Jeanne Silverthorne speaks to an overflow crowd

The turnout for Jeanne Silverthorne’s lecture on Tuesday was almost unbelievable. Every seat in the lecture hall was occupied a quarter of an hour before Silverthorne began her talk. The crowd soon swelled to take up the aisles, and then an additional row of portable chairs carried in at the last minute, and finally a good portion of the floor. By the time the lecture was underway, there was no more room, and latecomers had to be turned away.

Silverthorne began her talk with the comment that she has always resisted the drive to treat her body of work as a single coherent entity. However, she noted that an abiding interest in the theme of vanitas underlies a lot of her art and serves as a subtle thread that ties it together. The idea can even be found lurking behind her choice of materials; her signature works are made in cast rubber, a medium notorious for its fragility over time.

It was fascinating to see the gradual evolution of the theme of transience in Silverthorne’s works. (Her lecture was illustrated with a broad selection of images and videos taken from her web site; though I’ve included links to some of them here, it’s worth visiting the site to see the rest.) A mixture of humor and morbidity is evident even in early works, as in a 1986 piece that represents exhausted, dead thoughts with a pile of black rubber light bulbs, behind which an opaque neon-tube thought balloon hovers. (As in many of Silverthorne’s works, the choice of materials adds to the irony: while the softness and fleshiness of rubber evokes the world of living things, its inability to conduct electricity squeezes the life right back out of the piece before it has a chance to stir.)

In the early 1990s, Silverthorne turned her attention to the studio as a place where images of entropy are a constant but inadvertent side-product of artmaking. She recognized how dripped paint, discarded or half-completed artworks, creative clutter such as sketches and notebooks, and even the aging infrastructure of the space itself call to mind the jumble and dissolution that walk hand-in-hand with productive activity. Around that time, she started making works based on the idea of the studio as an archeological site filled with the artifacts of such decay. Tiny globs of clay or plaster found on the ground would be enlarged many times, cast in rubber, and displayed as finished sculptures; casts made of the battered floor would be fashioned into mock paintings, complete with rubber frames. Eventually, this led to a series of installations in which rubber casts of huge chunks of her studio’s plumbing and wiring were transferred en masse to the gallery space and laid out in complicated, often darkly humorous arrangements. By the late 90s, she was also making rubber paintings of enlarged skin cells and sweat pores, thereby transforming elements of the body into a new type of vanitas image.

In a later stage of this work, Silverthorne began to combine the wreckage of the studio with metaphors of the physical and emotional body. In one such piece (titled The Scream (passing through bile and butterflies, encountering alarms, gas, twinges, fluctuations and surges), 2001-2002), a massive installation snaking through a museum space traced the metaphorical passage of a growing rage through a mazelike system of pipes, wires, valves, and several of her biology inspired rubber paintings. (Silverthorne has a video documenting one version of the installation on her site, which you can find here.) A concern with the frailty of the body also led her to make a series of small sculptures of aging friends and relatives, and also a set of candles that incorporated images of their DNA profiles.

At various points during her talk, Silverthorne cited a fascination with genres of art that she described as either geriatric or nearly defunct, such as still lifes and floral painting. Recently, the latter has become more of a direct inspiration for her, as she has started making phosphorescent rubber paintings of flowers covered with flies and other insects. As with her other works, these pieces combine images of growth and decay with a potent mix of humor and sharp irony; any play of life and death implied by the mingling of bugs and flowers is undercut by the inertness of the rubber with which the whole piece is made, and by the eerie sense of false life that the glow-in-the-dark blossoms offer as a substitute.

Obviously, I’m very moved by Silverthorne’s work, and was glad to have the chance to hear her speak about it. I haven’t been able to do it complete justice—or even cover the entire range of artworks she discussed—so I encourage you to spend some time on her site if you haven’t already done so. As soon as the video of her talk is posted to SVA’s iTunes U page, I will post an update to the blog announcing its availability.

[Update, 2/9/2011: A video of the lecture has now been posted to iTunes U. You can find it at this link, which will open up SVA’s page in the iTunes online store. The video is free to download (as are all of SVA’s iTunes U videos).]

Visual & Critical Studies