Jennifer Stillwell
Plug In ICA Editions

Catalogue essay by Steven Matijcio (July 2010)


In her review of the 2006 exhibition Uncertain States of America: American Art in the 3rd Millennium, New York Times critic Roberta Smith highlights a reflection of the show’s psycho-geographical anxieties in the artists’ approach to physical form. Noting the “post-media” proclivity towards disperse, unresolved models of installation, she laments an overarching “fear of form, which can be parsed as fear of materials, of working with the hands in an overt way.” In this approach, where casual forms of collage and juxtaposition preclude purportedly outdated models of stylistic coherence, Smith ambivalently observes that “fear of form above all means fear of compression – of an artistic focus that condenses experiences, ideas and feelings into something whole, committed and visually comprehensible.” Yet where she sees an absence of conviction, one could also perceive a potentially redeeming 21st century translation (or exhumation?) of the concept that simultaneously inspired and haunted the prescient artist Robert Smithson: entropy.

Across thermodynamics, cybernetics, economics, geology, horror movies and humour, this inevitable (and irreversible) process of degradation informed Smithson’s thinking, writing and practice throughout the 1960s. His aberrant muse was also an apt social metaphor for the time. As a harbinger of ruin, entropy reflected America’s apprehension over the deterioration of nature from proliferating pollution; a slackening economic pace under the burden of the Vietnam War; and escalating ethnic unrest culminating in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. And while succeeding decades have shown these conditions to be the norm rather than the exception, it is still jarring to consider parallels in 2010. In the wake of economic collapse on par with the Great Depression, as questionable wars fester in Iraq and Afghanistan, xenophobic immigration policies gain momentum, and environmental catastrophes multiply, a more spectacular 21st century strain of entropy casts a shadow on Western consciousness. Yet despite the dangling sword of dystopia, Smithson ardently pursued salvation in the ostensible slide towards disorder. Rather than evolution (which pre-supposed progress), he saw in entropy a state of metamorphosis that could transform mistakes, decline, and catastrophe into the architectures of a hybrid enterprise. Moreover, in this epidemic of abatement he observed paradoxical reactions of euphoria and catharsis among its subjects – going so far as to describe laughter as a model of entropic verbalization (“non-sense”). In the corresponding repurposing of garbage, pollution, and natural disasters into platforms for production and infrastructure, Smithson proposed “a dialectics of entropic change” as the only viable vehicle for future survival.

The interpretation of entropy informed a great deal of Smithson’s work inside and outside the gallery, but as Rosalind Krauss points out in her 1996 essay “A User’s Guide to Entropy,” he never pushed his inquisition into an artistic formula. However, following his formative 1966 essay “Entropy and The New Monuments,” fellow (quasi)minimalist artist Robert Morris published an articulation of parallel ideas in the April 1968 issue of Artforum. In this reconsideration of the minimalist doctrine (and its supposed departure from traditional sculpture and the creation of art objects), “Anti-Form” was a post-minimal manifesto arguing for the primacy of process and materials. Away from the gestalt and the absolutes of geometric form that Minimalism perpetuated, Morris translated his abiding interests in movement, performance and industrial media (ex. dirt, felt, thread waste) into a platform that continues to resonate today. With a nod to Smithson in this textual call to arms, Morris calls traditional art “anti-entropic” as he rallies against the tautology of form as “functioning idealism.” Rather than the artifice of serialization, stacking and linear order, artists could best articulate the inherent properties of materials by handing them over to the forces of nature and chance. In this consequently open-ended context, cutting, gravity, wind and erosion became preeminent tools to cultivate what Morris called “simple complexity.” In his words, “Chance is accepted and indeterminacy is implied” in a rule-free, contingent arena where building materials are allowed to live and change according to their constitution. Yet while Morris championed a raw, imprecise approach to presentation – reveling in random piling, scattering, hanging and “passing form” – he was more dogmatic in the corresponding denial of pre-determined meaning. To free materials from representational assignment and semantic direction, the logic of form for form’s sake dictated a space detached from allusion or illusion. Yet if one returns to Smithson at this point (and the many socio-cultural manifestations of entropy percolating in the 1960s), the holistic implications of Anti-Form come into focus. Observing mankind’s “hope for disaster” as an implicit, if contradictory desire for entropic spectacle, Smithson hypothesized that waste and luxury were inextricably “coupled.” As such, the greater the acts of excess, largesse and consumption, the more fodder is produced for extravagant collapse. As decades have passed and each of these acts have accelerated into the present day, gratuitous grandeur is subversively animated in the process-based work of contemporary artists such as John Bock, Paul McCarthy, Jason Rhoades and Jessica Stockholder. And it is in this context – where the dialectics of entropic change meet Anti-Form and nascent models of disaster capitalism – that the rambunctious, yet reticent work of Jennifer Stillwell finds continuity, community and that which Roberta Smith seeks in the 3rd Millennium: coherence. Gathering these theories and histories into a chronologically cobbled lens, this essay will attempt to survey a career that has remained persistently cryptic. It will take this catalogue as an opportunity to look back at the first decade of this self-described “reductionist’s” work – deciphering patterns in a practice critic David Jager deems “insistent in its neutrality.” Elaborating on this predominant analysis/resignation, Jager comments, “The unadorned neutrality and reductionism of Stillwell’s work can seem a bit extreme, especially some 40 years after the heyday of minimalism.” For him, the work’s saving grace is its unwavering dedication to the combination of process, materials and chance that this essay will consider through a contemporary translation of Smithson and Morris’ writings.

