The Washington Post

EXHIBIT

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

- — 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.

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 ?? 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...
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...

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