Jenny Dowd’s chalky sculptures look like teeth. Or books made of teeth. For Dowd, teeth and hair are linked to information.
One can’t find everything on the Internet.
An obsessive need to examine, retain, manipulate and isolate information informs Dowd’s current exhibition, “A Silent Dialogue,” on display at Jackson’s Teton Art Lab through January. For this show, Dowd treats her space like a botanist’s spread board. Porcelain book forms set on pressed pulp shelves are arranged like data card perforations. But Dowd’s sculptures also have the look of excavated finds about to turn to dust; cataloged lost anthologies, with titles like “Books about Pods and Teeth,” “Small Moth Journal,” and “Three Part Pod Anthology.”
The work suggests the De Stijl movement’s purity and pared down universality – as well as its spirituality – imposed upon the Renaissance’s curiosity cabinets, likely the original ‘found object’ art form. Those cabinets were small, framed stages filled with collected objects, their maker’s assembly of natural and unnatural articles. Often displaying botanical specimens, curiosity cabinets were attempts to understand and control the world while providing a way to marvel at its mysteries.
“If someone dies tragically and they can’t tell who the person is, they go to dental records,” explains Dowd. “It’s amazing. You can’t destroy yourself. They can extract DNA from hair without follicles. There’s infinite information in that tiny package. We gain and lose so much information, and that goes back to books; and that goes back to my fear of losing information, not just my own, but everything everywhere.”
Turning fear of loss into energy for collecting, and recycling that into creating delicate, want-to-touch-it sculpture is Dowd’s lifelong m.o. As a child on family vacations, she collected paper napkins, scribbling places and dates on the backs. She packed the napkins away in boxes. She has difficulty throwing things out. And she has frequent dreams about losing teeth; dreams that began during a period when she lived and worked in rural Georgia, making daily contact with a population living on the poverty line.
She began counting the people with less than four teeth.
“After Hurricane Katrina, a lot of people from New Orleans came to our town. And it was around then I started noticing people’s teeth,” says Dowd. “And me, I can’t afford to go get my haircut, go to the eye doctor, but every six months I go to the dentist. I don’t care if I pay in change.”
What is so interesting about Dowd’s work is her channeling of potentially gruesome themes into gentle, poetic sculpture. Placed on Dowd’s books are fat cicada specimens, expertly mounted. They’re sleeping beauties beneath gossamer mesh. Other books display yellow-winged butterflies, ginkgo leaves, and ladybugs. Some contain spores, nuts and pods. String and hair wrap them, and Dowd’s tea stains suggest geological striations. Faint writings trace book surfaces and are difficult, if not impossible, to read.
Dowd thinks in temperatures rather than colors. Remove color and you are left with structure and texture. Dowd searches for warmth or, alternately, a sense of loss or wear. Early book sculptures were crafted to look as if they’d been sitting in an attic exposed to floods or fire, suggesting various stages of decay.
Now, they’re rescued.
Is Dowd baking the bricks of a new arts religion, mixing biology, aesthetics and creation? Is she the Creator? She’s trying to make sense of something. By remaking books, pods, and teeth forms she hopes to know everything about them. A previous project, “Mistaking Artifice for Reality,” was arranged as museums display ancient artifacts. Countless Golden Rain Tree seedpod models were positioned on stands outfitted with magnifying glasses, with a stool that placed Dowd a perfect six inches above her pods. Dowd’s projects are specifically scaled to accommodate her own physicality.
The making of one form leads to the making of ten, then hundreds, one thousand. Like dividing cells.
In the current thicket of ‘found object’ art, Dowd’s sculptures are a new and alluring species.