Recognizing her increasingly pronounced, yet largely unbeknownst move toward post-minimalism, critic Jonathan Goodman announced in 2006, Stillwell’s work “does not involve traditional notions of form.” Instead, he highlights process that erodes structural integrity, actions “that imply the passing of time in their finished state,” and materials that leak, ooze and decay. Collectively, these observations speak to Stillwell’s consistently entropic approach to media – eschewing predetermined outcomes to, in her words, “[allow] the form to create its own kind of chaos inside.” This chaos is wrought with cheap, largely banal building materials (akin to those Morris employed) characterized in terms of a “back alley aesthetic” and “a recovery of the underprivileged.” Once they have been collected, she relies on a process of “discovering” the work in its making – moving toward states of anti-form that Goodman describes as “the exquisite equilibrium of spilling, dripping, or being torn.” In the process, Stillwell activates the dialectics of entropic change in her pursuit of renewed languages from the rubble of old. Her particular vernacular over the past ten years has been enigmatic, but she is careful to note that the silence is not an ode to formalist (or anti-formalist) purity. In this case, muteness equals mutability as Stillwell positions each project as a catalyst for associative thinking. Breaking down norms/forms to build a liminal lexicon, she embraces ambiguity and continues to shy from resolution. Yet as this essay will now demonstrate, models of entropy and Anti-Form offer unexpected, but invaluable ciphers in decoding her decade.

In her earliest attempts to reconcile everyday materials with the pursuit of chaos and chance, Stillwell reflects, “One of my creative strategies is to imagine impossible projects and then try to make them work in reality.” This puckish approach informed one of her earliest, yet most enduring post-minimal performances: Bale (2000). In this process-based installation, Stillwell systematically arranges, breaks down, flattens, and rolls (like one would a jelly roll) the contents of a domestic living room. After pushing and shoving this expanding bundle from one end of the gallery to the other, culmination arrives with anticlimax as a languorous mass slumps in the center of the gallery. Like a mongrelized monument to the shrinking lifespan of consumer products, Bale amalgamates farm references (hay bale) and Big Box inventory into an icon of entropy. Ignoble and absurd, it also became the misshapen foundation upon which Stillwell would turn minimalist materials, process, and meaning inside out. Two years later she employed a parallel technique to related ends – breaking down, flattening, and bundling a series of armchairs into flayed clusters known as Packs (2002). With the abject aesthetic of half-eaten carrion, chair cushions struggle to contain shards of wood, springs, batting and upholstery in Stillwell’s imploded tableaux. Replete with video documentation of its forced inversion, the archetypal symbol of rest and balance is consequently deconstructed into an amorphous, newly portable object. The move from furnishing to flux continues two years later in Static Lift (2004), a video projection of an elevator cabin stuffed to its limits with strata of cardboard, wood, paper and assorted packing materials. Suggesting a cross-section of the earth’s post-consumer crust, its slow vertical climb speaks to a vehicle rendered inaccessible by accumulation and excess. Yet in the same Static Lift, Stillwell also produces an important dialectic of stasis and motion: mobilizing a condensed mass of construction detritus through means outside the artist’s hand.

