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Interviews / January 15, 2009

Jennifer Stillwell: Grate Expectations

Jennifer Stillwell Grate 2006 Courtesy of Pari Nadimi Gallery

Mid-January must be the time of year when the phrase “the grey everyday” was hatched. With most landscapes drained of colour and only asphalt roadways cleared, there’s definitely a seasonal tendency to dreariness.

Yet if there’s anyone who can inject vibrancy into mundane materials and circumstances, it’s Jennifer Stillwell. The Winnipeg artist has spent almost a decade crafting witty sculptures for venues from New York’s Triple Candie to Montreal’s Darling Foundry. Now, with a solo exhibition on at Plug In ICA in Winnipeg, Stillwell chats by phone about Canadian Tire, brain freezes, her new public art project and more.

Leah Sandals: You make art out of materials like fans, heating vents, hardware and furnishings. Is a visit to Canadian Tire or Value Village like a bonanza of inspiration for you?

Jennifer Stillwell: Well, I usually take my initial inspiration from my own experience of things that are around me—in my living space, say, or my studio, stuff that I use in daily life. I look to the formal qualities of everyday things as I relate them to an artistic and creative context. I’m also aware of the precedent of “the readymade” and I sometimes play off that art historical construct.

That said, the materials are usually widely available at Canadian Tire or Home Depot as well. It comes from stuff that pretty much everyone can relate to.

LS: Can you walk me through the works in your current show at Plug In?

JS: Sure. When you first walk into the space there’s Grate, which is a wall vent with tofu kind of protruding. It’s something you could look at really close-up and have a bit of a direct experience with.

And as you walk through the gallery there’s bigger pieces like Propeller. This is a reworking of a piece and performance I did at Pari Nadimi Gallery in 2004. There’s an old box fan that I normally use in my studio in the summertime that’s plugged in. Behind that is five newer, turned-off fans that are just catching the wake of the plugged-in, working fan. The first one behind it moves quite quickly, whereas the one in the back moves pretty slowly. In addition to the fans there’s a series of 12 boards on a plinth. In the initial performance, the fans helped dry the paint on the ends of the boards. The image I always had in my head was of the propeller of a boat pushing water in waves, and the edges of a dock catching its wake—a meeting of speed and the landscape.

I also did a piece called Collisions, where I took a Chevy truck grille and extruded or “cookie cut” sheets of clay through it. Again, it’s more about taking the idea of what a truck grille is about—a representation of power and speed—and taking this very dense form of the landscape to create a sort of representation of movement and time. It can also shift in scale from a tire tread to a cubist landscape.

At the far end of the gallery is a piece called Range that also changes with distance. It’s a panorama of altered Kokanee beer bottles on individual pedestals that create a kind of mountain range.

Then, on a wall across from some large windows there’s the piece Brain Freeze. It looks like a large, abstracted kind of painting, but it’s made out of snowflake symbols that I took from all different sizes of Slurpee cups. I like the abstraction of that idea of what a “brain freeze” might look like. Even in creating the work I had to put a lot of my thoughts on hold, because it was very time-consuming and repetitive. I like to think about how those forms and meanings can layer together.

In a separate room, there’s a video projection of a piece called Wall Plow that I made in 2006. It shows me pushing a piece of white drywall through a room of my studio building towards the camera. To me, it plays with the context of the gallery and of Winnipeg as a kind of snowplow capital.

Finally, there’s another floor sculpture called Gravel Rolls where I took 12 rolls of asphalt felt and half-dipped them in glue and then rolled them in crushed soda crackers. I lined each up behind the other while one roll I left plain and unrolled it into the space. I wanted to give the impression of a paved road going into a gravel road while also acknowledging a domestic process of crushing crackers and the sound of that in relationship to a tire going over gravel. The weight and colour of the materials was also a poetic and formal consideration.

LS: This might seem silly, but is there a hidden performance aspect to some of these works, like Brain Freeze or Range?

JS: I wouldn’t call it a performance, more a process. I was sharing a studio with a friend of mine and she’s pretty much a Slurpee addict, and that’s rubbed off on me. And Winnipeg’s proud to be Slurpee consumption capital of the world. One of the attributes of our urban landscape is that these things are littered everywhere. So when I was asked to create a piece for the Plug In, I started gathering these in a more amplified way. It took about a year altogether.

LS: Kokanee is a Western Canadian beverage as well. I don’t think that beer is widely available east of Winnipeg.

JS: Really? I guess it is a Western Canadian thing. With Range, part of the process was just being at a bonfire this summer and peeling the labels so that it framed the mountain. That stuck in my head for a while.

LS: Speaking in a different way about place: You did a master’s in Chicago and have shown at some prestigious American galleries. How do you feel about being back in Canada?

JS: Well, I’ve been back in Winnipeg about eight years since I took my master’s. And part of the reasoning in coming back here was that I knew the economy of Winnipeg allows an artist to work part-time and do their own research the rest of the time. The cost of living in the States is more expensive; if you’re not selling work you’re working at a job full-time.

I also knew I could come back to Winnipeg and have support through research funding and that’s one thing I really appreciate; it allows experimentation. I do like Winnipeg as a home base; it’s a good place. I’m even working on a public art commission. Overall, I’ve embraced the city as a site where I can create a dialogue about contemporary art.

LS: What will your public art project consist of?

JS: For now, I just have some loose ideas. But I’m considering the context of the landscape, as well as the need for permanence. So I’m trying to flip my thinking in the opposite direction than usual, a healthy process to be involved in.

The site is downtown, close to the Forks, Winnipeg’s touristy, markety area. It’s also near the river and baseball diamond. It’s a really funny piece of land, quite long and narrow and pretty much on a 45-degree slope. They want me to concentrate on the idea of the river, and I think the piece of land reflects a miniature river in a way, because it’s so long and narrow.

It’s supposed to be launched late fall 2009.

LS: Besides the public project, what’s next for you?

JS: I’m also working on another project for a symposium this summer at Les Jardins du Précambrien of the Fondation Derouin in Val David, Quebec. It’s also an outdoor installation, and it’s created over a two-week residency. There’s a few Canadians, and some people from the States and South America and Cuba too. It will be another good chance to think about landscape.

LS: Well, good luck, and thanks for your time on this one.

JS: Thank you.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via