EX­HIBIT

Be­neath the sur­face, ‘Toil’ re­veals a sen­si­bil­ity no drone could pos­sess

The Washington Post - - EDITORS' PICKS - — Michael O’Sul­li­van

Project 4 Gallery’s Jill Towns­ley:

Toil isn’t just about the process of cre­at­ing art; the works are un­ex­pect­edly beau­ti­ful.

The phrase “work of art” takes on new mean­ing at Project 4 Gallery, where the la­bor of art­mak­ing — and not nec­es­sar­ily the fin­ished prod­uct — is front and cen­ter in the new ex­hi­bi­tion “Toil.”

De­spite the spot­light on process, how­ever, the show is not just about tech­nique. It’s also, in a sense, about what it means to be hu­man.

The ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures the art of Jill Towns­ley, an English­woman whose most prom­i­nent pieces are li­able to in­duce vi­car­i­ous carpal tun­nel syn­drome in some view­ers. On the gallery’s first floor are five “Scrib­ble Squares” — large pen-and-ink draw­ings made by ob­ses­sively scrib­bling, in a ran­dom fash­ion, un­til the pa­per is nearly cov­ered with a dense thicket of inky black squig­gles.

The works are un­ex­pect­edly beau­ti­ful, with richly tex­tured sur­faces and sur­pris­ing depth. Here and there, mi­nus­cule gaps in cov­er­age al­low the white pa­per to twin­kle through the ink, like stars in a mid­night sky. Sub­tle vari­a­tions in the amount of gel ink cre­ate a tonal range that seems to shift, un­der the gallery’s bright lights, from glossy black to an al­most green­ish gray.

The works are ac­com­pa­nied by a video in­stal­la­tion show­ing a stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion of the process, break­ing down the act of draw­ing into 500 in­di­vid­ual acts of mark­mak­ing, each last­ing only five sec­onds.

Up­stairs, there’s even more sweat in ev­i­dence. The in­stal­la­tion “Satie 840” fea­tures video of Towns­ley writ­ing the num­bers 1 through 840 on a chalk­board, not just one af­ter the other, but one on top of the other. She writes “347,” for ex­am­ple, erases it with her bare hand, and then writes “348” on top of the re­sult­ing chalky smudge. And so on and so forth, un­til she’s fin­ished. If you’ve got 21/ hours —

2 and the ap­petite for the world’s most bor­ing fea­ture film — you can watch the whole thing. If you’ve got $6,000, you can buy it, chalk­board in­cluded.

In the back room is the show’s high­light: “2,500 Till Rolls.” It’s a sculp­tural in­stal­la­tion made from spools of cash reg­is­ter re­ceipt tape, 2,500 of which have been placed on the gallery floor.

In an evo­ca­tion of a city sky­line, some of the pa­per has been slightly un­spooled, cre­at­ing cylin­dri­cal tow­ers vary­ing in height from a cen­time­ter or two to more than six feet. It’s a visual treat.

Else­where in the show are two smaller, al­most doc­u­men­tary-like in­stal­la­tions. The first fea­tures a pile of 70 peb­bles, each ran­domly plucked from a stream in the vil­lage where Towns­ley lives and then painted with nail pol­ish. The brightly col­ored rocks are ac­com­pa­nied by a wall of num­bered pho­to­graphs show­ing them in their nat­u­ral state. The sec­ond is a grid of sev­eral blurry pho­to­graphs shot, in seem­ingly ran­dom fash­ion, dur­ing a foggy walk in the coun­try­side where Towns­ley grew up.

There’s a slightly ro­botic qual­ity here and throughout the show. At times Towns­ley seems less like an artist than like a fac­tory worker, a drone guided more by a job de­scrip­tion than by any ro­man­tic no­tion of cre­ativ­ity.

Yet there’s an­other, very dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­ity be­neath the work’s su­per­fi­cial drudgery. “Toil” may be largely about num­bers and grids and count­ing, but there’s also a pow­er­ful sense of chance, ac­ci­dent and hu­man fal­li­bil­ity. Watch enough of “Satie 840,” for ex­am­ple, and you’ll notice that Towns­ley loses count ev­ery so of­ten.

It’s in the cracks that the light shines through. All work and no play made Jack a dull boy. And it’s Towns­ley’s sub­ver­sive sense of play that makes “Toil” such a de­light.

PHO­TOS BY MICHAEL O'SUL­LI­VAN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Jill Towns­ley made her “Scrib­ble Squares” by ob­ses­sively scrib­bling, in a ran­dom fash­ion, un­til the pa­per was nearly cov­ered with a dense thicket of inky black squig­gles. In­set: Here and there, mi­nus­cule gaps in cov­er­age al­low the pa­per to twin­kle through the ink.

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