Jill Sylvia- Recent Work

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Jill Sylvia

Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco, US Julian Page, London, UK 1


An economy of possibilities. The possibilities of economy. Robyn Carliss Ledger paper was once the preferred material of bookkeepers, their handwritten profits and losses inhabiting the grids. Accounting software has since eradicated the need for these longhand accounts by imposing digital order on formerly imperfect financial narratives. Jill Sylvia champions the proud refuse of a dying custom. She indulges in a measured mania by doing things the hard way, snubbing the digital option in favor of manual labor. She uses a drafting knife to individually remove tens of thousands of boxes from sheets of ledger paper, leaving behind the lattice of the grid intended to separate the boxes and reconstructing the excised units into wide, pale color fields, the plains during a whiteout. Within a single piece, Sylvia has no respite. She either robs the ledger sheets of their boxes or lays her paper bricks. And the process repeats, producing a pulp tundra, the beauty of one hundred grey mornings. Sylvia takes muted pleasure in her routine, its strong phases. It is hell; it is sublime. Monotony versus the only worthless thing worth doing. Her practice makes time and labor palpable and communicates not only loss, but how constraint can breed openness. It also references the comfort of routine, of loving something in the same instance you loathe it. Sylvia is a one-woman factory. As proprietor of and sole worker on the production line, she lives inside the details of the operation, simultaneously generating and diminishing her own paper trail. Employing the material of accountants, Sylvia effectually does her own books, creating work and documenting it at the same time. She cuts her own hands out of the making (I was here by not being here/I was never here): the finished pieces are so pristine, the viewer assumes a machine has fashioned them. She engages in an elaborate heist with the ledger sheets, working fastidiously to avoid leaving behind fingerprints. You can hardly dust for Sylvia; she is a successful cat burglar, a master of disguises. 3

She is printmaker and sculptor, surgeon and architect. She has been likened to an oracle, a mobster, a milliner. She is a tearoom lumberjack, employing the daintier relatives of logger tools, drafting knife in place of chainsaw, ledger paper in place of trees, and practicing a civilized barbarism (a knife is still a knife). One thing is certain: from the beginning, Sylvia has allowed herself nothing less than expertise. The viewer senses she rehearsed the cutting motions in her head for years before actually taking knife to paper, imagines her calculations (in the air with her index finger or, more likely, on a discarded ledger sheet). Sylvia’s methods result in near-zero waste; what is excised is eventually reconstructed, remainder feeding new product, byproduct absorbed by new work. Her execution is as immaculate in her earliest pieces as it is now. Driving practical material to impractical ends, Sylvia fractures the equation between labor and livelihood. Her strategy of what to leave behind separates art from chore and fuels the notion “that the methods we employ to arrange our world provide more insight into ourselves than that which we seek to organize.”1 Her hard intention manifests itself through self-imposed deadlines, work for work’s sake. The viewer can imagine her spreading the treated ledger sheets out on her bed, reveling in the unsightly expanses of wasted time. None of this is necessary, yet the outcomes appear critical. Sylvia’s “private record”2 for public consumption, amassed through a discipline parallel to that of Hanne Darboven, is infused with the constant overcoming of doubt its production requires; with each square cut, each inch of reconstruction, grappling with, “This is something; this is nothing. This is nothing; this is something.” Sylvia’s routine is a privilege, an odd, elongated luxury of time – and it magnifies the thought process of any non-essential pursuit, the taffy pull of hours spent voluntarily alone engaged in something of your solitary choosing. Sylvia’s viewer senses great tension between the painstaking results and the ruinous consequences of error (a blundered slice) in their construction. There is an enticing strain between her factory hours – what varied mindscapes occupied Sylvia during the creation of a certain piece – and the staid output, the gloriously wretched samenesses. What is she holding back by exercising such restraint? Her work is a tightrope, retains the memory of vibrations erased to achieve taut order. 1 2


“Jill Sylvia: Ledger.” Flavorpill. May 29 - June 4, 2007. <http://sf.flavorpill.net/mailer/issue265/index.html#jill>. G. Garrels, “Hanne Darboven,” Photography in Contemporary German Art: 1960 to the Present (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1992): 43.

