Sysyphus unbound 

Jennifer Reifsneider lets go of the reins

The guru said to the disciple: “You have three jobs. Your first is to find me. Your second is to love me. Your third is to leave me.”—Indian Proverb

“I don’t keep track anymore.” So says Jennifer Reifsneider of her recent work installed in the white cube (“Note the angles,” urges Reifsneider) that is Missoula’s Goatsilk Gallery. Such self-commentary will surely prick the ears of those familiar with her past work, which has been marked by marking, by the recording and counting of such elements as time and space and mustard seeds.

Glimpsing the first work seen upon stepping into the elegant entrance (more on that later) of her installation, Second Giant: New Work by Jennifer Reifsneider, one might beg to differ that she’s no longer keeping track. “The Year I Let My Hair Grow Long” (2002-03) measures just that—a day-by-day gathering of the artist’s own hair, stratified like some curlicue geological cross-section in a tiny scientist’s vial, complete with its exacting millimeter demarcations.

In speaking of the relation of her new work to that preceding it, Reifsneider notes that “[It] displaces what’s before it, but depends on it for its own life and energy.” Her articulation draws a comparison of how an earlier work such as “Faith” (2001), which consisted of 1,000 mustard seeds in a jar, informs “One-Eighth of Desire,” included in this exhibition. Reading her artist’s statement, we come to understand how the newer work is a “second giant” to the earlier: “In order to consider the work of the teacher a success, the student must become a ‘second giant,’ capable of surpassing the abilities of the teacher. As the student becomes the teacher, the process continues. The highest achievement amounts to self-destruction.”

The medium of “Desire” is listed as “25 pounds of rubber bands,” a weight that tops out as one-eighth of her original intention of knotting together 200 pounds of rubber bands. I don’t keep track anymore. When her attempts at finding a source for another 175 pounds of rubber bands that would perfectly match the ones already amassed were foiled, the “second giant”—a newly more relaxed artist—let it go at that.

In a recent interview with the artist, it occurred to me that listening to Jennifer Reifsneider speak is not unlike studying her work. From a strict realm of the senses, the auditory level of her speak is a hush, she hesitates before speaking, and when she does, her words catch you, you feel compelled to concentrate, trying to take it all in. Reifsneider’s words, like her work, are exceedingly intelligent, light years away from a breeze shot. From a strictly visual level, Second Giant includes Art 101’s basics—color, form, texture and composition, but it, too, is exceedingly intelligent, as layered in meaning as the reams of dictionary pages she has taped into an irregular sphere: “Returned/Withheld.”

“Returned/Withheld” displaces what was before it, its dictionary pages having existed as a first giant, if you will, in her earlier work “Contents (The Myth of Sisyphus),” from 1999. In the earlier work Reifsneider arranged the crumpled pages of definition in two heaps, one left crumpled, the other smoothed out by the artist’s hand.

While a familiarity with Reifsneider’s earlier work of immaculate grids and controlled substances such as her own breath collected in a jar (“Condensation of the Space Between,” 2001) offers nuances of illumination and a recognition that the works in Goatsilk are slightly softer in texture and intention, the exhibition may be contemplated with appreciation by a viewer new to her work as well. Second Giant is an argument for visual art that requires—no, entices—more than an assumed stroll from picture to picture, from pedestal to pedestal.

It is tempting to do just that in Second Giant, to take in the sumptuous allure of the visual (the installation is subtly sensual, textural). The installation is spare, a mere four objects. It is an argument in favor of less-is-more in curatorial selection, a method that is all too infrequently practiced in attempts to display (cram in?) far too many objects. But there’s more, there’s more. If you’re given to Deconstruction, you might amble through the intimate gallery with Derrida sitting on one shoulder, whispering in your ear, Kierkegaard on the other. Seek the philosophical if you will, but experiencing this exhibition had me remembering a nugget offered by Carlos Santana on the experience of performance: “You have to be able to get into this space where time, space and gravity disappear.”

Reifsneider’s oeuvre (and her day job; she is the registrar at the Art Museum of Missoula) has been marked by keeping track, an endeavor she is now admittedly giving a little slack. But regarding the time-intensive process of saving a hair each day of the year, or of drying and then stuffing peas into a tube of tulle (“Twin, Judgement”) is how Second Giant offers more than the Gaze. Her work is literally temporal. Whereas viewing art in many a museum or gallery is just that, an ocular partaking of two- or three-dimensional visual art, Reifsneider’s work is unavoidably temporal. It closes in on the gap between the performing arts (or having a sit with a novel), which depend on an expenditure of time for their existence, and the retina capturing a visual image in a split-second. You have to be able to get into this space where time, space and gravity disappear. For Santana, that makes for a performance that’s in the zone. For Jennifer Reifsneider, and visitors to her Second Giant, it makes for an experience that surpasses a casual gaze or a rote stroll through a gallery of “visual” art.

Second Giant is on view at Goatsilk Gallery Wednesday through Sunday, May 7-June 7, from 2 to 6 p.m. Goatsilk Gallery is located at 1909 Wyoming St.—behind the orange door. Call 728-9251 for more information.

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