“Site Unseen: Architectural Installations by Jill Downen” at The Studios, Inc

These small places/spaces are worlds unto themselves, each with its own affect: solitude, plenty, division, unity, clarity, shadow.

Kansas City Art Institute assistant professor Jill Downen’s sculptures are poetic architectural enigmas.  Ranging from tiny to monumental, Downen’s minimalist structures examine the relationship of the human body to architecture.  Her exhibit at The Studios Inc comprises tiny, wall-mounted box-like structures, in which she has created various interiors.

Other interior spaces are constructed behind the gallery wall and are accessed by peering into a small opening in the wall. Still others are stand-alone rooms that resemble the most minimalist dollhouses ever.

Downen creates tension between the perceived reality of interior and exterior and between the miniature and the gigantic.  As viewers we relate to these proportion shifts in a topsy-turvy Through the Looking-Glass way.  We become gigantic, experiencing Downen’s interiors like Alice peering through the keyhole after drinking the magic elixir.

In Anteroom, a semi-gold-leafed glass runs diagonally through the room. Our fragmented self is reflected within, defining the space from the inside as the body stands on the outside.  The mirror effect also extends the space, shifting the proportions and scale.

Silence, a 17.5 x 12 x 13 inch interior that exists behind the gallery wall, reveals an ocular opening in the “room’s” ceiling whose hidden light source casts a round light on the floor and wall.  Similarly, in Through A Roof, the light penetrates a broken and rickety roof structure in an interior that measures 14.5 x 12 x 15 inches.

These small places/spaces are worlds unto themselves, each with its own affect: solitude, plenty, division, unity, clarity, shadow.  Some interiors are easy to see and therefore emotionally accessible, and some are hard to fully see because of the orientation of the opening and the interior site lines.  And despite the scarcity of things in most rooms, they are psychologically spacious.

Objects divide the spaces, windows in some offer varying points of view, and tunnels, walls, rubble, lathe, plaster, light and shadow articulate these interiors, as our own physical presence redefines each space, or at least our strange relationship to it. Rendered in white plaster, these small rooms and interior spaces live uncannily large. No matter how altered the interiors are, they seem limitless in a way, partially through our mental transference and partly by Downen’s deft manipulation of proportions.

The Room Under my Skin suggests an artist’s studio but is actually intended to evoke the Greek and Roman storage area in the Louvre, according to the artist.  Yet, the miniatures in the room are tiny replicas of Downen’s work, plus remnants of plaster, concrete, and gold leaf from some of her de-installed projects.  The crowded room feels spacious, telegraphing the inherent activity of an artist’s studio and the implied work pace.

“The body is the primary vehicle one has for understanding the world,” Downen writes. “I offer viewers immersive environments that heighten the senses and ways of knowing that are often private and experiential.  I see architecture as an extension of the body; a metaphoric prolongation of self.”

As if You are Here is a monumental miniature of the Studios Inc gallery space—the gallery in a gallery, reality in a reality. You almost expect to see your tiny self, sitting within it.

Downen’s miniature rooms express the interplay between exterior and interior, and interiors within an interior, or the “within within within” as poet and literary critic Susan Stewart writes in her book, On Longing:  Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Discussing the dollhouse as miniature, she writes, “Occupying a space within an enclosed space, the dollhouse’s aptest analogy is the locket or the secret recesses of the heart:  center within center, within within within.”

As temporary inhabitants physically within Downen’s installation, and metaphysically inside her fantastical interiors, we too become the within within within.

 “Site Unseen:  Architectural Installations by Jill Downen” continues at The Studios Inc, 1708 Campbell St., through Oct. 16. Hours are; for more information 816-994-7134 or thestudiosinc.org. Downen, a 2015 Charlotte Street Visual Artist Award Fellow, will be part of the award winners’ exhibit opening in October at Block Artspace.

Dana Self

Dana Self is an arts writer who was a contemporary art curator for more than 13 years at museums in Kansas, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Missouri, including Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. She has organized roughly 100 exhibitions of emerging and midcareer artists. She is also marketing director for UMKC Conservatory.

Leave a Reply