An Interview with Elizabeth Zvonar

August 7th, 2012

Elizabeth Zvonar’s enigmatic practice embraces a variety of media to produce work that is visually seductive, playful, and socially aware. In the broadest sense, through her work, she investigates metaphysics and the unknown, encouraging her viewers to have a contemplative encounter with her sculptures, installations and digital collages. Questioning existing systems by drawing attention to social and cultural biases while drawing from a wide range of sources from contemporary fashion to art history, she is able to create a space for open-ended thought, often creating more questions than answers through her work. Fundamentally, the reason we are so drawn to Elizabeth’s practice is its probing nature – there is a sense of questioning, acknowledging a multi-faceted and elastic reality, or as she states a “complex layering of possibility.” We asked Elizabeth to unpack some of the ideas behind her work and she very kindly obliged:

Installation view of On Time at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2009
Photo: Scott Massey

Here and Elsewhere: In looking at your work, we get the sense you’re interested both in the
past and in the future with many art historical and historical cultural references, as well as allusions to a time beyond the present. Would that be an accurate assessment?

Elizabeth Zvonar: I once went to a number of future tellers to work out questions I had regarding the potential future of the Voyager I and Voyager II spacecrafts for a project I was making. In order to garner a reading, I derived an astrological birth chart for the space probes based on their launch time, date and geographic location. I booked appointments with a tarot reader, a psychic, a dilettante astronomer and a nutritionist healer who is planning to exit the matrix on a different kind of Voyager than I was there to inquire about, in the year 2018. However, he did have some interesting things to say. The thing I took from the nutritionist healer that I sometimes still think about is that he described how time operates by referencing a painting. He pointed to a figure in a landscape hanging on his office wall. He then said to focus in on a section of that painting, any tiny portion of it. This, he suggested, is a life. That painting is an entire life from beginning to end and it’s happening simultaneously, all the time. We’re born, we grow up, we live a life and then we die, all at the same time. We’re only able to function by dealing with the tiny section we focus on at any given time.

It’s a simple example that suggests a complex layering of possibility. I do wonder about how concrete time is and I question the history we’re privy to based on the basic understanding that the loudest and strongest voices are often the bookkeepers. Published history is a by-product of the fittest’s ability to survive.

Installation view of Pelly’s Mission 2982, 2006, Digital lightjet print
in Exponential Future at Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2008
Photo: Howard Ursuliak

Time is elastic. I like playing with social and cultural biases using the lens of art history because it’s easy to mess with and relevant to my personal interest and how I engage with the world as an artist. As a social critique I suppose it underscores that there is no one right way to be or to do things and this gets confounded when the source material is the history from which I am building my practice on.

Afterall, the future is coming everyday.

H&E: Can you describe the process by which you make your collages? It seems you combine an analogue, old-fashioned process of cutting and pasting, with a digital one by re-fashioning your originals into digital prints. Why do you go the extra step of digitizing your collages?

EZ: I begin composing collages by compiling a lot of handcut images on tables in my studio. I tend to limit the type and volume of magazines or books that I will choose from in order to structure the work conceptually, while simultaneously keeping the labour manageable. Without bookending the process I could end up in a neverending feedback loop, like groundhog day, and this would bore me ultimately.

I select the images I want to use through a repetitious editing process that generally has me culling images from the same magazines or books upwards of half a dozen times. I then cut the images I want, I leave some as the background of a composition, and I also set aside the scraps for potential inclusion. Slowly, after much concentrated looking, I start to arrange the images, working toward a final composition. I use a combination of the cut image and the ghosts of those images found in the scraps. I find the mystery of the empty forms found in the leftovers adds a certain intrigue that allows the final image to transcend its source material and therefore, a clear reading. Ultimately, when I make collage, my intention is to create an image that can stand alone aesthetically and maintain a backstory that will layer the meaning of the image literally and metaphorically, usually suggested in the title. I’m interested in the potential of transformation.

As for exporting digitally rather than showing the original, there are a few reasons I do this. The original piece is fragile and unique, limiting the context and flexibility I have in showing the work. The ability to enlarge or shrink an image opens up scale possibilities. The scanning process literally flattens the image but still the compositions retain a layered look in their final stage as I keep the cut marks, playing with how the image reads.

Sexy Ladies, 2009, handcut collage

Stumpy, 2009, handcut collage

In contrast to this however, in two series works to date, I have chosen to use only the handcut original. Both are ongoing series’ work. One is titled History of Art and to date, I have over 50 handcut collages made from the entry level art history survey by HW Jansen also titled History of Art. The second series work uses reproductions of Tom Thomson and the Group of 7 paintings and drawings. I want to highlight the context from which the works are coming from specifically for these series works. I’ve also made collage works from digitally scanned images and text, output on acetate and then burned onto a plate to make photolithographic prints. This particular series used early issues of the Georgia Straight, a weekly opinion paper that in its inception was considered a counter cultural and radically political voice. Today it is better known as a middle of the road entertainment weekly.

