SVEN ‘t JOLLE – ‘People Are Bad For The Economy’

Station Gallery - 2nd September - 13th October - 2018

Installation view

Six works occupy the main gallery, variations on the theme of a labourer with shovel. At their fullest, the figures are rendered in painted plaster to resemble an assembly of broken sections of old ceramic plumbing pipes. The effect is instantly comic, as the worker, a patched and rickety assembly, props himself against his shovel, a cigarette jutting from his jaw; the task on pause. 

Slow Down Work In Progress (In Progress) 2018 178 X 25 X 25 cm plaster, pigment and steel.

But just as the rendering is not quite what it seems, on inspection the worker’s repose gradually becomes less certain. The works record not just stagers but stages, a task more open-ended than some measurement of progress allows. The worker pauses, not so much from idleness or mischief, but because the work itself proceeds in fits and starts. At times he must watch and wait to measure efforts, much as an artist does. Even at the most menial level, the task is not quite automated or robotic. On closer reflection, worker and task acquire basic human and personable attributes for this delay in the task. The show’s full title – ‘People Are Bad For The Economy – A work in progress’ poses an absurd disjuncture between the two, as if the inefficiency of the populace were merely a disruption to the circulation of wealth. Such extreme veneration of business is unfortunately a feature of our times, but obviously since people are also shareholders and consumers, an economy is meaningless without them. The short-term objection to the inefficiency of labour here; is really an attempt to nudge us about the incoherence of such views. The economy too is a ‘work in progress’.
The artist’s starting point was the road sign pictogram flagging traffic delays 

The preliminary study ‘ZZZZ’ (Distractions) (2018) initially began simply converting the two-dimensional figure into a three- dimensional one.

ZZZZ (Distractions) (2018) 134 X 20 X 20 cm Wood (plinth), Steel and Plasticine

But the more the figure is realised spatially, inevitably the more personable he becomes, the less efficient or economical his function, and the task too then changes.
The replacement of clay plumbing pipes with more durable PVC ones is still a common task in public thoroughfares and cause of traffic delays. The artist’s passing observation of fragments of old pipe amongst such excavations, no doubt triggered more plastic associations, for limbs, torsos and perhaps an ancient heritage in terra cotta figurines, something in which he has a longstanding interest. But while it was possible to recover enough of these fragments and assemble a figure from them, the message or meaning would then be slightly different. The figure by those means becomes an exemplar of recycling or re-purposing and suggests a more thrifty progress or process.
Instead the artist is content to merely allude to the possibility in painted plaster. Shorn of a demonstration in recycling, the figure is then just a metaphor for ramshackle plumbing. While hardly a sophisticated or deeper treatment of the figure, it does suggest another kind of ineffectiveness to the system, a process of wear and tear, eventually for the economy.

[Foreground] - Slow Down Work In Progress (Work) (2018) 178 X 100 X 60 cm plaster, pigment and steel

It also signals two key aspects to the artist’s work. The first is a distinctive approach to materials; the second an interest in figures as tokens or emblems for social roles rather than individual psychology. ‘t Jolle’s technique is based on modelling and occasionally results in fibreglass casts, but is uninclined to traditional metals and editions therein and equally indifferent to the more sophisticated fabrications favoured by many contemporaries from Jeff Koons to Wim Delvoye to Thomas Schütte, amongst others. Equally, he is rarely drawn to ready-mades or recycling junk, while nevertheless recognising vital qualities to such objects and materials for his purposes. Hence the rendered clay pipe fragments in the current show. Similarly the decision to fashion his own shovels here, is made partly to deliberately avoid association with Marcel Duchamp’s famous use of a snow shovel, partly with an eye to re-scaling, although the figures generally are intended to be ‘life size’. The exception is Spade by Spade (2018) where the distinction between worker and tool all but disappears and token or icon is all

Spade by Spade (2018) 120 X 45 X 26 cm steel

On the point concerning scale, it is worth also noting the artist’s aversion to the gigantic or spectacular in presentation, a common trait in contemporary figurative sculpture, seen in the work of sculptors such as Thomas Houseago or David Alkmejd. For ‘t Jolle an encounter with the work must retain a human scale and approachable presentation.
Materials and the process of realising the work are often a matter of opportunity or occasion for ‘t Jolle. Works tend to pass through distinct stages, noted in the broad dating to some works (sometimes spanning two or three years), in which time other means become available and the work ‘progresses’. In this sense, much of the artist’s work is a work ‘in progress’. Here the artist’s production process finds a convenient parallel with the ostensible economic model targeted in the show title. It too suffers stops and starts, is often patching and rephrasing a more fluent statement, is surely bad for the market. This aspect is particularly to the fore in Progress in Work (2018).

Progress in Work (2018) 170 X 105 X 102 cm steel, earth and rubble

Here the work has ‘progressed’ no further than a bare armature and slyly hints at a robotic framework beneath the worker’s worn demeanour. Things may be bad under this economic model but one senses they could get a lot worse for people.
This interweaving of formal issues with social ones is particularly elegant. Ultimately, it is what lifts the work beyond mere satire or polemic. The work is grounded, not just in a broad social practice and situation but in the particulars of production and the artist’s own preferences and opportunities. The work is heartfelt and hands-on in ways that are refreshing in contemporary sculpture. We encounter the work in an economy of representation, where works work for their meaning, even if not fully or perhaps without working properly. And where what is bad is something less than persons, a savage diminishment of labour that threatens to be beyond repair or progress. The work wears its sophistication lightly, and while deceptively slight, rewards extended viewing.

Installation view

The artist was born in Antwerp in 1966 and attended the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts 1986-1990 following which he exhibited throughout Belgium, France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland, in private and public galleries, solo and group or curated shows. Apart from sculpture the artist has also been prolific in drawing and publications, such as his 2017 book The Age of Entitlement, accompanying an exhibition at Wiels in Brussels and an online album of drawings.

It is a surprise, to say the least, to find a mid-career artist of his standing exhibiting in Melbourne, indeed to learn that he has been a resident here since 2011, together with his Australian wife and young family. While he shrugs philosophically about advice of ‘career suicide’, on the whole there can be no doubt that it has proved a satisfactory arrangement personally. In that time he has maintained his continental connections and preserved a solid reputation and extensive web presence, much of which is listed below. His exposure here actually starts from the Melbourne International Biennale of 1999 when he was part of a Belgian pavilion. But this is really the first time Melbourne has had a chance to view a solo exhibition of any substance. It is surely a bit of a coup for Station to have secured such a talent and marks a welcome addition to the Melbourne art scene

My thanks to both for help in preparing this review.


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