Editors' pick

Jill Townsley: Toil

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Editorial Review

Art that only looks robotic
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 21, 2012

The phrase “work of art” takes on new meaning at Project 4 Gallery, where the labor of artmaking -- and not necessarily the finished product -- is front and center in the new exhibition “Toil.”

Despite the spotlight on process, however, the show is not just about technique. It’s also, in a sense, about what it means to be human.

The exhibition features the art of Jill Townsley, an Englishwoman whose most prominent pieces are liable to induce vicarious carpal tunnel syndrome in some viewers. On the gallery’s first floor are five “Scribble Squares” -- large pen-and-ink drawings made by obsessively scribbling, in a random fashion, until the paper is nearly covered with a dense thicket of inky black squiggles.

The works are unexpectedly beautiful, with richly textured surfaces and surprising depth. Here and there, minuscule gaps in coverage allow the white paper to twinkle through the ink, like stars in a midnight sky. Subtle variations in the amount of gel ink create a tonal range that seems to shift, under the gallery’s bright lights, from glossy black to an almost greenish gray.

The works are accompanied by a video installation showing a stop-motion animation of the process, breaking down the act of drawing into 500 individual acts of markmaking, each lasting only five seconds.

Upstairs, there's even more sweat in evidence. The installation "Satie 840" features video of Townsley writing the numbers 1 through 840 on a chalkboard, not just one after the other, but one on top of the other. She writes "347," for example, erases it with her bare hand, and then writes "348" on top of the resulting chalky smudge. And so on and so forth, until she's finished. If you've got 21 / 2 hours — and the appetite for the world's most boring feature film — you can watch the whole thing. If you've got $6,000, you can buy it, chalkboard included.

In the back room is the show’s highlight: “2,500 Till Rolls.” It’s a sculptural installation made from spools of cash register receipt tape, 2,500 of which have been placed on the gallery floor.

In an evocation of a city skyline, some of the paper has been slightly unspooled, creating cylindrical towers varying in height from a centimeter or two to more than six feet. It’s a visual treat.

Elsewhere in the show are two smaller, almost documentary-like installations. The first features a pile of 70 pebbles, each randomly plucked from a stream in the village where Townsley lives and then painted with nail polish. The brightly colored rocks are accompanied by a wall of numbered photographs showing them in their natural state. The second is a grid of several blurry photographs shot, in seemingly random fashion, during a foggy walk in the countryside where Townsley grew up.

There’s a slightly robotic quality here and throughout the show. At times Townsley seems less like an artist than like a factory worker, a drone guided more by a job description than by any romantic notion of creativity.

Yet there’s another, very different sensibility beneath the work’s superficial drudgery. “Toil” may be largely about numbers and grids and counting, but there’s also a powerful sense of chance, accident and human fallibility. Watch enough of “Satie 840,” for example, and you’ll notice that Townsley loses count every so often.

It’s in the cracks that the light shines through. All work and no play made Jack a dull boy. And it’s Townsley’s subversive sense of play that makes “Toil” such a delight.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, September 21, 2012

If you think Townsley’s 21 / 2-hour performance in “Satie 840” is extreme, consider the work on which it’s based. “Vexations,” a late-19th-century score by composer Erik Satie, consists of a short passage of music repeated 840 times. Never performed during Satie’s lifetime, it was first played publicly in 1963 by a rotating group of pianists over the course of almost 19 hours. Musicians have been said to hallucinate during the ordeal.

Townsley ran into a few snags herself while making her video. The first time she shot it, she forgot to turn off the camera’s auto-focus, leading to a constantly shifting focus every time her arm came in and out of the frame. “[It] made you feel sick looking at the film,” she said via e-mail. The second time, the chalkboard became so polished where she was rubbing out the numbers that she had to abandon the effort halfway through.

The third time was the charm. If Townsley loses count once in a while, it’s an appealing reminder that the artist is human, not a machine.