ORDINARY TO EXTRAORDINARY
Artist takes inspiration from commute
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.