Exhibition Catalogue: Paradox

Jennifer Stillwell: The Slipperiness of Space

Essays by Mary Jo Hughes and Lisa Baldissera


Jennifer Stillwell takes her cues from the environment and works mainly in site-specific performances and installations that shift back and forth in perspective, scale and meaning: from birds-eye to up-close views, from outdoor to interior associations, from domestic to natural materials. She sees it as working with “the slipperiness of space,” the tendency for our conceptualization of space to shift and transform. She shares with her colleagues an interest in space and how, through communication of her subjective experience within it, she can provide opportunities for her audience to engage the imagination to see beyond what is merely presented.

Always with humour or irony, Stillwell infuses her physical and psychic experiences directly into her installations. Sometimes she is reflecting her experience of the place in which she works. However, like Youd’s sense of longing, sometimes she works with ideas concerning the place she is missing. The summer she was stuck working in a Winnipeg urban studio under the duress of needing to create work for a fall exhibition she created Propeller, which reimagined the dock of her beloved family summer cottage. In this work she dipped and redipped each board into paint to recreate the idea of waves lapping up on the dock. When reinstalled in the gallery, fans provide the realistic air movement that evokes the imagined waves.

In her Banff artist residency, Stillwell found herself immersed in the characteristic forested mountain environment. The program met all her needs except breakfast. Above all, her craving for toast stuck with her. In her resulting work, Log Toast, she animated the idea physically. She brought together prevailing elements of the locale and her longing for breakfast. She began with drawings, followed by a performance, and then a video in which she sawed slices of “bread” from logs and browned them in a toaster.

Often in these projects Stillwell brings into collision various types of spaces – the natural, the domestic, the gallery environments. For her work Flood, part of the Pour series, she systematically poured layers of commercial paint into pans. At some point in the process she felt like she was baking a cake and she was compelled to add colored sprinkles. As the paint dried, it shrunk and cracked. The result looks like an abstract painting, something appropriate for viewing in a gallery. However, upon reconsideration, it bears resemblance to the landscape, a distant topographical view of the prairies through which river valleys are carved. A shift of imagined viewpoint brings an intimate image like the cracked Winnipeg soil in arid summer or, suddenly, the surface of a cake that has cracked in baking. The results of this systematic pouring action hold the essence of her Winnipeg landscape – at once micro- and macroscopic, imagined and literal – and her deep connection to the domestic.


Source: Hughes, Mary Jo, ed. Essays by Mary Jo Hughes and Lisa Baldissera. Exhibition Catalogue: Paradox, Legacy Art Galleries, University of Victoria, 2013


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