Art Palace, Houston
Through February 19
by Rachel Hooper
Looking has traditionally been understood as an act of receptivity, wherein the world makes impressions on our retina that are subsequently comprehended by our mind. However, relativity and quantum theory account for a more dynamic relationship between observer and the observed. We now know that we affect reality as much as it affects us, in a constant ebb and flow of the objective and subjective that is beyond rational understanding. The abstract language of images and objects that Jillian Conrad develops in her solo exhibition Construct attempts to deal with the active negotiations that determine our reality. Utilizing both expressive and reductive strategies, she updates minimalism's direct deployment of materials in a way that accounts for the paradoxical nature of our everyday experience.
Take, for example, the work with the strongest presence, Trump Loy
(a phonetic play on the illusory technique of trompe l'oeil). Shadows
and edges of the building materials used to compose the piece extend
beyond its cohesive yet ultimately unrecognizable outline. This prompted
me to imagine the artwork frozen in a state of expansion, as if all the
lines might slowly wander away from each other and float into the room
were it not for the brass plates holding them to the wall. This
imaginary movement is also present in two drawings on the opposite wall
made from various widths and lengths of mechanical pencil lead glued to
paper. Here, too, a snapshot of lines playfully drift across empty
space. A pencil drawing around a half-disassembled envelope in the front
room also indicates the unfolding of dimensions, for a letter envelope
might seem flat but contains space within. Drawing in the exhibition is
thus employed in a diagrammatic way that asks the viewer to envision
what it might explain.
Counterbalancing these lofty potential metaphors is the mundane nature of Conrad's materials. It's easy to recognize the thin strips of wood, cinder blocks, foam and particle board from hardware store shelves. In another context, these materials might be boring, but with Conrad's sensitivity to how they absorb and reflect light, they come alive in a painterly way. In A Piebald Horse the neutral colors of the concrete, wood and white fabric are brightened, with yellow powdered pigment applied to the surface of two concrete blocks and a beautiful aqua cloth wrapped around a platform. This sophisticated formal use of materials typically used for domestic building and craft is reminiscent of Richard Tuttle's elegant and tenuous arrangements and Gedi Sibony's recent installations.
In the back of the exhibition, a long, thin loop of vellum is looped around a curved hook. On it Conrad has varied the punctuation of Gertrude Stein's famous line "a rose is a rose" as she typed it over and over again. At once obvious and ambiguous (you can read “rose” as a flower, name, or “eros” when running the syllables together aloud), this line could be a metaphor for the whole exhibition. The openness to interpretation, imagination and various perspectives calls to mind President Clinton's famous quote: a rose is a rose, but it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.
Rachel Hooper is associate curator and Cynthia Woods Mitchell fellow at Blaffer Art Museum.
Editor’s Note: For the record, Rachel Hooper and Jillian Conrad are both employees of the University of Houston.