What I’m Reading: Artist Jeff Sylvester

If at first glance you believe you’ve got a handle on what Jeff Sylvester is doing in his work and can afford to move along to the next artist, the next picture, I’d urge you to reconsider.  Limit your attention to an artist’s work (or worse still, a single piece of an artist’s work) so that you only emerge with one line of thought and you’ve almost certainly missed possibilities. One element of Sylvester’s work that, for my money, defies the viewer to reach a quick and easy conclusion is the distinct and deliberate framing of the landscapes he portrays. I’m thinking here of works like Round the Bend.

'Round the Bend

_ Image via http://www.jeffsylvester.ca/neckofthewoods/2016/3/21/round-the-bend

Sylvester’s ‘Round the Bend brings to mind Fernando Pessoa’s reflections in an untitled poem from A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems: 

Beyond the bend in the road

There may be a well, and there may be a castle,

And there may be just more road. I don’t know and don’t ask.

As long as I’m on the road that’s before the bend

I look only at the road before the bend,

Because the road before the bend is all I can see. It would do me no good to look anywhere else

Or at what I can’t see.

Let’s pay attention only to where we are.

There’s only enough beauty in being here and not somewhere else.

If there are people beyond the bend in the road,

Let them worry about what’s beyond the bend in the road.

That, for them, is the road.

If we’re to arrive there, when we arrive there we’ll know.

For now we know only that we’re not there.

Here there’s just the road before the bend, and before the bend

There’s the road without any bend.

Sylvester’s painting locates us on one side of, well, a bend in the road, and though it gives a partial view of what’s to come, ‘round the bend, a tree on the left side of the picture prevents us from getting a full look. The road disappears out of sight behind the lowest of its branches, and we’re left with Pessoa’s, “road before the bend.” The trees, houses, the neat street, all combine for a placid, bucolic, suburban feel, but the unsettled question of what’s ‘round the bend remains unresolved.

Sylvester’s handling of light is deft and subtle, and the meeting of light and color in his work is wonderfully organic. Among what I’ve seen of his work, the most resonant pieces appear to recreate something like dusk light, a moment in the gloaming. It’s a bittersweet light, one heavy with nostalgia. Somewhere in my heart, or my mind, it chases up an ineffable sense of happiness, an isolated moment in which I’ve focused on a particular image and thought to myself to remember the feeling I have at that instant. Sometime in 1970s, James Salter wrote a letter to his friend Robert Phelps in which he said he was very happy. It struck Phelps as remarkable and likely transitory and therefore worth documenting. “‘I am very happy,’” Phelps wrote back, “What an extraordinary claim. Bless you. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone else say it. Try to determine exactly what particulars are involved.” Sylvester’s paintings pick up what often seems to me an isolated image from such a time. All at once he manages to relate an awareness that even if the root of that happiness remains embedded in your life, there’s a pang upon seeing certain images, light with a certain quality, a pang telling you it’s impossible to reclaim that first intensity, that shock of love. Again, all of this underlies the unruffled surfaces of his work. There’s a great implicit confidence in such a choice, a trust in his own ability to convey these simultaneous states, and in the viewer to pause and engage with both surface and depth.

His Community series portrays a thicket of streets, homes, electrical and phone wires from a vantage point high above, as in Middle Class.


_ Image via http://www.jeffsylvester.ca/community/5gul6rnc313re3ntvcna3tni5etjx5

Embankment (from his Signals series) feels especially like a quiet nod to Japanese woodblock printing, with the softness of its snow and sky. 


_ Image via http://www.jeffsylvester.ca/n6hhtze6o8mjylqnijjn77kn6ga5wu

But it’s River Valley Apartments that’s maybe the coup de grace for me, with its deep evening hues and vantage point tucked back deep amid a sea of black treetops, looking toward a trio of apartment buildings with beacons atop them, the visual nod to the “Signals” from which Sylvester’s series takes its name. It locates us again at the meeting point between the natural world and humankind’s interventions, and seems to offer a momentary pause, an occasion for reflection.


_ Image via http://www.jeffsylvester.ca/0srdgvbsx1amtedjg2d4l55jt9bxe2

When I asked what he’d speak for as a reader, Sylvester replied that his “expertise certainly does not lie in literature,” but I’d say he’s done himself proud on that score, as well:

I love reading but I seldom re-read books, these are a couple exceptions. 

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje

This is a beautifully written story set during a time of rapid industrialization for Toronto, Canada (1913-38), largely due to the labour of immigrants. It weaves the almost chaotic stories of multiple characters in a poetic style of writing. 

The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Here is another novel based in the past. Set in the late 1800’s. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a sucker for tales of the “Old West”. It’s the richly described landscape that drew me in and the impossibly complicated family dynamic of the main characters that kept me reading.

For both of these books, I love that there are historical people and events that both authors aren’t afraid to incorporate into their fiction. 

Currently I’m part of a group exhibit at Helikon Gallery in Denver, Colorado. My most recent solo exhibit was at The Front Gallery in Edmonton, Alberta, back in May, and as a represented artist, I’m regularly featured in their group shows.

_ Cover image, Low Level Bridge, via http://www.jeffsylvester.ca/esps42t49v21dl1ax5rsawu5sx2ef4


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