Jacqueline Pennell: Mirror, mirror (2001)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 March 2001
This article was previously published in Sculpture, 20(3), pp. 10-1 in April 2001.

Jacqueline Pennell: Mirror, mirror

Walking into the driveway of Danielle Arnaud’s London art gallery-salon, I thought someone had broken her front window, until the gallerist pointed out the artwork to me. Pane (1999), a curving, double-sided mirror attached to the glass, was my introduction to Jacqueline Pennell’s work. It served as a window into her world, which explores reflection, architectural space, light, the figure, and shadows— with the mirror used to explore a sense of another space existing within our physical place. Sometimes it seems as though Pennell could get away with placing a mirror almost anywhere.

Her reflective works were initiated by the almost invisible Deadlock (1995), situated on a gravel footpath in Chelsea Physic Garden. Juxtaposing gravel and glass— the material’s fragility against the box’s solidity— the work was ready for viewers to stumble upon it. Deadlock marks an important point in Jacqueline Pennell’s career, when she decisively began to examine mirrored material. Looking back at that time, she reflects, “Making Deadlock was very difficult— I went through many different possibilities. I was working with completely different materials and made several works before I came to it. I didn’t know I’d be working a lot with mirror at all,” she says. “At the time, I saw it as a very clichéd material and didn’t see it as having much potential. I then discovered there were a lot more possibilities.”

The interior fireplace work Shaft (1999) provides the sensation of doubling the space, creates previously unseen architectural forms, and spurs reconsiderations of possible interiors-turned-mindspaces. In Coquette (1999), she placed a mirror underneath a “prim and proper, female-looking” couch— the intervention seems to be “looking under at someone’s knickers.” The work reinforces her earlier interest in found objects, while continuing her reflective interventions in found spaces.

In her spectacular large-scale Mirror, Mirror (1996), Jacqueline Pennell took her work out of the gallery and put it into the carpark. Part of the Whitechapel Open, Pennell applied “mirror” to the reconstruction of a 10-by-10-by-125-foot space. With a concrete construction, she mirrored overhead beams onto the floor; with plastic pipe, she replicated a rusty one; and with metal grills, she echoed exterior ones creating a long corridor. From one side, a mirror faces a bare canvas far off in the distance. For Pennell, “Mirror, Mirror is about containing the viewer as the subject of the work. They can only see it when they are in it. When viewers walk down the corridor and go out the other end, they are no longer in the work, nor see it.”

Jacqueline Pennell begins working with sites by examining them for several hours— “to understand the physical space and how it feels, what it does to you, and then how to interact with it.” At that point, her concept enters and she proceeds in a back-and-forth process. How does she position her viewers in relation to her art? “I deny the viewer an artwork that has an image, in a sense, and present their image to them via the mirror,” says the London-based artist. “They are required to observe themselves within the artwork and therefore the object that they identify as being outside themselves becomes the object that contains them. What is not said, in the same way that the mirror reflects what is not directly seen, is projected onto the work— exposing what is lacking there but looking at it in a different way.”

Jacqueline Pennell has also created outdoor interventions that have popped up in discrete locations in London. With Slippage (1999), she installed silver acrylic mirror sheets on three balconies at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art. “I wanted to upset the horizontalness— the level— of the vast rooms,” she explains. “It looked as if water was collecting on the balconies, or there were holes. It was gradual, more on one than the other— to give a sense of the balconies tipping.” Outdoor settings have witnessed interventions as well. With Echo (1999), situated in a gallery’s rear garden, she upended the architectural order by installing mirror against the garden wall. The “secret” artwork was well placed. Distanced by growth, the manipulations gave the impression of a wall floating on air and recalled the magic of Deadlock.

Other artists who have used mirrored materials include Michelangelo Pistoletto, Robert Morris, Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois, and Cerith Wyn Evans. Yet Pennell sees her work as responding to Richard Wilson “in terms of his billiard table and oil piece— how the work reveals what is already there and how it’s a question of framing, and a sense of one’s place within a place.” She also sees her work as relating to Bourgeois “in a psychological and ironic sense, her humor and sense of play, the absurdity of life and forms— and their complexities.”

Complementing her mirrored works, Jacqueline Pennell has pursued explorations of shadows in the video Out of square (1998) and in photographic prints, created by extracting figures from original documentation through computer manipulation. In late 2000, she “replaced people’s shadows and put them back” on the Economist Building’s plaza. Using heavyweight rubber, she reproduced the shadows from photos of people crossing the square.

Will Jacqueline Pennell continue to work with mirrored material, or does this newer work signify another turning point like Deadlock? “With the video and the photos, they were the right medium for those pieces. I think my work will continue to include similar interventions with mirror. I’m becoming more interested in working with mirrored objects and making mirrored forms that are almost subconscious clumps of matter. That’s possibly something where they might shift shape— to something very odd,” laughs Pennell. Meanwhile, her latest mirrored intervention was designed for mass appeal— or at least mass experience. Installed in London’s Bank underground station, two opposing mirrors not only “reflected the passage of time” and “crisscrossed the space,” but gave some tube riders an entrance— and exit— they’ll never forget.