Jeanne Silverthorne

Jeanne Silverthorne’s installation was a meditation on the artist’s studio, providing a point of entry to a body of work that resonates in surprising ways. Her strategy of blowing up the small plaster fragments that are the material residue of the casting process and transforming them into large black rubber sculptures evokes the nature of the contemporary artist’s role: the need to search for new visual forms when so many have already been exhausted. Her investigation of the sculptural process through its leftovers lends an ironic cast to the persistence of artistic practice and the still prevalent tropes of the 19th-century artist’s studio. As Ingrid Schaffner points out in the introductory essay to the catalogue that accompanied Silverthorne’s show, this kind of response to the sense that art has reached a dead end goes back at least to the late ’60s, when artists like Bruce Nauman were making videos based on a series of mundane, repetitive actions, with the artist’s studio as subject and stage.

In a similarly ironic, somewhat comic spirit, Silverthorne, too, has retreated to the studio only to reproduce its most functional details. By replacing a fluorescent-light fixture with a black rubber cast of it and positioning this over a plain work table holding yet another sculpture, Silverthorne engaged in the tautological practice of identifying an object by its double and thus framing the practice of artmaking as a self-referential, even absurd activity. Yet when she hung a framed-latex cast of the studio floor on the wall, Silverthorne seemed to hem herself in even more. The group of electrical outlets cast in black rubber trailing long wire cords was drawn against the gallery wall like some strange family, to which the artist might also belong if one viewed these useless electrical cords as metaphors for a no longer vital tradition.

Silverthorne’s approach recalled William Anastasi’s 1966 Untitled (wall on the wall), but departed from the purely literal implications of his piece by also expressing the burdensome weight of 19th-century notions of creativity. Underneath Silverthorne’s expansive range of cool strategies, one sensed a profound loss, a certain romanticism. Through her process and her chosen materials, Silverthorne exposed the inner workings of the studio’s architectural corpus and “fleshed out” the notion that the studio functions as an extension of the artist’s body. As she wrote in an article for Sculpture, entitled “On the Studio’s Ruins”: “The studio turns out to be incarceral. We shall not be released. As there is no projection without incorporation, we are the space. The wall of the studio becomes covered with our skin. Its guts are our entrails, dangling wires our ganglia, plumbing is intestines.” In this frame of mind, Silverthorne hung a series of latex-framed “skins.” One of these showed healthy skin, another skin corroded by either age or illness, but all were framed in black and sculpted in orange rubber from blown-up photographs. If in size these works recalled salon paintings, they presented truly contemporary—opaque and unreflective—surfaces; here the body is as tired as the image of the beaux-arts studio, which Silverthorne evoked with her tragicomic giant black rubber chandelier hanging low and heavy from the ceiling, its thick black cords pooling with other wires on the floor that led, eventually, to the gallery’s emergency exit sign.

Silverthorne’s dysfunctional lighting fixtures recall Jasper Johns’ earlier cast lightbulbs, as well as Philip Guston’s cartoon version of the artist’s studio, and less obviously, invoke the work of René Magritte, who also framed floor sections and placed clouds in incongruous landscapes (Silverthorne floats one over a black rubber painting). In a 1929 essay “Les Mots et les images” (Words and images), Magritte wrote that vague figures have as necessary and perfect a meaning as precise ones, which seems an apt way to assess Silverthorne’s own blown-up plaster fragments and the irony and humor that drive her work. In remaking the object world, Silverthorne, like Magritte before her, releases its mysterious nature.

Eileen Neff