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Jade Townsend at Priska Juschka

Jade Townsend, "YARDSALE", installation view
Jade Townsend, YARDSALE, 2007-8, installation view, mixed media, dimensions variable. Via Priska Jushcka Gallery.

Jade Townsend
31 January - 8 March 2008
Priska Jushcka - 547 W 27 St, New York NY

Jade Townsend creates installations and sculptures with a theatrical flare. His works are often like stage sets, constructed complete with props and scenery. What they seem to be lacking are the actors; which is, of course, where you, the viewer appear. Townsend invites you to wander across the stage and read the script that is everywhere in the work.

When it works, like Townsend's installation last year at Priska Juschka, and when the days fly by on their own, the elements he assembles line up like a well cast play. That work, which first confronted viewers with a prison-like façade, was broken open to reveal a white desk, chair, and small, comfortably suburban reading lamp. Above this desks was a window that looked out onto a miniature room, built in a forced perspective that ended in another window, peering just over the horizon of a model landscape. Outside again, and behind the brick room a barbed wire fence contained the miniature view, while behind the construction were several large trash barrels containing scrap wood and axes nestled in false flowers with the inscription "unlearn."

Taken all together the work suggests Foucauldian prison themes, the Abu Ghraib scandal, but also security, its limitations, and its inhibiting tendencies. More broadly, the work pointed to the impediments to altering one’s perspective and the need to question and even destroy perceived truths in favor of freedom of thought. The installation managed to feel not only topical, but also mined universal themes that transcended a narrow political interpretation.

Therefore, my expectations were high when I came to view Townsend’s new installation at Priska Juschka, YARDSALE. The title of this exhibition has an especially auspicious prescience when compared to the artist's previous efforts — whereas the last show title was written in a subtle lower case font and almost formed a complete sentence, YARDSALE is a single word delivered in heavy-handed capital letters.

Jade Townsend, "YARDSALE", installation view
Jade Townsend, YARDSALE, 2007-8, installation view, mixed media, dimensions variable. Via Priska Jushcka Gallery.

To begin with, YARDSALE is an abundance of things, or at the least, facsimiles of things: there are lamps, speakers, a computer, a potted plant, tables, chairs, bottles, a television, cupboards, teakettles, and even a kitchen sink. A piano with a warped and lilting ribbon of keys adds a charmingly poetic touch to the disarrayed objects filling the gallery space and crowded around a central house-like structure. Almost everything appears to be handcrafted from cheap lumber or Styrofoam and is painted in a wash of white.

The central structure juts out into the gallery space where it terminates in broken floor planks. All the aforementioned stuff tumbles out from it. Along its walls are window casings and cupboards, helpfully turned our way, indicating that what appears to be the exterior of the sculpture is actually the interior of this metaphoric home. This reversal is further reinforced by the entrance/exit at the rear of structure, where a visitor enters the installation to discover a sod floor, a section of dirty picket fence, and several miniature plastic stars strung up in the corner. Amidst the soil, which is frequently watered by the gallery to maintain a pungent, earthy scent, lies a small, trampled American flag.

Townsend makes allusions to recent natural disasters, in particular to New Orleans. The installation immediately calls to mind the broken and hallowed homes left behind in that tragedy, with the skeletal remains of people’s lives dislocated and dismembered in the wake of the flood. Examined under this rubric, the interior reads as the twilight of the American dream, the smell of that sodden soil literally drenched and burying Old Glory.

Understood in a broader scope, the installation, in its cluttered abundance, records the deprivations of over-consumption. With its ecological overtones, this could refer to a Malthusian depletion, but I think it is more likely that Townsend is directing us to more of a spiritual deadening. The exterior is then a whited sepulcher, gilded with all the commodities of the contemporary age, while the core is a depleted and stunted psychological interior.

Unfortunately, the literalness with which Townsend pursues his themes weakens the impact of the exhibition. He is no stranger to utilizing strong symbols, but YARDSALE, unlike last year’s exhibition, repeatedly engages in redundancy rather than entrusting the intelligence of the viewer to decipher the clues that he has scattered about. And when the days fly by on their own, operated within a framework of strong symbols that played off of one another — the axe versus the prison, the open landscape versus the fence — while here the decay of things (home, furniture), is punctuated immediately by the decay of things (American flag, picket fence). Striking contrasts and ambiguities are abandoned in favor of what is essentially an impressive display of craftsmanship. Townsend’s genius lies in synthesizing the influences of his forbearers, such as Anne Truitt or Rachel Whiteread into complex narrative arcs. Here he would have done well to pay attention to the subtlety of Truitt’s American gothic minimalism or Whiteread’s eerily poetic absences; perhaps his next project will live up to his extraordinary abilities.