Slurpees, beer and installation art

Local artist transforms everyday objects into unique prairie sculptures

“Grate” by Jennifer Stillwell, 2006. Medium: tofu, vent, drywall. Mark Reimer
“Range” by Jennifer Stillwell. Mark Reimer

Walking into Jennifer Stillwell’s exhibition at Plug In ICA is like entering a construction zone gone haywire, where tofu spews out of vents and crunched up crackers cover logs of black asphalt-like material.

Curated by Steven Matijcio, the exhibition includes sculptural installations created over the past several years and shown in Toronto and New York, as well as two new pieces created specifically for the show at Plug In.

The artwork consists of everyday objects that have been separated from their associated identities and functions and transformed into new, thought-provoking forms.

“Stillwell’s use of materials, sense of process and sensibility to the passage of time are key ingredients to her work,” Anthony Kiendl, Plug In’s director, said in an e-mail.

“Ingredients” can be taken literally here, as many of Stillwell’s pieces use, or reference, food.

Her newest work involves Slurpee cups and beer bottles: two beloved prairie staples that account for a fair amount of street litter in Winnipeg. These appropriated products, once drained of their sugary liquids, have been altered to create something recognizable, yet entirely new.

“Brainfreeze” involves peeled-off Slurpee cup decals that have been applied to the wall to form three large, molecule-like arrangements.

“I was sharing a studio with a friend of mine who always drinks Slurpees. I started playing with her leftover cups, and came up with a couple of ideas before refining the piece to its current state. After that, it was just a matter of connecting the dots literally and figuratively,” Stillwell said by e-mail when asked about the origins of “Brainfreeze”.

Across the gallery, a piece called “Range” features 97 bottles of beer on the wall. The labels have again been peeled, so that only picturesque snow-capped mountains remain. Placed upon a shelf of differently leveled vertical 2 X 4s, the rugged landscape depicts several Canadian icons at once: mountains, lumber, snow and beer.

“If you peel the label off a beer bottle, you can identify with the physical process of the piece. In this case the process is repeated over and over to form a kind of mountain range,” Stillwell said.

A video titled “Wall Plow” features another reference to the prairies. In it, the artist slowly pushes a white wall-divider over a trail of rubble, plowing until it reaches the front of the screen where it becomes indistinguishable from the gallery wall on which it is projected.

As well as creating new prairie landscapes out of appropriated products, Stillwell draws inspiration from Minimalist art and the readymades of Marcel Duchamp.

Expressing the act of production and retaining a sense of incompleteness, her artwork reveals its own labour-intensive and meticulous creation.

“I work within the context and structure of the gallery to create a wider dialogue about space and time,” Stillwell explained.

The imaginative installations in this exhibition raise questions surrounding the act of making art. Laborious processes are displayed, and yet an element of play remains in Stillwell’s transformation of once familiar materials into new and unusual forms.

Jennifer Stillwell’s show is on display until Jan. 31.

Published in Volume 63, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 15, 2009)

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