Jennifer Bolande

INOVA - Institute of Visual Arts

Talent, David Robbins’s 1986 photographic work assembling eighteen black-and-white headshots of precocious peers then orbiting the neo-Conceptual East Village gallery Nature Morte and the fledgling Metro Pictures, includes a portrait of artist Jennifer Bolande. Smiling out from a field of now-illustrious figures such as Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Ashley Bickerton, and Jeff Koons is the young hopeful, finally getting her art-historical due at Milwaukee’s Institute of Visual Arts, with a full-blown survey aptly titled “Landmarks.” Known for simple poetic gestures and innovative photo objects, Bolande, a champion of plucky appropriation strategies, has a keen eye for identifying the allegorical and contingent meaning attending everyday objects and vernacular imagery. And, as this retrospective featuring more than fifty well-chosen works attests, she has remained remarkably consistent in her ontological investigations, despite the enormous variety of material and media that she has negotiated over the past three decades.

While Talent may be Robbins’s most memorable artistic contribution to date, Milk Crown, 1987, is Bolande’s. In this cast-porcelain rendering of Harold Edgerton’s famous 1956 image of a gracefully splashing milk drop, Bolande has physicalized the resultant form into a precious object that lends the subject of the iconic image an objecthood it never had, complicating our memory of the original photograph while contradicting our understanding of fluid dynamics. As is evident here, Bolande is at her best when directly confronting the critical subtexts inherent in her favored methods of appropriation and duplication. Milk Crown is far from a verisimilitudinous one-liner: Interconnected questions of authorship, memory, and perception spring forth from this undeniably beautiful object. Similarly, Composition with Speaker Cone, 1990, a deeply sepia-toned photographic still life depicting a dramatically lit conical form lying in a nondescript space, romanticizes sound transmission by delivering an atmospheric image of an old-fashioned electromagnetic speaker. As though preserved in amber, this image, akin to the white coronet of the porcelain splash, offers up an ironic simulacrum, perpetually frozen in time, motion, and space.

In a published conversation with Robbins on the occasion of this show—her first retrospective—Bolande explained that the “artifacts and fragments that I select from the cultural landscape tend to be things that have somehow lost the significance that they once had and are becoming obsolete or forgotten. I identify objects and images that are on the brink of extinction, archive and study them, then bring them back into circulation, reanimating them and giving them new lives, new locations, new meanings.” Another example of this regenerative tendency is her work with globes. Globe Sighting: Stonehouse Road, Bloomfield NJ, 2000, consists of a melancholic depiction of a lone orb peeking out from under a window blind in a massive redbrick school building. Like the birds in Jean-Luc Mylayne’s photographs, say, Bolande’s globes are simply a joy to behold. Sounding a more humorous note, The Rounding of Corners, 1991/2010, takes as its subject matter the outmoded fashion of shoulder pads. Here, the retardataire sartorial prosthetic is employed as a pictorial and decorative device, rounding out an image of a woman’s torso while augmenting the photograph’s frame, softening the contours of both image and object.

Twenty-eight years of photo-based objects and images impressively installed, activate INOVA’s vast space with carefully placed rimshots, conceptual echoes, and thematic parallels. The recurrence of the stereo speaker secures it as Bolande’s favorite trope: “You look at it,” she remarked to Robbins, “waiting for something, whether vibration or information, to emerge from it.” Analogously, the exhibition pulses with an unforeseen eloquence arising from a deft blending of past and present, obsolete and living, memory and expectation.

Michelle Grabner