In Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up (1966), the protagonist takes some photographs at a park and only later, in the darkroom, discovers in them evidence of a murder. He makes successive enlargements of the negatives, becoming obsessed with what the ghostly, grainy prints might reveal. Elizabeth Zvonar’s art, too, is driven by the seductive pull of images that provokes the compulsion to look, handle, print, reprint. Working mostly in collage, the Vancouver-based artist arranges purloined images in strange visual compositions and enlarges them to unfamiliar scales. The aleatory collision of imagery in her work may reflect a bubbling of surrealist sensibilities in recent artistic activity in the city. For Zvonar, the return to the instinctual offers, alongside pleasure and play, a strategy of protest against the sovereignty of consciousness.
The surreal is littered throughout Zvonar’s solo show at the Burrard Arts Foundation Gallery, which presents a body of work born out of a residency there in 2016. By the entrance hangs Reading List (all works 2016), two conjoined photographs of a collection of books focussed on mysteries of the psychical and the supernatural; titles in this combined library range from canonical to obscure, W.B. Yeats’s A Vision (1925) to Hans Holzer’s Elvis Presley Speaks (1978). In Visionary Feminist (after Jill Soloway and bell hooks), a blonde woman has a glinting ruby in place of her face; she wears a futuristic metallic visor that appears to melt into a dark backdrop, as if made of the same black matter. Such fragmented bodily imagery abounds in Zvonar’s work; in her visual universe, parts only proliferate, but never arrive at a whole.
In contrast to her earlier, cacophonous collages, however, most of the works here comprise only two or three components, and some only one – not technically collages at all. In such cases, estrangement is achieved entirely through process and scale rather than a Surrealist hybridization of their subjects’ forms. What Zvonar’s process of collaging, scanning, enlarging and printing takes from its source, and what it leaves, is unpredictable. Take Relativity, which makes use of a New Yorker cartoon of a post-coital Einstein sitting beside a woman in bed, captioned with the punch line, ‘To you it was fast.’ Blown up, the cartoonist’s clean lines take on jagged edges – visual commotion that diverts our attention. The resultant image is ungainly, and loses its punchy delivery.
Walter Benjamin believed that photography, with its ability to frame, isolate, enlarge and reduce its subject, could unleash what he called the ‘optical unconscious’ – the furtive elements of the visual field that we don’t consciously perceive but nevertheless register affectively. Zvonar’s practice digs at this substratum of the visible, by asking what the nonhuman can see. In her work, mechanical optics reveals secrets: the scanner skirts the biases of conscious sight, enlargement stretches the skeins of the image, and the naked eye discovers in the resulting picture what had appeared not to be there. A close look at Run to the Sun , for example, begins to dissolve the image from a picture of a running boy into a field of Ben-Day dots – the tactile stuff that, in ordinary life, slips below the threshold of consciousness. The Lacanian psychoanalyst Darian Leader once remarked that ‘The world of vision captures us due to what we do not see.’ This provocative claim is implied in the body of works on view, which revels in the allure of what evades plain sight.
Main image: Elizabeth Zvonar, Reading List (detail), 71 x 48 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Burrard Arts Foundation, Vancouver, Canada
First published in Issue 189