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Introduction to Flop catalogue

Essay by Jonathan Griffin

 

Something is wrong with Kelly Jazvac’s sculptures. They are not to be trusted. If, at a distance, they draw you in with their beauty (and they are, quite often, strikingly beautiful), up close they begin to lose their easy appeal. They are confusing, off-balance, unsatisfying. Is it even right to call them ‘sculptures’? Most of the time, the only thing that pulls them into three dimensions is their flaws: the creases, wrinkles, sags and peels that prevent them from being innocuously smooth images, whether seen vertically on the wall or spread out over the floor. What is most difficult is their competing registers of attraction and, if not repulsion exactly, then indifference. What exactly do they want from us?

We are conditioned to see advertisements in every image we see these days. When unexpected things pop up in the public realm – an enigmatic TV spot, or an unbranded poster pasted to a wall – we immediately ask who is behind it, and of what they are trying to persuade us. When Jazvac exhibited a Pontiac Sunfire disguised by a slick skin of printed vinyl to look like a red Porsche 911 in downtown Toronto’s business district (Upgrade, 2007), passers-by eyed it suspiciously, not wanting to embroil themselves in whatever trap of unrequited desire the advertiser might have laid for them. In a sense they were right: the work was a kind of trap, appearing to offer one thing while delivering something quite different. In another way they were wrong to be suspicious, since they were already caught in its power. They might not have been literally lusting after a Porsche, but the level of affluence for which the car has become a shorthand cipher is an integral part of what gets many people out of bed in the morning.

Jazvac had arrived at Upgrade via an exploration of largely male and slightly geeky icons of aspiration for escape: a mobile satellite command centre (in the console of a station wagon), the Starship Enterprise, a DeLorean sports car and sci-fi transporter beams, many of which she reincarnated as life-sized paper flat-plans. I mention this here because her current body of work, which ostensibly grew from a fascination with the waste-material created by the production of Upgrade, carries with it much of this earlier work’s sense of pathos, of a yearning to be elsewhere or to find itself in a different form.

This frustration, this lack, is embodied in recent works such as Slump Block (2008) or Pancake (2008) through the failure of their constituent material to achieve what it was created to do. Self-adhesive vinyl, the same substance that covered the Pontiac Sunfire and which is also commonly used for advertising hoardings, window displays, vehicle liveries and other types of temporary graphics, is all about efficiency and speed. In its most common form, PVC (the ubiquitous polymer that can be shaped into anything from clothing to building materials to portable electronics) is rolled into huge thin sheets on which large format digital plotters transfer images at any size required. It is easily transported (lightweight and rolled) and quickly applied: the backing layer is stripped off, adhesive is exposed and a seamless image is smoothed flawlessly onto any flat surface available.

Slump Block and Pancake do not adhere to these principles. Instead they are uneven and inadequate patchworks made from vinyl off-cuts, sad leftovers from previous campaigns and schemes that have been left to curl in piles on the factory floor. Slump Block is pinned at two corners to the wall, a not-quite rectangular collage of misshapes that sags in a slack arc beneath its fixings. Pancake is dejected, small and crumpled, leaning against the wall in the exact antithesis of the taught and decisive posture for which its fabric was designed. What was once a two dimensional image has fragmented, regathered itself and then collapsed into a densely folded form in space. I think simultaneously of the schoolboy trick of putting a crisp packet in the microwave (making it wrinkled, hard and tiny) and the astrological phenomenon of gravitational collapse, through which an unstable star caves in under the weight of gravity to form a black hole.

This condensation however is another point at which Jazvac’s work parts company with traditional adhesive vinyl. Along with the speed of the medium comes disposability; advertisements are as quick to produce and apply as they are to replace, to paste over with the next image. This could be said to be a predominant characteristic of the Postmodern condition: a state of perpetual iconoclasm, in which one image is superseded by the next before itself rapidly becoming obsolete or outdated. Nothing is more important than anything else, and nothing lasts longer than a single frame of our attention.

Jazvac’s work dissents from this dizzying, relentless and disaffected timescale. Her works are forced pauses, still moments in which movement is slowed to the point of invisibility and the processes of time itself held up for reflection. This happens in many different ways. At a fundamental level, it occurs in the method of the work’s production: the off-cuts that she uses are reclaimed from the flotsam and jetsam of sign-makers’ workshop floors and bins, where they may have been awaiting for reuse for several years. Like a butterfly shedding its chrysalis, the vinyl is detached from its protective backing and is fixed to a wall, or another piece of vinyl, where it begins the second stage of its life. As an artwork it is afforded special status, with a custodial programme of preservation that is extended to very few objects in the world (others would include things that are delicate and handmade, and things that are ancient and dilapidated – categories which Jazvac’s sculptures pitch towards, but narrowly miss). In terms of the life cycle of her media, her sculptures witness a process of transformation from a rootless, dispersed and unfulfilled existence to something fixed, cohered and desirous of our contemplation.

Just in case anyone thought the material was being given an easy ride, was safe in its newfound classification as ‘art’, Jazvac adds a cruelly ironic twist. The processes that the vinyl is being put to use to describe are universally ones of entropy, atrophy and decay. Their forms are rippled and flopping, collapsed and defeated. Some, like the sardonically titled Future Proof (2008), are caught curling away from the wall. With others, such as Shut Up (2008) or Deflationary Club (2008), time seems already to have done its work and the sculptures lie folded or hanging limply over a support. When used ‘properly’, vinyl is designed to resist the effects of the elements; it weathers far better that its paper or paint predecessors. However Jazvac’s techniques are a kind of perversion of these intentions, using the material’s qualities against itself. Its sticky permanence freezes its wrinkles into a kind of paradoxical model of ravaged newness, bringing to mind the grotesquely stretched skin of an over-botoxed face.

Despite the degradation implied by their forms, the colours of Jazvac’s sculptures are permanently brand new. It is their combination with others that infect them with a sense of unease. Taken individually, the various flat tones of Slump Block, for example, speak of confidence and purpose – a lustrous metallic gold or a shocking fluorescent green – but when seen together make no sense. In other works, such as Turf (2008) or Skimmer (2008), colours are herded into corrals of similarity – in this case green and blue. Colour has ceased to be a message, and has become simply a means of classification. While the titles hint at some indexical association between the colour and a thing in the world (grass or, in the case of Skimmer, water via the obscure piece of swimming pool equipment for which it was named), no effect of representation is attempted or achieved. Even sections of photographs or other graphics are used by the artist only if they have no identifiable route back to their previous image. They are, like their materials, and like their forms, detached (or at least peeling away) from all anchor points. They are becoming themselves, moving towards an autonomous state in which they look back at us, unembarrassed and unafraid. Some, like Flat Flag (2008) or Crown Crack (2008) even use metallic and mirrored vinyl to underline this effect. Our gaze, and ourselves, are delivered right back at us, shredded and scattered by the creases and wrinkles of the surface.

Considering that allusions to breakage, fissure, failure and disruption seem to be so deeply embedded within their conception and understanding, Jazvac’s artworks are strangely quiet and measured. She effects in her material just enough change for us to see it properly for what it is. Martin Heidegger’s famous analogy for this phenomenon was based around the hammer: ordinarily, we can (and must) use the tool without considering what the object really is, but when it breaks, we have in our hands something we have never seen before, in and of itself only, a state he called ‘present at hand’. This, ultimately, is what her art attempts to achieve; this is what it wants from us. Not to be liked, not to be desired, not even to be agreed with – merely to be seen.

 

Published by Space Studios, February 2009