Art in the Lou: Jill Downen inhabits Bruno David Gallery

| Art Editor

In 2001, Jill Downen received her Master of Fine Arts from Washington University as a Danforth Scholar, and, since then, her work has focused on the relationship between architecture and the human body through installations, models and drawings. While her current show, “As If You Are Here,” at Bruno David Gallery, still explores themes of the body within constructed spaces, Downen’s newer pieces are shrunken down to dollhouse-size. Rather than sharing her creations with viewers in a traditional, life-size confrontation, the artwork can only be seen through peepholes in the walls and windows of shoebox-sized architectural models. Half of Downen’s quasi-sculptural architecture models are embedded in the walls of the exhibition using mixed media, including plaster, concrete, glass and gold leaf. Downen has turned a singular main gallery space into a collection of 20 rooms, but you only have to walk around one gallery to pay each alcove a visit.

Peering inside Jill Downen’s installation pieces at the Bruno David Gallery, which occupy shoebox-sized structures. Downen graduated from Wash. U. in 2001 with a Masters of Fine Arts.

Peering inside Jill Downen’s installation pieces at the Bruno David Gallery, which occupy shoebox-sized structures. Downen graduated from Wash. U. in 2001 with a Masters of Fine Arts.

A peek into one of Downen’s installation windows opens up a tiny, precious world of constructed space, including miniature staircases, light fixtures, cast sculptures and cracked concrete floors. Most of the pieces have a neutral palette of white plaster, latex and wood, while some include hints of cobalt blue or gold leafing. But the radiance of the miniature light fixtures that pour out of the mysterious spaces beyond where the viewer can see are more effective in catching and holding their awareness than the added color.

An interior wall installation that grabbed my attention was “Outline.” Longer and thinner than most of the windows, this piece is 18-by-11-by-29.5 inches, which makes it an even more narrow field of vision than usual. One side of the room is covered in a wall of rocks. Another wall features a smaller window, parallel to the viewer’s peephole. All of the works include a passageway to a further unknown space like this window, extending beyond our range of vision. A delicate line of blue thread hangs from one wall of the alcove to the other, much like a crowd control rope. A strong light shines against the jagged rocks and creates a dance between their cast shadows, activating the space and making it even more intriguing for the restricted visitor.

The pieces’ smaller size is what makes the models so conducive to the viewer’s imagination—the gallery wall acts as a boundary between our bodies and the fantastical pieces beyond it. Downen challenges us not only to physically bend our bodies and tilt our heads to reach the height and angle of the pieces behind the walls, but also to exercise curiosity—to play along with the conceptualization of these rooms as real. This series, more so than Downen’s larger works in the past, relies on the viewer’s active participation in order to appreciate her architecture.

“On the day of the exhibition opening, I was very impressed when [Downen] pulled up a stool for a young viewer to step on so he could look at one of her wall installation pieces,” Ashley Lee, a junior Bachelor’s in Fine Arts candidate in Sam Fox, who is also a current intern at Bruno David Gallery, said. “She explained to me that her recent works are inspired by different places she had traveled and that each of the works are reconstructions of her memory of the spaces.”

Half of these “memories” that Lee refers to are pieces that hang on the exterior of the wall, like little boxes protruding into the viewers’ space. The first piece you encounter in the gallery, entitled: “The room under my skin,” stands on a pedestal. Based on a storage area that Downen discovered when visiting the Louvre Museum, the room is filled with miniature versions of her own old sculptural work, as well as remainders of de-installed pieces. The room is completely refurbished with miniature wooden crates, broken plaster and gray shelves with bits of gold leaf lining the “walls.” The viewer is immersed into this intricate space using three windows at different heights of the box, small white staircases and dramatic lighting.

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But it seems like this switch in presentation for half of the pieces, as well as the sheer volume of works in the show, was controversial for many of the students who recently visited the gallery.

“I think the way they are set up and the number of works that are presented devalues the pieces,” Lee said. “It confuses the viewers—why some of the works are inserted into the walls and some are not. They are all meant to be sold so they can be hung on a wall. I wouldn’t say that this body of work is her best collection nor the most impressive,” she concluded.

It is interesting to consider these sculptures as products for sale—so much of the magic behind the pieces in this show is just that: the fact that they are behind the wall themselves, embedded into the gallery space. It is hard to imagine some of Downen’s alcoves as physical boxes hanging on the walls of a collector’s house.

When prompted by a class of painting majors during a field trip with the junior and senior art school students, Bruno David himself opened up a “secret” door behind the interior wall pieces to reveal a hallway behind the gallery space. This backstage world of Downen’s intimate architectural models was necessary for their presentation in an institutional setting. But would their wondrous effects be as prevalent in a modern home?

Downen’s pieces are strong enough to stand alone as separate memories in the gallery; the architectural spaces she has made for us are fragile, inviting and provocative. Visit all 20 of her constructed rooms yourself by visiting “As If You Are Here” at Bruno David Gallery, on view through March 12.

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