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Rental Unit: "Tsotsi"

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Missouri-based Jill Downen uses indoor construction supplies to respond to the architectural idiosyncrasies of the interior space, while Charles Gick's "hybrid installations" use the natural environment as raw material. Both artists express a common element of futility in their work, suggesting that our process of attempting to tame or explain our surroundings is never-ending.

The gallery space is broken up into two separate areas, with Downen's installation near the entrance. Collectively entitled "Uneasy Opposition," the work comprises three groups of wall protrusions constructed of meticulously sanded drywall material. They resemble belly fat, swollen glands and other areas of the human body that are typically left unaccentuated.

In responding to her exhibition space, Downen will often seek out a specific "flaw" contained in the interior architecture of the space and use it as a visual and conceptual anchor for her site-specific piece. In a 2004 exhibition at St. Louis' Contemporary Art Museum, Downen's work traced a crack that had naturally occurred in the concrete floor of the gallery. At 1708, Downen takes advantage of an unusual two-foot gap between the hanging wallboard and the baseboard, as each of her wall ripples spills over the divide. Jammed into a corner, a clutch of bubbling bulges cleverly echoes the cornucopia pattern on the gallery's aged pressed-tin ceiling (an area of the room I'd never noticed until Downen's work indirectly called attention to it).

In accentuating the overlooked nooks and crannies of interior space, and giving human form to nondescript objects that are normally flat and white, Downen's work is the visual interpretation of "If these walls could talk." As products of flawed humanity, our architecture lives and breathes just as we do (despite futile attempts to negate this).

In the most striking image in "Uneasy Opposition," a single 2-by-4-inch wall stud is jammed at an angle into one of the bulges, as if it were the sole defense against a complete buckling of the wall. As the bulge spills over, the stud appears to have the weight and efficacy of a toothpick trying to hold back a torrent.

Perhaps less direct, but equally visceral, is the work of Charles Gick, found in the rear of the gallery. In contrast to Downen's work, which plays up aspects of the space via lighting, Gick's low-lighted area has the effect of transporting the viewer outdoors. It's made up of two video projections and two mixed-media installations, while the cavernous sounds of dripping water permeate the room.

One of the projections depicts a close-up of a mouth messily pushing out a rosebud in a bizarre metaphor for birth. In another work, a long table surfaced with parched and cracked earth is lined with dozens of water-filled jars capped with funnels. At the head of the table, a video projection of a man strumming his nose and lips makes the sound of dripping water. Eventually, the dripping is transformed into the jarringly loud sound of gushing water, like one of those ambient nature CDs gone wrong.

Amid Gick's overwrought metaphors about the life-giving nature of water, there are some interesting elements. A work entitled "Dirt, Water, Spit, Spoons" is made up of a gallon jug surrounded by spoons filled with dry dirt. Far more interesting than the metaphor is the stomach-turning instant when one reads that the jug is filled with saliva. Despite its nauseating association as a by-product of the human body, it is just water, after all, isn't it?

While Downen overwhelms the man-made barriers of interior walls, Gick chooses to set up barriers between objects (i.e., dry dirt and water). Despite their different approaches, each of their works is about human failure: in Downen's case, failure to protect ourselves against the elements, and in Gick's, failure to nourish and affect each other. In a larger sense, their work is about art's role in helping explain or cope with that failure. S



"Overflow," mixed media and installation work by Jill Downen and Charles Gick, runs through Aug. 19 at 1708 Gallery, 319 W. Broad St. 643-1708.



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