A studio visit with Jillian Conrad

HOUSTON — Donald Judd, as a student of art history and philosophy at Columbia University, didn’t call himself a sculptor. He liked to say that he was a maker of specific objects. An inadvertent innovator and trendsetter, he used prefabricated materials to produce box-like forms built by others, giving rise to what has become commonplace: outsourcing. Richard Serra’s emblematic materials are lead and Cor-Ten steel; he is known for exploiting the behavioral properties of the latter to impose his architectural sculptures in a landscape. Carl Andre said he wanted his clean work to be “close to zero”.

Judd admired Lee Bontecou, ​​who worked without assistants. In 1965 he wrote that Bontecou’s art, neither painting nor sculpture, “affirms its own existence, form and power. It becomes an object in its own right. Is this the objective of this sculpture? And what could that mean? With what historical reference points of art could a contemporary sculptor engage? Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, Julio González, Louise Bourgeois or David Hammons; handmade, made or found? These divisions seem too neat, too designed for a textbook, especially since all of these artists have produced signature works. Is the signature style a necessary mark of the sculpture and the “specific object” or has it become a limitation? What other terms besides “specific objects” should be considered?

My recent studio visit with Jillian Conrad prompted these questions. Sculptors from Jeff Koons to Nari Ward via Sarah Sze can be seen as entangled in a particular, even hybrid lineage. This sense of an art historical connection is not so apparent with Conrad’s divergent bodies of work and unique pieces, her integration of things she made with detritus and things found in nature. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she created a number of one-off pieces, such as “A Stick or a Sleep” (2020) and “Rootball” (2022), the power of which would be diluted if more than one work in this vein existed.

Jillian Conrad, “Sites and Settlements: #T” (2014), graphite on paper with archival glue, 9 x 12 inches

Unlike many contemporary sculptors – who seem to be afflicted with what I call “Marfa Syndrome”, a desire for permanence – is Conrad’s approach to the tension between material form and passing time. Philosophically speaking, she is closer to Heraclitus, who believed that everything is constantly changing, than to Plato, who believed in the existence of ideal forms. What does it mean to reject the famous models of timelessness that we encounter in museums and remote places – like the island of Videy in Iceland, where Serra erected “Áfangar” (Standing Stones, 1990), a site-specific installation of nine pairs basalt columns up to 13 feet high that will outlive us all? What does it mean to subvert this aesthetic representation of “empire thinking”?

In works like Serra’s, nature is not part of the equation, except as a place to be occupied and even subjugated. Many familiar aesthetic cues seemed largely out of place when I began to think of Conrad’s work, which was both unsettling and reassuring – a real, rare treat. It made me realize that I was looking at things that didn’t look like other specific objects in the larger realm of sculpture.

What comes after specific objects? One has to think of Judd’s original use of the term “object” since it seems to refer to outsourcing and the use of manufactured products. Instead of objects, what about “things”? Jillian Conrad is a creator of specific things that expansively emphasize the particularities of their identity.

Jillian Conrad, “Stick or Sleep”, detail

Conrad’s specific thing “a stick or a sleep” is apparently a 21-foot-long sculpture made of branches of pomegranate wood, hackberry, crape myrtle and oak, joined to form a single linear form, which is suspended from the ceiling by brass rings attached to nylon. She applied different pigments, including blue and yellow, in a few discrete areas.

I first saw a picture of “stick or sleep” on the internet shortly after Conrad and I met, and we started corresponding about the Museum of the Mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico; Paracelsian occultist Robert Fludd; the relationship between art and magic (Conrad lectured on this subject at the University of Houston); An inventory of losses and other writings by Judith Schalansky; the novels of César Aira; the poetry of Robert Creeley; and the art of Thomas Nozkowski. More importantly, I was puzzled by what I saw, which made me keep looking.

All our exchanges concerned Conrad’s work, but I can’t say exactly how, especially since I don’t want to be reductive or literal. I know she studied Philosophy, History of Mathematics, and Ancient Greek at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and originally wanted to be an architect. After college, she researched the architecture of intentional communities around the world, traveling extensively. In her mid-twenties, she edited Eco-villages and sustainable communities: models of life in the 21st century (1996), published by the Findhorn Foundation, which, according to its website, is a “Community […] guided by three simple practices: inner listening, co-creation with nature’s intelligence, and work as love in action. When she was around 30, she entered graduate school to pursue her Masters of Fine Arts.

Jillian Conrad, “Rootball” (2022), motte, brass, putty, bread dough, string. 4 x 8 x 2 feet

A disturbance is rooted in the experience of seeing “stick or sleep”. The tree branch that Conrad hung can’t be 21 feet long. A branch of this length and circumference could not support its own weight. It is only by walking around the work that its subtly different and distinct sections appear. From a distance, it looks like a single branch that has somehow grown to over 20 feet.

At one point, Conrad asked me, “Did you know that the term ‘tree branch’ refers to the living part of a tree, while ‘stick’ refers to a branch that has fallen to the ground? ? What does it mean to take fallen branches from different types of trees, put them together and suspend the result in the air? Using carpentry to connect the sections, she draws a line in space. Suspended in the air, its shadow becomes another line.

Paul Klee said, “A drawing is simply a line that wanders around.” One could also think of a drawing as the recording of a flowing line moving across a flat surface. From a distance, a group of works on paper by Conrad look like drawings with incredibly straight lines, but they are not. Started in 2014, and now comprised of four series (three of which are in progress), she uses pencil lead, glue, and paper to construct what appears to be a drawing, but is technically a very shallow sculptural relief. .

Richard Serra said: “Drawing is a verb”. In his “Verb List” (1967), he begins with these guidelines: “roll, crumple, fold, store […].” I remembered Serra’s list when Conrad wrote to me about the pencil lead drawings:

Build, erect, construct. These are verbs I think about all the time in my sculptures and works on paper. […] I consider these pencil lead pieces to be very fine sculptures, barely but definitely dimensional.

Jillian Conrad, “Flings and Filings: some falling”, detail (2021), graphite on paper with archival glue, 14 x 17 inches

Serra bent, creased, creased and twisted sheets of lead. It is a flexible material. Conrad does something different: she accepts the rigidity of pencil lead and uses it to make “very fine sculptures”. Inspirations come from a wide range of sources, starting with his interest in architecture. In the series Sites and establishments (2014-16), is it an aerial view of an archaeological site or part of an architectural facade? Isn’t Conrad’s work ecological in the sense that she works with the given, rather than trying to manipulate it into something monumental and permanent? What does she achieve in the dance she initiates between the strict linearity of the mines and the shapes and textures of the drawing?

As Conrad wrote to me, the works in his series Diamonds (2019-ongoing) “were inspired by the mountains and roads of the Navajo Reservation near Farmington, New Mexico, where I was born. They also remind me of the Navajo sand paintings I grew up with. Again, Conrad emerges from the permanence and imposition of the will, as sculptors took over from Michelangelo to Serra, and all that that history entails.

Composed of a clod, brass rods, string, mastic and bread, “Rootball” (2022) seems to directly announce this disengagement. Conrad did not purchase or manufacture the motte; she found it and added the brass rods, putty, and bread, which changed the context, but not the thing itself.

In his work, chance and choice coexist. Is the mound a pedestal and the stems emerging from it the sculpture? If so, why is the piece lying on its side? The configuration of the rods reminds me of an old TV antenna. The mastic visible at the joints underlines the presence of the artist‘s hand. Is “Rootball” a receiver translating what it captures from the cosmos? Is its resistance to familiar categories part of its meaning? With this unique piece, it seems to me that Conrad is trying to broaden our understanding of sculpture.

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