by Jonathan Goodman
Jennifer Stillwell’s show at Triple Candie, a large, nonprofit contemporary art space in Harlem, took such humble materials as paper towels, two-by-fours, and cans of wood stain and placed them in relation to one another in such a way as to emphasize a different notion of time and space. Stillwell, who is based in Winnipeg, refers not so much to materials as to the duration of time associated with them. Her extremely abstract explorations do not involve traditional notions of form, instead they attempt to confront time as a radical element of the imagination, relegating the overall construction of her sculptures to materials that slowly spread or to actions, such as tearing paper towels, that imply the passing of time in their finished state. Process-based art attracts her more than a finely determined gestalt; time becmes more important than the material she uses to express it. In general, her work has a performance aspect, in which the manipulation of elements actively construes states of being that involve the exquisite equilibrium of spilling, dripping, or being torn. These actions, accomplished with and without other people, endure as a commentary on the language of experience as opposed to constructed form. Thus the medium becomes the message: Stillwell’s works are defined not so much by what they are as by what they do or did.
In Stain Slope (2005), small cans of wood stain, pierced by nails, slowly leak onto a gathering of flat two-by-fours. The slow release of the stain, which took place over the course over the entire length of the exhibition, embodies a time-oriented process ripe for, as Stillwell explains, “conceptual contemplation”. Here, the process being delineated has to do with slowing down to the speed at which the stain escapes its container, which cannot be fully visualized. In New York, the slowness of the encounter is an antithesis to a city obsessed with speed; the expression of time is closer to Stillwell’s experiences in Manitoba, where she grew up. The language is one of time slowed down to nearly a still point, along with the implicit knowledge that there is, in fact, movement going on in the sculpture. This is a puzzle – one that recognizes experience as more important than the spatial organization of the work, which remains secondary to the seconds, minutes, and hours encompassing the slow spread of the stain. The contrast between the bustling speed of cars on Broadway, a couple blocks away, and the infinitely slow emptying of the stain is an exercise not only in material, but also in spiritual differences.
Untitled/Melt (2005) also takes time as its major theme. Stillwell hung what looks like a corrugated roof from the ceiling and fastens a group of water bottles from a lower corner. A drop of water drips under very slow conditions – once every 15 to 30 minutes – onto several stacks of separated white paper towels. The notion of duration here comes close to mythic understandings of great periods of time, as happens in Hindu legends in which an epoch is measured by the length of time it would take for an eagle to wear down a mountain if it brushed the surface with a ribbon once every hundred years. In Bounty/Drift (2005), three monitors capture the actions of 15 volunteers tearing more than 40,000 sheets of paper towels. The pile of torn towels, along with their plastic casing and cardboard tubes, forms a mountain. In this work, the notion of duration is recorded, along with the final result of the volunteers’ work. Stillwell handles these highly conceptual works with panache and intelligence. She is reaching for conceptions that begin with the nearly infinite and succeeds in making the concepts as interesting as the works themselves.
Politics, Process and Architecture Issue
Vol. 25 No. 5 International Sculpture Center
June 2006, p. 75 – 76