From the intense physical acts of pushing, stuffing and packing that characterized her early works, Stillwell begins to gradually refine her practice through increasing levels of duration, drift and release. Paint Rows (2004) is a pivotal work in this regard, where the artist mimics the natural process of discoloration and decay that water exacts upon wood piers. In her synthetic version, Stillwell systematically dips the ends of twelve boards into five succeeding shades of blue-grey paint – allowing each one to drip, dry, and accumulate a graduated patina. She does so with little attempt to disguise the artifice of her entropic theatre – laying the parts bare before the audience, including paint trays, fans, and the “backstage” area where she waits between drying times. In these ascetic quarters of little more than a mattress, pillow and makeshift table (built out of piled boards), Stillwell coyly consumes bottles of energy drink while cobbling maquettes out of Pringles potato chips. And while these interstitial experiments may appear secondary to the methodical main act, their form becomes a post-minimal foil to the tightly controlled composition of Paint Rows. From its Judd-like arrangement of vertically stacked boards and chips, Stillwell reverses the Pringles (perfectly formed discs made from reconstituted potato mash) to their entropic origin by piercing the stacks with nails.

The cracks, crumbles and consequent asymmetry of these maquettes anticipate Drift (2005): a synthetic iceberg formation inspired by leaks in the roofs of both the artist’s Winnipeg studio and the Harlem warehouse where the installation/performance took place. In this industrial site, and with the assistance of multiple volunteers, Stillwell builds a wobbly, out-of-place berg by separating, tearing and stacking more than 40,000 sheets of paper towel. The ensuing tableau incorporates every bit of the cardboard tubes and plastic wrap that housed the towels into a precarious monument to “wiping up” mistakes. Its fragile slouch also evokes the non-sites of Smithson, fusing what critic Earl Miller describes as “pastoral beauty” with “a much humbler appearance, more in line with the materials.” The dialectic of systematic procedure and material variance at play in Drift and Paint Rows reaches a turning point in Gravel Rolls (2006): a series of tar paper rolls sheathed in a golden “bark” of crumbled soda crackers. With the added precedent of Bale echoing in the background, Stillwell “performs” the serialized geometry of roofing substrate with the entropic fracture of processed foodstuffs. At the juncture – where roof meets road, horizontals and verticals grow as confused as asphalt and gravel, and sublimated food products reveal their amorphous origins – Stillwell pushes off into post-minimal synthesis.

