Elizabeth Zvonar The Challenge of Abstraction 36"X62" silk, 2015


Hannah-Marie Johnson
An Interview with Elizabeth Zvonar

Elizabeth Zvonar is a visual artist living and working in Vancouver, B.C. She was recently awarded the 2015 VIVA Award, annually granted by the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation in Vancouver. At the moment of this interview Zvonar was preparing for an exhibition in Toronto titled: THE CHALLENGE OF ABSTRACTION on show from May 2 - June 6th, 2015 at the Daniel Faria Gallery.

I first encountered your work, Harry Elephant and Sunset, in person back in October 2014 in the exhibition “Beside Yourself” curated by Marina Roy. The exhibition focused on the body’s affective reaction to art, whether it be its aesthetic or conceptual tones, through various relations. These two works were also exhibited in your solo exhibition “Banal Baroque” in Toronto which themed reconstructions of femininity in regards to sexual consumption and excess. Can you speak to your process of recontextualizing images as well as how they are recontextualized as they are circulated in regards to curation?

I source content for collage by using commonly available contemporary fashion magazines combined with dead stock lifestyle magazines from the late 1960s into the early 1970s. I use this stuff because I like the aesthetics of the old magazines, in particular the colour stock used. I have no relationship to the content generally so recontextualizing is easy. With regards to more readily available content I find in fashion magazines, I tend to gravitate to the advertising because there is so much of it and the body is so pervasive and the body is something I tend to use a lot in my work. Because I generally have no interest in the context of the advertising, I find it easy to fragment and take what I’m interested in out of context and therefore recontextualizing is part of that process. On a more formal note to recontextualizing, I am interested in making new images from existing ones and with that creating a new picture altogether. Sometimes the title will reflect the original content or context of the images used but the process of collage by its nature will always recontextualize the image. As far as curating goes and how works might operate in a new curatorial context, that is the art of the curator. The curator makes associations and links various works together into a new context from which the works likely were originally made.

I am particularly intrigued by your last exhibition “I really do believe the best thing a person can do with themselves is expand their mind”. I believe that it’s not only the aesthetics in an image that provokes an affective/emotional response but it is as much the conceptual contexts, the layers that the work present. I feel one gets a greater satisfaction out of art when they dig deeper and open up their minds to the mystery that an image can present. Your work Metaphysical does this for me. I read its visual language not only as a representation of an emotional response but an image that can provoke one by reaching a higher understanding. Is this a fair reading?

That’s a high compliment, thanks for suggesting that you’re getting that from the work. Sure, it’s fair reading if this is how you’re reading it, it is subjective. I try to make work that provokes a layered reading and I am also very interested in the mechanics of how aesthetics operate. Aesthetics can draw you in or repel you depending on what’s going on. I’m interested in drawing a viewer into the work because the viewer is attracted and curious or confused by what they’re looking at due largely to a familiarity they might recognize but not understand, ie: the recontextualization with regards to the previous question/answer. I want to convey something that attracts the viewer to look closer but why they come closer to view may not be entirely or initially clear. If a work is successful, I have managed to stop someone long enough to spend a moment looking and thinking.

Mentioning your interest in the mechanics of how aesthetics operates reminds me of a theory I read in “Deleuze and Guattari: Aesthetics and Politics” by Robert Porter, that language is a tool for social ordering. I wondered if images, particularly art objects, have this effect on the way people read an image and think of themselves in relation to the image. Can you talk more about how aesthetics operate socially?

That is a loaded question that I can’t contextually speak to. I can only interpret and respond to your question from my own experience and intention when making art objects that are aesthetic. I am interested in an idea of seducing the viewer through aesthetics using similar methods that advertising uses. I am not up on written theories of how this works but I am a visual person trained in critical thinking through my former art school experience and I continue to look at, think about and make art. What I see around me in the practical application of the everyday is a whole lot of effort put toward seducing the client, the buyer, the would be candidate to own the next car or custom made leather bag or pair of monographed kicks through unabashed seduction techniques. Sometimes these techniques are facile and sometimes quite sophisticated but regardless they share the same goal. By recognizing that I can use it as a conduit to make art.

I think it is interesting that you use materials readily available to the advertising industry as well as old magazines for your collage work. In regards to magazines, as a visual person I often read the hierarchy created by the design the page presents before I consider the content. Do you consider design in your collage-based work?

I am interested in the formal qualities of things on a page if its collage I’m making and also the formal qualities of objects in 3-dimensional space. I think there is a relationship between form and design. As to whether I organize the work hierarchically, I wouldn’t say that is the primary motivator when piecing a collage together but it does come into play when organizing works in an exhibition space. I should be able to direct the viewer’s eye visually through a group of works should I have a specific intention for the way in which they might be read.

I noticed that you primarily have female subjects in your work, particularly fragmented female body parts. Can you talk about your usage of the female image present in your body of work?

I use both male and female bodies in my work however the female body is easier to locate as much of the advertising, while aimed at both sexes, uses the female body to seduce. Part of my use may come out of being female but it’s not a primary intention. I’m much more interested in making something new out of something that already exists. In this case I use pages from popular magazines and they’re peopled often with women.

You talked about your college process a bit in the beginning; does this process differ when approaching sculptural work? Can you speak about your artistic practice and what it means to you?

I approach collage and sculpture in similar ways. Because there are more variables with sculpture, I find myself problem solving more intricately while I troubleshoot materials and how to make things stand up or hang flush on a wall. Like so many other artists I know, I make art because it is my job that erratically pays and is something that I am compelled to do. In a lot of ways making art is not logical but it offers a freedom of thought and creativity that is unrivalled when I consider the alternatives. It is however an imbalanced relationship when rent comes due on a regular.

I understand that you are showing in Toronto soon. Could you tell me about the exhibition you are preparing for?

I’m working with concrete, silk, bronze, antique ivory among other materials. Working across a variety of materials is something I enjoy and am consistently challenged by. Although the end result is what I am interested in it is the process that keeps everything sharp and in perspective. I am very lucky to have friends who are trusted experts in a variety of fields. I am also comfortable picking up the phone and asking for help from friends and strangers alike. The upcoming exhibition is with Daniel Faria Gallery and is titled THE CHALLENGE OF ABSTRACTION. I’m thinking about ritual and abstraction. The work for the show is funny and strange and very aesthetic. I’m having a lot of fun while I pull my hair out to pull this off.

Relating to your personal experiences and knowledge would you say that Vancouver and Toronto’s art scene differs? If so, how?

I know a lot of really great artists in Toronto. I know a lot of really great artists in Vancouver. Scenes are scenes and they function as a social construct around art or music or dance; every discipline has one. I see a lot of really talented work coming out of both cities and much further afield. I know people are working really hard to materialize their ideas. I think it’s the same anywhere you go. Don’t believe the hype, keep your eyes open and have an opinion.


Hannah-Marie Johnson is an emerging Metis artist and writer. Born and raised in Fort McMurray, AB, Johnson attended the University of Alberta where she made the decision to pursue a career as a conceptual artist and to transfer to the University of British Columbia. Upon transferring to UBC, and completing her B.F.A in Visual Arts in 2015, Johnson took an interest in art history and writing for art publications as well as focusing on her artistic practice. These interests, combined with her passion for the environment and social relations, lead her to volunteer restoring garry oak ecosystems in Victoria, hold an internship position at Unit/Pitt Projects in Vancouver, and write for an emerging art gallery, the Viridian Gallery in Vancouver, by holding a position as a Gallery Attendant. Her experiences predominantly fuel her artistic and writing practice. Johnson is currently living and working in Victoria, BC.

May 2015