular piece, I made a maquette but I don’t always. It depends. In New York I didn’t have a lot of ideas before I went in. All I knew were the materials I wanted to work with. They gave me three weeks. I hadn’t seen the space except online, so it was a matter of really interpreting the space in light of those intended materials. Some were trial and error, some of what I made had to be much bigger because the space was so much larger than my studio. It was a bit of a daunting three weeks because I had to be ready for the opening deadline.

BC: How did Wall Plow work?

JS: Wall Plow is a video installation. I created the video in Winnipeg and had found a piece of drywall in a hallway on another floor of my studio building. In some of my videos, like in Static Lift, I work with the frame as a sculptural layer. So the piece is essentially just me behind the piece of drywall pushing along these plaster chips. It’s an awkward reverse process because it’s not really dry, so it’s humorous and difficult at the same time. It inches towards the frame and becomes part of the gallery wall in the end. The drywall fills the whole frame of the video, and then it has debris at the bottom that looks like it’s going to spill into the space.

BC: With A Piece of Turf do you ever present the viewer with the opportunity to see it high enough for it to become a landscape, or are you asking the viewer to engage in an act of imaginative projection?

JS: I think it happens naturally when you look at the object. I mean not everybody will see things the same, but when I displayed it recently I became aware that a lot of people were making that shift in their imagination. They were seeing it as a wide, bird’s-eye view piece instead of just a local one.

BC: I was intrigued by how differently people would tear the paper towelling, from the methodical and careful to an attitude of almost complete disregard. You often mention humour in talking about your work, and I wonder if the reason for the video documentation of the tearing is to provide that accent.

JS: Yes, I was documenting it while I was working in the space, but I wasn’t sure if I was actually going to use the documentation. Once I watched everything I knew what I wanted to do. I had given them a simple task—to unroll and tear paper towelling at the perforation and stack the sheets. Each person approached the task with a different sense of efficiency. I think that ended up playing against the space because of its history as a factory. But it is humorous to watch the different creative strategies people undertake to perform simple tasks and how efficient — or not — they are in doing it.

BC: There is a kind of mad humour about taking tofu and pushing it through a wall vent.

JS: I look at a lot of objects, even food, as sculptural forms. Tofu is this really ambiguous, indescribable block. It’s a matter of looking at objects both naïvely and with all their meaning attached at the same time. I like the idea of a minimalist block of something going through this grate and the potential in imagining where it might be coming from.

BC: Tofu does have an odd weight to the eye when you look at it. Seeing it in your piece forces the viewer to re-recognize it, or maybe to make it strange.

JS: Exactly. It looks completely absurd. When it comes through the vents, it has a horror movie quality to it as well.

BC: Not to mention a scatological quality. It’s rude in every way.

JS: It’s totally rude.

BC: So the notion of forcing material through a confining space, which you do with the clay through the grill of the Chevrolet truck, must have been generated out of the tofu piece.

JS: Yes. I bounce from one piece to the next and something always resonates. I think the tofu piece became almost a sketch for the clay piece with the truck. They are separate, but certainly something spoke in one that led me to the next. That process of taking clay, which is a really dense and refined part of the landscape, became more about time. We associate speed and power with moving in a car, but what’s going past you is this dense form of the landscape. It kind of compresses time and space.

BC: You went through not so much a cut-and-paste phase as a cut-and-force phase in your work.

JS: You just go with it. I don’t question when one thing leads to the next.

BC: Is your work self-generated now, more than out of your experience of the world?

JS: I think the primary influence is still definitely things around me. Sometimes it’s representational and sometimes it’s abstract. I don’t necessarily recognize it until I’ve done it, so it’s a bit intuitive. But right now I’m working with where I’ve come from and the things that are around me. It’s becoming a bit more plastic and a bit more abstract.

BC: With a piece like Drift you can’t help but speculate that an artist raised on the prairies would herself drift towards memories of snow. There often seem to be topographical references in the work.

JS: I didn’t really expect to make that work before I went to New York. I knew I wanted to work with paper towels – there was a leak in the roof in the studio right before I left. Then when I got to New York there was a leak in the roof of their gallery. The floor in the space was cream coloured and the walls were sandblasted brick, so there was a consideration of it becoming this white thing. So it was also a colour choice. I didn’t really know the process I was going to go through, but a lot of times you take an object and you allow it to make itself. The process of unrolling these things, tearing them at their perforation and stacking them, started to look like the thing it became. I didn’t really have an idea what it would look like until I started to make it and then it naturally formed in that way.

BC: So you often discover the piece in its making?

JS: Yes. I’d say that’s true. I have an idea about materials and what I’m attracted to and then I combine them with other things, like the space or things in the space. I need a lot of time to play and then discover what feels most dramatic.

BC: That is an interesting word to use. Do you want the work to have a sense of theatre?

JS: Not always. I haven’t been asked that before, but I think I operate with a sense of reality and theatrics, so that people can question both and see them operating as one form.

BC: But you have that connection to the everyday and the commonplace. You seem almost to cherish the underprivileged side of reality.

JS: I want to speak to a wide audience and I want people to be able to identify with art and allow, as you said, a democratic sense about it. I want to use things that are already understood and to give them new, overlapping meanings. My motivation is to try and create an everyday sense of art, to let people see that you can be creative with everyday things. And that you can approach things from more than one direction. So everyone can approach the work from their own experience. I try to make original things.

BC: There is in the prairie sensibility—it runs through the Royal Art Lodge, to Ken Gregory and William Eakin — a sense of the recovery of the underprivileged. In this particular area your work shares in that sensibility.

JS: I think you’re right about Winnipeg, but I don’t know what to call it. It may be about the economy of this city. I came back to Winnipeg because I wanted to make a certain type of work, and I knew I could live here without a full-time job and still be able to concentrate on doing the kind of research and work I wanted to do.

BC: Ever the practical prairie dweller?

JS: It may also be my disposition. I’m not really a workaholic, I need a lot of down time to be able to think and process. I like the relaxed pace. So the speed of this city works for me. It is about the speed of the city.