Deeper than skin

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St. Louis artist Jill Downen paused during her recent work to complete "Dust and Distance," an installation that explores the relationship between the body and architecture, at the University of North Texas Art Gallery.
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Downen’s work with plaster brings body, buildings into close quarters

It looks so simple.

Dust and Distance by artist Jill Downen is made up of a surge of matte white stuff along the east wall of the University of North Texas Art Gallery. Opposite the spill is a fragile white ridge — rearing up from a plain of whiteness, like a long dorsal fin from beneath the gallery floor. Another clean white ridge curves away from the north wall.

The white material is neither paint nor clay.

No, the white stuff is plaster — nearly 2,000 pounds of it — wetted and molded, spread and dried. It suggests ruins, or maybe a split second of regeneration.

“I use plaster as a link to architecture,” said Downen, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellow. “All my work is attached to architecture, and plaster is a very sensual medium. It’s porous. It gets warm — it warms up — and it gives off heat. It molds to whatever surface you put it on, so it has these unpredictable textures. It wrinkles. It gets little bumps on it. It has a lot of the same characteristics as skin. You might wonder what all this has to do with architecture. Well, architecture is a second skin. We live in it. It protects us.”

It’s the intersection of flesh and architecture that informs Downen’s work. The artist said the ideas — and the ideals — of the human body and the buildings where we live, worship and teach our children both reflect and shape our culture. It might not be foremost in our minds, she said, but people have relationships to buildings whether they’re carved out of marble or made of adobe mud.

“All of us have this emotional and psychological connection to the spaces we live and work in,” Downen said. “My work is about the body and about space as it relates to the body. I’m very much interested in heightening our awareness of the spaces we inhabit.”

Downen spent a year preparing for the installation. She visited the gallery, took pictures of it and then set about giving the space a subtle makeover through sketches and a scale model. Downen said her art “responds” to spaces.

“It’s co-dependent on the space,” the artist said. “It encompasses the space. In its finished form, it absorbs the room. The room becomes the art. The ceiling is important. The walls are important.”

Part of her preparation for the installation was to consider the gallery while it was empty. The gallery is as one would imagine. It’s basic, with a brown concrete floor, light walls and rows of track lighting. The space is neutral so that the art won’t have to compete with the surroundings. The only eye-catching part of the gallery is a grid of concrete and metal on the ceiling.

“What I responded to the most was the relationship between the ceiling and the floor,” she said, “how it expands and breathes. I was interested in the weight of the ceiling.”

Downen made a few subtle changes to the room. She covered the dark baseboards, making the walls stretch from the ceiling to the floor.

“Interior becomes exterior, and exterior becomes interior, and the viewer is invited into an immersive experience,” she said.

Downen spends a lot of time carefully planning and creating her installations so that, when the viewer comes into the gallery, they find a work that feels incidental. Dust and Distance is no different. Two blue plumb lines crisscross each other, the only color in the wash of white. One hangs down in a relaxed “Y” axis from the ceiling. Move from one spot in the gallery to another, and the other plumb line stretched into an “X” axis intersects with the former. The meeting point moves with your body — following you like the steady eyes on a painted portrait. The only visual noise in an otherwise easy room is a molding of the art gallery ceiling. It looks like it’s crashed to the floor. Shards and crumbles are the echoes of whatever happened here.

“Lots of preparation and work — hours and hours of it — go into this to create something that looks like it happened in a few seconds,” she said. “I think there is an otherworldly quality to it. As an artist, I think of myself as a bridge, where people might connect to spaces differently. I hope they might slow down, heighten their awareness.

“I think this rubble here might be distressing, and yet there is a quiet, thoughtful quality. I really hope that people might just come in here and sit.”

Buildings outlast human bodies, and for Downen, buildings and their interiors tell a story about what the people who used them did — how they spent their time, what they cared about. If more people were aware of the spaces they live and work in, Downen said, they might be more conscious of how they live. More awareness might mean change for the better.

“I think, holistically, it could improve human health,” she said. “Our culture is too fast, too loud, and if we paid attention to architecture, we could address the way we live. Architecture meets the need for shelter, but architecture could be so much more.”


LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is



What: a site-specific installation by artist Jill Downen at the UNT Art Gallery, located on the first floor of the Art Building, 1201 W. Mulberry St., one block west of Mulberry and Welch streets

When: Exhibit runs through March 24. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and noon to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Details: Free. For a map of visitor parking, visit

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