There is a long, rich history of the use of detritus in sculpture, and there seems to be a spike in detrital interest in Houston this year, particularly with the Blaffer Museum’s recent Tony Feher and current Andy Coolquitt exhibits. While Jillian Conrad’s choice of materials shouldn’t exactly be considered detritus, she does gravitate towards objects that comprise our everyday: like concrete, fabric, and even cardboard. As Fehrer uses trash to create reductive works and Coolquitt as carriers of memory and previous usage, Conrad utilizes these strategies to generate far more complex formal narratives. Her work has been described as minimalist and compared to Stan Brakhage—these divergent reads all seeming ridiculous and vaguely plausible.
Conrad is less a sculptor and more a draftswoman, as if she is a cartographer for liminal spaces. Between the totally impractical aerial architectural mappings of Sites and Settlements (2012) and projections of faux landmarks like Arch de (2011), she is undoubtedly preoccupied with locations and mirages. Ley Lines, up now at Devin Borden Gallery, is no different—the literal definition meaning the alleged lines created between monuments, ancient structures, and prominent points in landscapes, like ridge tops. The work in this exhibition constantly vacillates between place and pathway, ultimately residing in permanent ambivalence. It’s agitating and fantastic.
Jillian Conrad, Bonsai Radio 2, graphite, brass, concrete, porcelain, steel, solder
The Bonsai Radio series steals the show. Here Conrad displays a mastery of line—she stands and leans brass in subtle ways that yield massive vulnerability and pathos. In Bonsai Radio 2 she juxtaposes impossible, at the very least improbable, materials like graphite, brass, porcelain, and concrete as an overflowing, residue-laden box that feels naturally occurring. The grid-like lines in Bonsai Radio 1 simultaneously suggest ardent directionality and total purposelessness. There is an intimacy in the quaint scale of these objects, and the fact that they are placed on shelves as opposed to pedestals forces a specific angle, enabling the viewer to trust Conrad’s directions, as if he is reading a nonsensical map.
Jillian Conrad, The old straight track, brass, aluminum mesh, thread
The power of Ley Lines lies in moments of utter believability. The viewer cognitively understands that these structures are completely contrived by the artist, yet the pieces somehow effortlessly present themselves as unified objects that could plausibly show up in the world, at least the world outside of the gallery. However, not every moment is completely believable. The old straight track combines a tall yet modest structure of thin brass tubes slightly curving upwards towards the ceiling and leaning against the wall behind it. Near the top, which should be about six feet or so, a perpendicular piece of brass of similar dimensions juts out along the wall. Pieced-together sheets of aluminum mesh cascade down the wall from the perpendicular tube in a triangular format, the tip resting on the floor. Colorful thread scale two sides of the roughly formed triangle, moving in and out like tightly compacted shockwaves. The cold, perpendicular crossing of the brass is arresting by itself. The mesh is strangely decorative, and although the combination of thread and aluminum is materially compelling, it feels confined to the wall and forcefully attached to the brass. Perhaps the mesh should stand freely on the floor, more in line with Collapsed or String Quartet.
Jillian Conrad, Long Division (left), thread, graphite, linen; and Bonsai Radio 3 (right), brass, cardboard, rubber, cork
Long Division likely stands over eight feet tall. Again, two thin brass tubes tower above the viewer, leaning in a pathetically elegant fashion. At the very bottom a small brass leg emerges as an unlikely support, tacked together with muddied plasticine. The gimpy leg and ball of plasticine that links it to the rest of the structure are sincere, sweet, and stunning. But about a third to half of the way up the structure, a wooly phallic arm juts out the side, disturbing the lovely simplicity of line, stagnating the vertical movement of the viewer’s eye.
Jillian Conrad, Short Wave (Orange), thread, graphite, linen
On both sides of the gallery, Conrad has placed framed drawings that contain thread, linen, and long thin sticks of graphite. Certainly these drawings are intended to be their own works, and are stated so in the gallery listing. However, given the relation of them to the free standing sculptures in the gallery space, they feel like studies for the larger works, and they are wonderfully effective that way. The course corrections both in thread lines and pencil lines are indicative of process. By looking at these the viewer gains insight into Conrad’s sculptural decision making, and it is both revealing and beneficial for the work at large.
Jillian Conrad, Collapsed, chicken wire, gold, bronze
Ley Lines as a complete arrangement is sparse, and appropriately so: Jillian Conrad makes pieces that need to meander. They are demure yet aggressive, improbable yet trustworthy. And while they are often reminiscent of an innocent curiosity, they also evoke the kind of anxiety that compels a viewer to repeatedly rethink and revisit her work.
Ley Lines runs through June 25 at Devin Borden Gallery.