If one imagines Gravel Rolls being torn into its constituent parts, you might see a bullish white wall shaving/shoving the rolls’ crackled skin into the heretofore virgin space of the viewer. In Stillwell’s 2006 video installation Wall Plow the effect is virtual, but the action is visceral as she slowly corrals drywall fragments and plaster chips arranged upon an unfurled sheet of tar paper. Employing an 8 x 4 foot section of drywall as her makeshift plow, Stillwell proceeds down a studio hallway – conjuring memories of Bale as she laboriously pushes construction detritus into the foreground of the picture plane. The video ends when the drywall plow fills the”vacant” frame, threatening to spill its accumulated pile of debris into the gallery space. On the threshold, Stillwell exchanges the restrained geometry of Gravel Rolls with the aggressive return of the white cube’s abject residue. Bringing the gallery’s recurring, yet largely implicit cycle of build up and break down full circle, she simultaneously penetrates the open spatial gestalt of both site and psychology with ghosts of ruin. This poignant mobilization of shards and rubble expands to the scale of civilization in Particle Shifts (2007): a 5000 sq. foot installation created in Montreal’s Darling Foundry. Inspired at the time by repairs taking place to the city’s eroding streets, Stillwell gathered green plastic baskets (like those used in supermarkets to hold berries) and a fleet of volunteers to sift her material of choice: gravel. Over the course of weeks, the crew filtered tons of this unassuming stone particulate into a variety of elemental forms, quasi-land masses, and architectural maquettes. The finest gravel was shaped into sinuous topographies, while larger stones that remained in the baskets were piled – along with their baskets – into roughly hewn skylines, step pyramids and city grids. In the ensuing sprawl of architectural amalgamation, broken down stone is married with brick-like structure (plastic baskets) into ambivalent formations teetering between collapse and construction. Beneath a slack steel cable ladder more conducive to falling than a climb, Particle Shifts thereby lays the foundation for an enterprise of entropy.

Moving further into dialectical synthesis with a model akin to her Montreal project, Collisions (2007) filters a “natural” material through manmade structure to pursue iterations of (anti) form. In this particular installation, gravel and plastic baskets are replaced with raw clay, a series of clamps, and the imposing steel grille of a Chevy pickup truck. Within this framework, Stillwell slowly forces blocks of clay through the grate – systematically shearing off the excess to create a collection of extrusions. As these rectangular fragments weather, crack and crumble upon the gallery floor, a natural grayscale takes the place of Paint Rows’ simulated version. However, similar confusion remains between vertical and horizontal orientation as Collisions’ grid slides between the frontal view of a skyscraper and the undulating roll of ocean waves. Speaking equally to the passage of nature through culture, the clay – like the aforementioned gravel in Particle Shifts, and the soon to be mentioned tofu in Grate – is unmoored from geometric integrity to take on allegorical import. This mutable passage reconnects with an earlier performance/installation Stillwell conducted in Banff as part of the 2001 “SloMo” residency. Addressing the imprint of time and technology upon natural form, she cut a fallen tree trunk into rounds that were subsequently inserted into an industrial size toaster. In the aptly titled Log Toast, ten of these rounds were displayed upon a gallery wall according to levels of burn/”done-ness” (which anticipate the grayscales of Paint Rows and Collisions). The work’s theatrical performance of decay and dismemberment through allusions to food also predicts Stillwell’s small, but seminal 2006 work Grate. In this time-sensitive tableau, the “unnatural” reconstitution of soy bean curd into tofu is reversed as a pristine white block is pushed through a generic air vent. As slices of tofu subsequently droop, yellow and decompose, Stillwell channels Morris’ anti-form ambition to free the semantic properties of a material through minimal handling. Like a limp, sullen Judd work, standardization and serialization break down as individual units collapse and bacterial decay sets in. Moving progressively further from Minimalist purity in the process, Grate finds more in common with Poltergeist films (and the soon-to-follow Wall Plow) as she pushes abject remains into immaculate white space.

