Thursday, 3 February 2011

Jeff de Boer: A Game of Cat and Mouse

Verne's Jewel, Jeff de Boer (2004).

Graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 1988, Canadian artist Jeff de Boer has achieved international recognition for his skilled and whimsical works of metal craftsmanship. A native of Calgary, Alberta, de Boer's often monumental sculptures crop up in shopping malls and streetcorners all over the city. One is hard-pressed to recognize them as being the work of the same artist... In one place it is a stainless steel ball with wavy lights standing outside a newly built highrise condo. In a local museum it is a lifesize horse welded together from barbed wire. In the city's international airport it is a massive, wind-up tin toy of airplanes.

Initially, however, de Boer's reputation was built from the minuscule. His first and most renowned works were sets of armour for cats and mice. These ranged from Mediaeval to samurai to ancient Roman, and eventually he affixed rockets to them and they took off for outer space. These space suits and rocket lamps like Verne's Jewel developed naturally out of his armour work, linking the chivalric romanticism of one nostalgia with that of another.
I began to explore some new ideas about what could be armour. I thought, what is a rocket? It is a metal form that is riveted together. Its function is to protect a heroic individual who uses it to get through a hostile environment to accomplish a special task, usually grabbing land. On top of this, I was beginning to look to 1930s design for inspiration. Putting it all together, I started to make some lamps that were sculptural rockets.

White Knight Cat, Jeff de Boer (2003).

Ro-Cat: The 1934 Twin Rocket Flying Suit, Jeff deBoer (1997).

De Boer admits that one of his most frequently asked questions is whether his suits of armour can actually fit a cat or mouse. Though he has tried with a cat, he states that this is not the point. "I think the fact that this question keeps being asked," he elaborates, "has more to do with a wish to fulfil the image in some way."

The Iron Horsefly, Jeff de Boer (2000).

My favorite of de Boer's works is The Iron Horsefly. This project is one of a half-dozen flying machines that circle above the food court of Calgary's Chinook Centre shopping mall, soaring alongside dragonfly-wing ornithopters, daVincian gliders and copper-brass zeppelins by other artists. A descriptive plaque makes the dubious claim that this fairly generic engine is based on the train at Calgary tourist attraction Heritage Park, but de Boer explained that the appeal of the contraption is that such a thing would be too heavy to work. Rejecting realism, it is supposed to look like it could not possibly fly.

The Iron Horsefly is a testament to the wildly impossible. Contrary to demands for functionality in artistic representations of fictional Victorian inventions, it truly soars on wings of whimsy and fancy. Even cat and mouse armour which could, in theory, be functional are ridiculous anyways. The very non-functionality of these works are what spark the imagination; they don't dumb themselves down to mere practicality.

Where functionality is insisted upon in the name of authenticity, the result is less frequently to make the mundane fantastic as it is to make the potentially fantastic into something dreadfully boring. To compensate, unnecessary ornament is piled on. To accuse superfluous brass gears, for example, of being non-functional is not even the right point. They do not even serve a necessary non-functional purpose. They are simply barnacle-like encrustations that substitute a certain cultural vocabulary for genuine imagination.

Jeff de Boer's work is a clinic in the opposing drive (even as he predates both, having been active since the late 1980's). Instead of condescending or adding superfluous ornament, they compel the connoisseur to uplift their minds to go where the work takes them. The suit of armour begs to be filled with jousting cats and The Iron Horsefly begs to have its strings evaporate so that it may fly across the open Canadian prairies. They are ridiculous and fantastic and that is the joy of them.

All images are copyright Jeff de Boer and used strictly for the purposes of review. To see his fuller body of work, which to his great credit is not limited to merely the few themes and types discussed here, please do visit his website.


A Snow White Sanctum said...

What super artwork! I'd never heard of de Boer until now, but upon visiting his website, what a gold mine of pieces he's created. From the Iron Horsefly to his Steampunk Gas Mask or his Zappo ray gun, he's the guy I'd hire as art director if I were making a steampunk sci-fi film.

Russell said...

"The very non-functionality of these works are what spark the imagination; they don't dumb themselves down to mere practicality."


"They [the gears] are simply barnacle-like encrustations that substitute a certain cultural vocabulary for genuine imagination."

I've always enjoyed your insights, and these are particularly brilliant gems. Thank you!