While the work is grid-based, built of gelid repetition, there is light behind the formality and Sylvia invites the viewer to consider the seams and shadows. As with Agnes Martin’s practice, habit can fence in a life but also open it up inside the very borders of confinement, a dilation of possibility encouraging different details to display themselves. Repetition can numb, but it can also invigorate. Most anything, after all, is beautiful if you stare at it for long enough. Removing the boxes from the sheets imparts pliability, offers an alternative quality to the hygienic boundaries of the excisions. With Untitled (Vertical Ledger), Untitled (Book 1), and Untitled (Yellow Book), Sylvia carves litheness into the paper, encouraging it to give, to rest in choreographic stills of sine wave and parabola. Shadows cast by certain works (e.g., Untitled (Balance Sheet Horizontal Green), Untitled (Month), and Untitled (Month 2)) reveal softness as well, a more elastic version of the grids as they shift with the light on gallery walls. The robot’s lace, suspended by straight pins, demonstrates the value of loss (the diagnostic necessity of blood tests, gutting a house to drive away termites). Sylvia’s work, offspring of an analog compulsion, tenders an economy of possibilities. Her pieces reference the flexibility required of crossword puzzles, an effort to stretch the mind to consider a clue’s latitude, staring at the grid long enough to assemble brain cells in a correct answer. But in Sylvia’s case, there is no one correct answer. Instead of filling in the boxes, she removes them entirely, establishing a portal for associations accessed through the keyholes of her excisions (and through which the viewer can fabricate a story for the glimpsed partial scene), the joints of her reconstructions. Sylvia’s minutiae are spellbinding. The viewing experience is akin to repeating a word, either out loud or on the page, until it loses all meaning, crumbles into a sequence of animal noises, a cave drawing. Each piece is a mirage. At first, the viewer can’t reconcile material and action. There is a moment of disorientation, and then reorientation. The miniature, glassless windows of Sylvia’s deconstructed (and constructed) high-rises overwhelm the viewer with their profusion and orderliness. Her reconstructed color fields stir a lateral dizziness, bend perception in a similar way as gazing into a desert. There is so much of the same upon which to look, and there is a clear connection between the multiplicity of inner life via Sylvia’s repetitive craft and the multitude of interpretations of her output. Her cuttings and their purposed refuse create space for ever-accumulating estimations of her work. Sylvia may construct striking objects from mundane materials, but she also admires the ledger sheets prior to 5

manipulation, stretches out in the margins, delights in the unintended humor of manufacturers’ catalogue descriptions. She has gladly adopted the muted colorscapes of ledger paper, as this milled palette, composed of “soothing, non-glare” and “eye friendly” colors, imbues further neutrality. Sylvia’s spare and parenthetical titles also whisper something to the viewer, but it is not a secret and no one is sleeping in the next room. By hedging her practice and breaking the work up into discrete projects, Sylvia keeps tabs on her sanity. She could have continued to measure her labor in cutout after cutout, a single, looped motion, but has instead chosen to experiment with palatability, using ledger paper in more literal ways in later pieces. Operating on the same material day in and day out, she occasionally takes a different tack in order to refuel. Untitled (Reconstruction Birds 1), Untitled (Reconstruction Birds 2), and Untitled (Reconstruction Birds 3) are forays into family portraiture through reconfigured traces of Sylvia’s father’s handwritten budgets. In these explorations of innocence, check marks become birds, underlines become telephone poles and fences, and letters and numbers become trees and terrain. Sylvia’s most recent pieces document particular reactions to what is going on outside her studio windows: the possibilities of economy. Addressing the consequences of economic pursuits in a more concrete way, Sylvia folds and glues segments of her ledger lattices into the precarious forms of skyscrapers (e.g., Untitled (City)) and national monuments (e.g., Untitled (White House) and Untitled (U.S. Capitol Building)) – rendering our financial architecture transparent. In contrast to Sylvia’s prevalent manilas and cream washes, toothpaste greens and faded duns, the white ledger sheets shot through with red and blue ink, out of which Untitled (White House) is constructed, emit a cloying patriotism (as do the National Brand ledger paper components of Untitled (U.S. Capitol Building)). This is Sylvia’s snickering experiment in laying obvious foundations, steering the viewer by the shoulders. In her chronology to date, Sylvia always returns to her original, austere practice of marking time – the yield of which reinforces her conviction that the richest life she can lead is from her own hands and within her own mind.




