Source: 1GAP GALLERY
Exhibition dates: January 8–April 20, 2021
BBS1GG, Schmetterlinghaus (2021), the mural at the heart of this exhibition found in the residents’ lounge, is the most ambitious single work, in terms of scale and complexity, shown by the 1GAP exhibition program to date. An audacious painted wall with richly colored steel and wood protrusions and fluttering butterfly elements, it is the sixth installation piece by the painter Jennifer Riley utilizing what has become a signature element within her work, her “skeletons.” These are the residue steel sheets from which engine parts have been plasma cut, partially gifted to the artist by Noblitt Fabricators, a machine shop in Columbus, Indiana—the city where she teaches and works some of the year. When she first saw these industrial by-products stacked against a wall she fell in love with the overlapping lines and shapes they generated. These reminded her of favorite passages in the geometrical and gestural abstract artists who are her touchstones, along with masters of baroque and mannerist painting and the natural world, sources all for her distinct, evolving vocabulary of forms.
Riley titles each iteration in her series BBS (for “Big Bright Steel”) and then various numbers and initials to signify the specific venue, in our case 1GG for 1GAP Gallery. (Permanent BSS installations, made with collaborator Emily Kennerk, can be found at Cummins Inc., Global HG, Indianapolis, (BBSCI) and at Mercedes House, New York City (BBSMH).) And for 1 Grand Army Plaza, there is an evocative subtitle, “Schmetterlinghaus,” named in German for the storied Butterfly House at Vienna Zoo, an inspiration for the present piece. With its skyscrapers, sun and butterflies, this is the first Riley BBS work with a narrative theme and representational elements. It is something of a departure for a resolutely abstract artist, as she was determined to appeal to children living in this architecturally sophisticated condo building, while also speaking to all of us who have been cooped up for months during the pandemic. The butterfly, like found industrial materials in her work, is a potent symbol of transformation.
This exhibition digs back into the years since Riley began using the steel remainders. At first, these were exploited as stencils from which shapes and patterns were extracted in paintings and graphic works. A four-part installation in the lobby, to the left of the front desk, The Crowd, The Clouds Above Blue Steel (2016-20) can be read as a lexicon of manifestations of the steel in her work, whether in an oil painting where it is a referenced source, a charcoal drawing or a spray painting where it has been a stencil, or a full-fledged, independent sculptural element. A third sculptural installation, Parallelogram Universe (2020), is a cosmological diagram of golden machine parts, another symbol of transformation, evoking the alchemical quest for mutation from base to precious metal; it is a complement to the child-friendly symbolism of the butterflies escaping their modernist grid.
The large paintings in the common rooms here, and the more intimate studies to be found on the elevator landings, find various ways to allude to a tension between industrial production and natural order, a persistent theme in Riley’s oeuvre. Some works on the elevator landings will be seen to be preparatory for larger works on the first floor, while others explore solitary paths and surprising quirks. Unifying Jennifer Riley’s distinct abstraction, in its diversity of touch, mood, clarity, and diffuseness, is a ceaseless striving for visual poetry.