Jill Downen’s Three Dimensional Sketchbook is a small body of work
Jill Downen has hundreds of sketchbooks, filled with drawings, diagrams, technical notes, lists and journal entries. And since 2007, she has been working on a three-dimensional sketchbook, a series of miniature sculptures created in part as preparation for her full-scale works, some of which have measured 8 feet tall.
Taken from that 3-D sketchbook, the 15 models now at Plug Projects (artfully arranged on a table specially designed and fabricated for this show, in the gallery’s long, narrow space) come across as charming and confident. Charming because of their wee scale, and confident due to Downen’s skillful handling of materials.
Architecture and the human body make up Downen’s primary interests, and she has assembled these abstractions of body parts from plaster and wood — materials traditionally used for building. “Tendon,” a slender, white L-shaped form with an elegant slope on the inside and a hard 90-degree angle on the outside, doesn’t immediately suggest human anatomy. But the shape definitely conjures up the white tissue that binds muscle to bone, and the title seals the association.
Several of the artist’s tiny tabletop sculptures register as more literal. “Skin” a paper-thin, square-shaped piece of plaster with a wrinkled surface, resembles an opaque, hardened patch of human epidermis. In “Nervous System on Support” a neuronlike form branches outward, while a basswood scaffolding structure braces it from below. Downen is reminding us that architecture’s most basic function is to provide shelter for fragile human bodies.
In a few sculptures, Downen seems more preoccupied with demonstrating plaster’s material qualities than creating a metaphor for the relationship between buildings and bodies. “Block,” a hardened lump with a surface like whipped cream, resists interpretation. “Debris” consists of pulverized plaster bits piled next to lines of minuscule fragments arranged in painstakingly straight rows. Downen even drops a few plaster splatters behind her “Block Wall,” which, as the title suggests, is a wall of plaster blocks.
Downen describes her work as “serious play.” She tells me: “Everything is intentional. I feel, as an artist, it is part of my role to work in harmony with materials and let them be what they want to be.” It’s clear by looking at “Block” and “Debris” that she knows how plaster behaves. She knows what her materials want to be and how to get them to do what she wants them to do.
Although this exhibition’s title references a sketchbook, it comes across more as a blueprint. Downen’s tabletop sculptures aren’t so much attempts to discover, experiment or study as they are controlled, deliberate plans for larger works. Even the pieces that fall into the material-studies category feel intentional.
Is this a weak point in Downen’s work? Not necessarily. But after the most spontaneous (and also most delightful) moment in the show, I’m eager to see what she might produce if she lessened her control. In “Three Dimensional Sketchbook,” the exhibition’s namesake, a metal cabinet sits in the back corner of the gallery, with each drawer marked with a single word (breath, light, room, joined, deconstruction). Open the drawer labeled embodiment, and the motion causes thin sheets of gold leaf stored inside to rise and fall. With her in-depth understanding of materials, Downen knows that this is how the brilliant sheets naturally respond, yet in this instance, there’s no way to control the forces enacted upon the material. (The gold leaf has personal significance for Downen; her father, a craftsman, taught her how to use it.)
Downen’s three-dimensional sketches are solid, thoughtful works. Despite their small size, they are a significant presence. But there’s a kind of poetry at work inside that embodiment drawer, and seeing it makes you long for more of the feeling it delivers elsewhere in the show.