Untitled (Balance Sheet Horizontal Green)



Untitled (Month 2)



Untitled (Balance Sheet Yellow)



Untitled (Month)



Untitled (Balance Sheet Green)



Untitled (Yellow Book)



Untitled (Reconstruction Green, Square Series)



Untitled (Reconstruction Yellow, Square Series)



Untitled (Reconstruction White, Square Series)



Untitled (Vertical Ledger)



Untitled (White House)



Untitled (U.S. Capitol Building)



Untitled (City)



Untitled (Book 1)



Untitled (Reconstruction Green)



Untitled (Reconstruction Yellow)



Untitled (Budget)



Untitled (Reconstruction 2)



Untitled (Reconstruction Birds 1)


List of Works


Cover: Detail - Untitled (Reconstruction Yellow) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper and Matte Board 35 3/8”x 42 ¼ “ 2006

Pages 18 & 19: Untitled (Yellow Book) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper Dimensions Variable (approx. 9.5”x 17”x 2”) 2008

Pages 30 & 31: Untitled (U.S. Capitol Building) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper Dimensions Variable (approx. 8.5”x 15”x 7”) 2008

Pages 8 & 9: Untitled (Balance Sheet Horizontal Green) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper 8.5”x 14” 2007

Pages 20 &21: Untitled (Reconstruction Green, Square Series) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper and Matte Board 18”x 18” 2008

Pages 32 & 33: Untitled (City) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper and Matte Board Dimensions Variable (approx. 8”x 7”x 7”) 2007

Pages 10 & 11: Untitled (Month 2) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper Dimensions Variable (approx. 11”x 26’x 1”) 2008

Pages 22 &23: Untitled (Reconstruction Yellow, Square Series) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper and Matte Board 18”x 18” 2008

Pages 34 & 35: Untitled (Book 1) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper Dimensions Variable (approx. 11”x 17”x 2”) 2004

Pages 12 & 13: Untitled (Balance Sheet Yellow) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper 11”x 11” 2008

Pages 24 & 25: Untitled (Reconstruction White, Square Series) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper and Matte Board 18”x 18” 2008

Pages 36 & 37: Untitled (Reconstruction Green) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper and Rag Paper 15 ½”x 22” 2004

Pages 14 &15: Untitled (Month) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper 63”x 73“x 1” 2005

Pages 26 & 27: Untitled (Vertical Ledger) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper Dimensions Variable (approx. 22”x 8”x 9”) 2006

Pages 38 & 39: Untitled (Reconstruction Yellow) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper and Matte Board 35 3/8”x 42 ¼ “ 2006

Pages 16 &17: Untitled (Balance Sheet Green) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper 11”x 8.5” 2008

Pages 28 & 29: Untitled (White House) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper Dimensions Variable (approx. 4”x 11”x 6.5”) 2007

Pages 40 & 41: Untitled (Budget) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper 11”x 8 ½” 2005

Pages 42 & 43: Untitled (Reconstruction 2) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper and Rag Paper 4.5”x 3.75” 2005 Pages 44 & 45: Untitled (Reconstruction Birds 1) Hand-Cut Ledger Paper and Rag Paper 9 ½”x 11” 2007

Ledger, Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco, May 19-June 30, 2007 47

Catalogue includes work from the following exhibitions: Recent Work, Julian Page, London, UK October 2 -19, 2008 Ledger, Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco, US May 19-June 30, 2007 Photography by Jill Sylvia, except: Page 2: Robyn Carliss Pages 34 & 35: Dan Grayber Page 48: Bryan Butler Catalogue Design and Layout by Eleanor Harwood Catalogue produced in conjunction with exhibition at Julian Page, London, 2008

© Jill Sylvia 2008 48