Los Angeles

Ellen Birrell

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

T(h)ree Rings, 1991, Ellen Birrell’s installation, consisted of a three-part sequence of situations in which a variety of materials, photographs, and texts were punningly manipulated to address issues of naming, stereotyping, and marginalization. Birrell constructed her own small exhibition space in one of the museum galleries, finishing this room over the course of the show. The floor and walls of the surrounding gallery were also used for display, and the resulting dichotomy between the site’s interior and exterior aspects reiterated the reflection on classification systems at the work’s core.

Employing milled lumber, graded for building use, Birrell built a basin structure, dry-walling and painting its outside walls, while leaving the inside studs and braces exposed. These were festooned with framed photographs showing found images and graphic devices identifying deviant situations within a wide range of scientific disciplines. In the center of this room she placed a large stack of first-quality two-by-fours. Both ends of each piece of wood in the stack were stamped with the name of the lumber mill, “BURRILL,” which played off the artist’s name. Around the structure Birrell arranged a number of peculiarly misshapen two-by-fours, each bearing a paper tag specifying, in official lumber industry terms, its particular deviance: “warp,” “crook,” or “twist.” Of course these same characteristics, observed in living trees, would constitute part of their natural charm.

In the second installment the grove of deviant lumber was taken down and put in piles along each exterior side of the installation’s structure. Inside, the stack of “good” wood was cut up and reassembled as a kind of parquet floor. Some stamped blocks of wood from the stack were mounted on the rear wall of the structure, surrounding a circular steel saw blade onto which was pasted a copy of art historian Rene Block’s diagram of the historical sequence of artists using found objects. This arrangement had its own punning title, Playing with Rene’s Blocks. The array of images on the walls was augmented by the addition of photodocumentation of the first installment.

For the last installment, the inner walls of the installation’s structure were finished, and a door frame and baseboards were added. The trim was inscribed with phrases taken from a lumber-industry grading guide, denoting flaws significant enough to reject a piece of wood. Birrell replaced the saw blade and some of the blocks in her wall arrangement with a large tree section, while the cumulative array of photographs was moved outside and mounted on warped, crooked, and twisted shelves.

Birrell’s movements, refigurations, and material changes within the installation were intended to reiterate the conceptual order of a cycle, while acting as verbal and visual puns about deviance. But T(h)ree Rings was such a circus of material and textual effects that it almost subverted its own critical intentions. The installation’s finished room served only as a way of underlining the pun on marginalization created through the relegation of the photographic inventory to a nearby gallery wall. The work’s sincere and subtle demonstration of deviance as a matter of context was confused by Birrell’s love of insubordinate signification.

Buzz Spector