Anti-form accelerates further in a trio of Stillwell’s works that position architecture and gravity as the vehicles for hybridized materials (and processes) to unfold. In the same Harlem gallery where she orchestrated Drift, Stillwell suspended a series of corrugated metal roof panels on a 45 degree angle from the ceiling. She then placed a number of inverted plastic water bottles upon one panel, and allowed them to slowly drip their contents onto precarious stacks of paper towels below. With drops occurring every 15-30 minutes, the water slowly, almost glacially subverted the constitution of the paper in the metaphorically titled Melt (2005). One drip, ripple and swell at a time, the same paper towers that remained standing in Drift are thus left to lean and buckle under the cumulative weight of falling water. A similar leak organizes the sister project Stain Slope (2005), where Stillwell pierces cans of wood stain to allow their contents to leach into bare lumber. Using nails reminiscent of those that punctured potato chips in her Paint Rows maquettes, she permits the loosely arranged cans to “bleed” upon boards that surround gallery columns. And while these boards echo the strict order of Paint Rows on one end cut upon a single sloping angle, the other end is left jagged according to the boards’ irregular lengths. Without a prescribed pattern or pathway, the stain is allowed a similar course to leak, live and die – ironically making the “dead” lumber beneath appear more supple in the cans’ bloodletting. This open-ended use of entropy as an artistic vehicle is amplified to more forceful ends in Great Stuff (2008). As much a platform for material experimentation as aesthetic presentation, this installation curled a series of pegboard sheets to various degrees before fastening the formation with metal cable. In so doing, Stillwell pushed these boards to their breaking point (and beyond) – incorporating probable rupture into the composition of the work. Over the course of the exhibition, rupture happily ensued and the pegboard snapped a number of times – pushing back against Stillwell’s artificial, yet evolving suspension. And while the broken pieces were never publicly exhibited, it is important to distinguish the time and space provided for entropic process from carelessness or fabrication flaws. That the former was what informed this work is reinforced by the freedom the artist granted to the expanding insulation foam that gives the installation its title. Nestled beneath the bottom half of the pegboards’ curve with their nozzles pointed north, three cans of Great Stuff expanding foam were permitted to release their contents during the course of the exhibition. The bulbous golden clouds that ensued were startlingly “natural” in appearance – swelling and creeping over the straining geometry of the pegboards like a cave-dwelling growth. Together, in the austerely arranged framework of Great Stuff, both the foam and board were given the freedom to endure duress and find their (anti)form. As materials unraveled and structural integrity dissipated, the resulting installation became a humorous tableau of unsustainable circumstance and entropic theatre.

Stillwell’s most recent work has, like this essay, begun to reflect upon the trajectory of her practice with map-like installations combining humor, time, and by-now familiar reference to food and drink. For Brain Freeze (2009) she collected Slurpee cups of various sizes for over a year to harvest the star-like graphics emblazoned upon the exterior. Sparkling in neon shades of blue, green and pink, she appropriated only the stars by applying, and then peeling off an acrylic gel medium to transfer the pattern. The star decals were subsequently arranged into abstract astrological clusters upon the gallery wall – reflecting the cryptic course of this work (and her career) in quasi-molecular diagrams of uncertain orientation. A similarly tacit, but no less tongue-in-cheek sequence plays out in Range (2009). In this endurance test-turned-installation, the artist arranges nearly a hundred empty Kokanee beer bottles at varying heights across the gallery wall. She does so by building a series of tall wooden platforms for the bottles and their mountainous logos to fashion a miniature mountain range, recalling the jagged row of lumber supports in Stain Slope. And while this landscape parallels the timeless majesty of the neon galaxies seen in Brain Freeze, this pair of works speaks more to the corrosive, yet hedonistic consumption (and collection) of vices that lead gestalts slowly, but inevitably, to their omega.

Sensing this amnesiac turn in the social, environmental and psychological state of the 1960s, Smithson wagered that instead of recalling the past, new monuments “seem to cause us to forget the future.” Replacing bronze and stone with disposable materials and contingent form, these physical reflections of societal values would, in his words, be “built not for, but against the ages.” Rather than representing the space of centuries, these installations were therefore “involved in a systematic reduction of time” where past and future are collapsed into an objective present. In this act of spatializing and materializing time as a discrete entity, Smithson echoed what theorists and philosophers from Henri Bergson to Frederic Jameson identified as one of the key characteristics of modernity’s turn to postmodernity. And it is in this compression of history, where one sees the origins, mutations and deterioration of materials in a single moment, that the work of Jennifer Stillwell reveals itself. With every beer and Slurpee consumed, like every material pushed through structure, pierced with a nail, rolled into a bundle, or left to decay, her dialectic of entropic change is infinite in its immediacy. The life and death of her experiments fall in upon themselves, in the same way this essay has attempted to ascertain their meaning by imploding ten years of work into a single argument. Its pieces will never be put back together again in the same way, but in the space of entropy, the ruins have provided platform for this thesis to emerge, and a practice to coalesce.