Jillian Conrad, Poetry & Grammar: Dogtrot, 2010; pencil lead on paper; 16 x 20 inches; courtesy the artist and Art Palace, Houston
(left) Trump Loy, 2010; wood, brass, tape, aqua resin, foam, foil and fabric; 7 feet x 7 feet x 16 inches; (center) Expresso, 2010; sheetrock, MDF, silk and foam; 20 x 16 inches; (right) A Piebald Horse, 2010; wood, cinder blocks, plaster, colored pigment, paper and fabric; 5 x 3 x 4 ˝ feet; courtesy the artist and Art Palace, Houston
Jillian Conrad’s sculpture A Piebald Horse (2010) looks like it’s made from materials left over from a home improvement project, with cinder blocks, concrete pavers, wood and tape forming a wall that rises five feet from the floor. It is a parody of building construction in which bricks don’t line up and supports extend at eccentric angles. Instead of drywall, a large piece of canvas encloses one side like an irregular skin, hiding the framework from sight. What blocks one’s view from the front focuses it from the back, where the canvas acts like a white gallery wall showcasing the jumbled substructure. A Piebald Horse’s simple materials and the seeming awkwardness of its construction betray a compositional complexity that pervades Conrad’s solo exhibition Construct at Art Palace.
Construct includes six sculptures that, like A Piebald Horse, combine everyday materials in assembled structures that are equal parts studied clumsiness and delicacy. Although A Piebald Horse is freestanding, other works, like Trump Loy (2010), engage the wall and floor, integrating the work with its surrounding space. Construct also features four drawings from two different series. In Airmail #A and Airmail #B, Conrad explores the formal possibilities of a standard envelope by tracing its outline and unfolding, taping and drawing on an actual envelope. Her Poetry & Grammar series, although different in appearance, relates to Airmail through the works’ shared reference to communication. Not drawings in any conventional sense, these works are arrangements of mechanical pencil lead, some painted, affixed directly to a piece of paper. Inspired by the now-obsolete exercise of diagramming sentences, the lead segments mimic the diagonal lines in a sentence diagram that express the linguistic function of each word in a sentence.
Conrad’s self-conscious engagement with her materials is reflected not only in their source in the everyday world but also in the way she faithfully preserves their original state. Cinder blocks, concrete and wood are recognizable as such, as are the screws, electrical tape and other hardware that connect the elements. By appropriating these materials for her art, Conrad translates them from a functional to an aesthetic context and emphasizes their simple beauty. In this sense, she relates to artists like Richard Tuttle, whose assemblages turn on the unlikely juxtaposition of everyday materials; but, while Tuttle celebrates the vulgarity of his materials, Conrad invites greater appreciation of the often-overlooked beauty of the utilitarian aesthetic.
Another compelling thread that runs through Construct is the artist’s exploration of the relationship of part to whole. This is clearest in her sculptures, which strike a balance between compositional unity and the independent life of their constituent parts, but is also equally present in Poetry & Grammar. At its core, sentence diagramming is a visual representation of how words create meaning in the larger system of the sentence. Likewise, a great strength of Conrad’s work is its compelling meditation on how simple elements combine to form complex aesthetic statements.
Melissa Venator is a PhD student in the Department of Art History at Rice University.