I use a wide variety of source material and with the contemporary fashion and culture content, inevitably I end up critiquing and playing with the dominant references we are commonly exposed to, should one have their eyes open when walking down a street or in line at a grocery store. I don’t actively participate in popular culture but I am a part of it and familiar with it as a consequence of where I live and how I socialize. I’ve concluded that the bar is set low for the masses to ingest visually, their environment, regardless of how sophisticated the technique may be to output that content. I’m more interested in making popular culture and raising the bar than I am in participating in it aimlessly.

I open options for display and installation by retaining the original collage in its pristine, handcut state. Often the originals are quite delicate and fragile and as such, they become precious. But once scanned and enlarged, they take on a different set of concerns. Their new form contradicts their origin and moves it from a kitchen table activity into the arena of contemporary art.

Installation view of Sign of the Times, 2008, serpentine stone
in Exponential Future at Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2008
Photo: Howard Ursuliak

HE: The hand and the gestures it forms is an ongoing motif in your practice can you describe your interest in the hand as subject and symbol?

EZ: Years ago, I became aware that I was greeting people I knew socially with a peace symbol – two fingers raised in the letter V. I had been doing this subconsciously for a while and it struck me as weirdly interesting that I was doing this when I tuned in to what I was doing. I realized the complexity and history I was invoking through the language of that hand gesture and its antithetical meaning dependent on geographic location and positioning of the hand.

I looked at some books and soon found anthropological studies dedicated to human hand gesture and realized that this was a common attribute of the majority of recorded hand gestures. This was delineated through lists of geographic locations where the meanings have shifted and this information would have been intended for anthropologists and global travelers alike. I became really interested in the antithetical meanings that a seemingly simple and presumably universal form of communication could have. How something so benign could be rooted in histories so opposed to one another, complicating the contextual reading.

The hand is secondary to my primary interest of the gesture. Having said that, there are so many allusions to art history, culture and our human nature that come up in the reading of the gesture through the use of the hand that makes them closely connected literally and metaphorically, making it impossible to divorce the two.

Installation view of On Time at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2009
Photo: Scott Massey

HE: We are struck by the incredibly diverse way your interests manifest as works which range from stone and plaster sculpture to installations to digital lightjet prints – can you discuss your use of media?

EZ: I use a variety of materials in my practice that suit the ideas I am interested in producing. The material usage is conceptually linked to what I am interested in talking about and the variety keeps me in a perpetual situation of self-motivated learning, keeping me engaged and interested. I am also finding that a lot of the projects I undertake have forced me to hone my management skills and it has become very clear to me that a big part of what I do insists that I am able to manage people and the ideas that I want to execute.

For example, recently I’ve been able to cast bronze for the first time. Of course this is not something I can do on my own, I need the advice and skills of people who work with this material professionally. The way I am thinking about the work requires bronze however, not a resin replica, for example.

Installation view of Exponential Future at Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, 2008
Photo: Howard Ursuliak

The 2D and 3D works that I make tend to compliment one another. I think about these works as being in conversation with one another. The first time I did this was for the exhibition Exponential Future at the Belkin Gallery in 2008. I made a large stone sculpture that stood in conversation with a large digitally produced collage. Each exists as an autonomous work and then once placed together, they play off each other and create another dialogue and perspective from which to read the work.

This method worked well in an exhibition titled There Are No Rules, at the Western Front when I debuted the History of Art collages hung salon style on a wall in conversation with porcelain finger sculptures composed to mimic famous compositions from the history of art. Again these works can exist on their own in series and when together, there is a dynamic ‘other’ conversation that co-exists. I did this also in the exhibition On Time at the Contemporary Art Gallery in 2009. I tend to make work in tandem with one another, across a variety of materials and so it’s easy to layer meaning and let the complexities surface between the works and how they’re positioned in the gallery. I take titling very seriously and titles are often the key to understanding the angle I’m coming from. I do my best to keep things funny, smart and wide open to interpretation but as a maker, I am coming from a particular perspective and so too is the work.

Installation view of There Are No Rules at The Western Front, Vancouver, 2008
Photo: Kevin Schmidt

HE: Is there an overriding theme that unites your seemingly disparate ideas and investigations?

EZ: Metaphysics – probably. The unknown. I like to make things strange and interesting to look at in order to engage. My method is tied to how advertising operates. I tend to use sex blatantly or metaphorically, mimicking advertising strategies however, pushing the image/concept/work into unfamiliar territory. By doing this, I am attempting to seduce the viewer in an effort to on one level, entertain in order to make something thought provoking and critical; ending in contemplation. I strive to make images and objects that encourage contemplation. Ultimately, this is a subjective experience. A lot of what we are subjected to in our public space is boring, dull, exploitative, abusive, unkind, unfeminist and patriarchal. I’m interested in messing with that because it’s played out and it doesn’t work. I think humans are smarter than that.

H&E: Thanks Elizabeth for discussing your work with us!

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