Law and Ordering: On Evaluating Recent Canadian Neoconceptualism (an excerpt)
C Magazine, Young Canadians Issue 91, Autumn 2006, p. 30 - 35
by Earl Miller
JENNIFER STILLWELL uses everyday materials and products in her performances, videos, installations and media. In Drift (2005), a three-monitor video documents a performance in which assistants tear up sheets of paper towel and place them in piles around the same gallery space the video is later screened in, forming an abstracted landscape recalling snow drifts - even mountains.
In a small photograph (30" X 40") of the work at Stillwell's 2006 exhibition at Toronto's Pari Nadimi Gallery, the paper-towel landscape exudes suprising pastoral beauty. In contrast, sections of paper towel lying in a corner of the gallery have a much humbler appearance, more in line with the material. Similarly, the DVD performance document Wall Plow (2006), Stillwell pushes an 8' X 4' section of drywall through a hallway, to "plow" a length of roofing tar paper covered with plaster chips. With the artist hidden behind the drywall, viewers simply see the wall closing in on the camera until it fills the entire frame, as if to form part of the gallery wall the DVD is projected on. Using the wayward drywall to imply first the tearing down of a section of the gallery wall and then the subsequent replacement of it, Stillwell proposes an expansion or alteration of the institutional gallery space. Perhaps this physical reconstruction stands as a metaphor for opening up the present tense of the gallery viewing experience to memory; both Drift and Wall Plow reference Stillwell's prairie childhood through allusions to snow and harvest.
Stillwell arrives at personal narratives by mining varied art-historical sources: the basic materials of Art Povera, the pared-down forms of Minimalism, the actions of performance and the institutional or gallery critique of Conceptualism. The other artists I discuss here also look back to earlier Conceptual art. Oh, Davis, Grandmaison and Weppler and Mahovsky utilize the first-generation strategy of serialization (Hanne Darboven, On Kawara, Ed Ruscha). Schmidt recalls west coast Photoconceptualism, notably Jeff Wall's and Rodney Graham's incorporation of the Vancouver and Greater BC landscape into photography and video. Sullivan's installations in public and institutional space reference Dan Graham's interventional outdoor installations to subtly question the surrounding space.
Certainly, this referencing of Conceptualism, often refererred to as Neoconceptualism, is far from unique to these artists and is far from a new tendency (the same term was applied to Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton, et al. in the mid-80s). However, the work I've chosen stands out for, above all, its lack of pretense: and often absurd and always satifying reverence for the banal (Oh and Weppler/Mahovsky), a revitalization of the everyday (Stillwell), an avoidance of spectacle (Grandmaison), and extension of what is too often ivory-tower gallery space (Stillwell and Sullivan) and a humorous critique of power and elitism (Davis and Oh).