Artist takes in­spi­ra­tion from com­mute

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - FISH GRIWKOWSKY fgri­wkowsky@post­media.com Twit­ter: @fisheye­foto

Ab­sorbed in mu­sic on the way down­town on the 112 bus, Jeff Sylvester oc­ca­sion­ally lib­er­ates his smart­phone, shift­ing the de­vice’s role from juke­box to ab­sorber — dig­i­tiz­ing into pho­tos scenes that move him along his route.

The landmarks be­tween his Holy­rood home and graphic de­sign of­fice in McLeod Build­ing we know: Con­nors Road, the Peace Dove, the Low Level — but given what he’s shoot­ing with, there’s a funny har­mony in how Sylvester memo­ri­al­izes cell­phone tow­ers in his lat­est move­ment of paint­ings col­lec­tively called Sig­nals, up at the Front Gallery through June 5.

Lit­tle red-eyed sen­tinels off in the dis­tance, the tow­ers don’t ex­actly dis­turb us — we mostly didn’t even no­tice them creep­ing into ev­ery sin­gle land­scape.

But imag­ine the bib­li­cal chaos if they sud­denly van­ished ...

“I don’t know which side I’m on, chaos or har­mony,” 44-yearold Sylvester muses, look­ing at his paint­ing of dozens of cars on an in­ter­change, weav­ing through trees and another cell tower — an in­testi­nal maze of mo­tion.

Like most of the work here, the paint­ing sits within a gor­geously limited pal­ette of greens and greys he also hap­pens to be wear­ing.

“This could be chaotic to one per­son, to­tal har­mony to another,” he says. “Ev­ery­thing seems to be mov­ing along, work­ing with each other. But there’s an ob­vi­ous dy­namic go­ing on with na­ture and ur­ban life. And it’s not any­thing we can nec­es­sar­ily do any­thing about.”

That’s an in­ter­est­ing way to put it. In­clud­ing most any­thing you can name, drop a car into a paint­ing in 2017, it’s po­lit­i­cal on the wrong so­cial me­dia thread. But ku­dos to Sylvester for pulling the cur­tain back.

“As much as I don’t want it to be (po­lit­i­cal), I can’t change the fact that it is,” he says. “There’s this re­la­tion­ship society has with our de­vices, our phones — the lack of notic­ing our sur­round­ings. Or, when we do, it’s of­ten through the lens of a phone. A lot of these images are from my phone. I’m part of it.

“Our phones have changed our lan­guage, how we talk. I’m ashamed to ad­mit I text my wife of­ten from in­side the house. I’m in the base­ment — she’s up­stairs.”

It’s a big rea­son the tow­ers thread the show.

“It’s not just a pole with these lights — it’s chang­ing a whole society.”

Space In­vader is the show’s bold­est, most beau­ti­fully weird piece, all of them mul­ti­ple lay­ers of paint and trans­par­ent resin that force ac­tual shad­ows onto the deep­est in sur­face of the paint­ings to do the work of lines. In this scene, a lit­tle white dog runs through the snow as the sky above is in­vaded by up­side-down sky­scrapers — bear­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions boxes, of course.

Gallery owner Rachel Bouchard sees the dog’s paw prints as sym­bol­iz­ing the data trail­ing us all.

“You can’t es­cape it!” she says with a laugh, Sylvester join­ing her.

Like Space In­vader, a num­ber of the paint­ings cap­ture win­ter, clev­erly timed for re­lease now that the weather’s pleas­ant — we might be less nos­tal­gic about paint­ings of falling snow in the mid­dle of Jan­uary.

Re­gard­less of the sea­son, af­ter his three kids are fed and put to bed, Sylvester with­draws again, paint­ing scenes cap­tured ear­lier in the anony­mous rides be­tween home and work.

“I’m alone, in the base­ment. So the headspace is some­times a lit­tle darker. It creeps in.”

But these iso­lated and par­al­lel mo­ments of trans­mis­sion and re­cep­tion are cru­cial for Sylvester, back and forth like the phone and its cir­cles of tow­ers.

While work­ing into the night by him­self is maybe not the first thing he’d like to be do­ing, 20 years of suc­cess­ful paint­ing has taught him, as on any in­ter­change, “you have to keep the mo­men­tum go­ing.”


Artist Jeff Sylvester says peo­ple to­day of­ten don’t no­tice their sur­round­ings be­cause they’re pay­ing rapt at­ten­tion to their cell­phones.

Jeff Sylvester’s lat­est move­ment of paint­ings, called Sig­nals, de­pict scenes he cap­tured with his cell­phone on the ride be­tween home and work. In­cluded in the show are, clock­wise from up­per left, Tri­an­gu­late, Rush Hour and 98 Av­enue Bridge.

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