Jessica Stockholder: Hollow Places Court in Ash-Tree Wood

By: Stephen Vincent Kobasa

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum • Ridgefield, CT • • Through December 31, 2011

Jessica Stockholder, Ash-Tree Wood (Sound Gallery), 2011.Seemingly a traveling theater company has abandoned its painted sets, the pieces scattered and initially indecipherable, as if left behind in some refugee rush from approaching bombers. But gradually scenes begin to emerge, tableaux vivants et morts, from this curious lumber.

The elements of these sculptures were fashioned by Jessica Stockholder, in collaboration with both a cabinetmaker and a screen printer, from the remains of a tree cut down on the museum’s property. Although Stockholder has alluded to the totems of the Pacific Northwest, recalling her childhood in Vancouver in one quotation, there is an equally clear echo of New Guinea ceremonial boards, just barely three dimensional, with their mysterious geometry patterned on flat wooden surfaces.

These might also be ranks of amateur shields, awaiting the extras of some Wagnerian free-for-all on a cramped stage, or the clapboards for an artful witch’s trap of a cottage, lacking only the oversize candy cane portico. And then they might be the four-sided cases of wooden organ pipes, a pale wash over their surfaces marked by vaguely musical notations.

Another assemblage treats the planks as paper at its most primitive, a surface for printing even before it is turned to pulp. The lettered panels suggest coded instructions for assembly, with several alphabet characters repeated. Suspicion arises that they may have been deliberately altered, as in the Buster Keaton film where mislabeled boxes for a house building kit yield a German expressionist tenement with doors opening into thin air.

In the largest gallery, hinged forms are more slabs than screens with large Matisse-like cutouts giving them a punctured art deco look, like a jigsaw puzzle for a giant toddler. I wondered what would happen if the pieces of this installation were individually sold and scattered like some anthropologist’s relics, lost to their tribe. Where would the presiding spirit of the tree now reside?

But in that same large space, convex mirrors, with their benevolent surveillance, revise the room. In the curved glass reflection of a section of drop ceiling with a painted eclipse at its center, you can just make out the tree’s ghost, relocated and satisfied.

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