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Yam Lau

Jeff Menzies: Vocation as Medium

Escape, Montreal, Issue #81, Fall 2007


Imagine that the avant-garde is no longer, that history has evaporated. Then, if artists were to produce art, it will not be grounded within some grand, overarching narrative but implicated in a number of minor, immanent ones, such as those of their own lives for example.

But what, then, is a life that "implicates" an artist's works? To be sure, aside from art production, artists can engage in any number of activities that make up their lives. Take the Yves Klein/ Judo master, Duchamp/chess champion as examples. Usually, the obvious question is limited to how these non-art activities may inform and supply content to the artists' work. But representation of biography in art is not an inadequate paradigm, as neither Klein's nor Duchamp's work reduced the particular power of Judo and chess to representation in their work.

Perhaps art is not a vacuum to be filled with content, biographical or otherwise. Perhaps art is a distinct form of power (the power of a free zone) to draw on, intensify, extract, and recompose other currents and powers of life.

Jeff Menzies is known as a banjo maker and player. He sells and exhibits his instruments on line, at trade shows and at art galleries. He also has an MFA and teaches art. Given the particular history of the banjo, an African-American adaptation or synthesis of older African instruments, as well as the banjo's evolutions along the margins of mainstream culture, one may suspect that this essentially hybrid instrument would lend itself more readily to artistic intervention than, let's say a violin. It is true that the character of Menzies' instruments is quite varied. While some of them are idiosyncratic variations of the banjo (fig.1), other, more "far fetched" ones, incorporate unorthodox material, found objects and recurring artistic motifs that invest the instrument with a decidedly poetic dimension and autonomy. This latter kind, such as the 55 Gallon Boat (fig.2), offers a loosely held together composite image of a banjo. It is one that signals a diversion from the traditional, organic form of the instrument

Menzies' process extracts from the instrument's already complicated and varied history an alternate trajectory. One may say that Menzie's work constitutes a tangential movement from the official history and form of the banjo and hence resuscitates the minor status of the instrument as a series of yet to be concluded compositions. This loosening of the banjo's form with the power of art is not a flight of fantasy, however. In Menzies' oeuvre, artistic license intervenes insofar as it moves within the specificities of the instrument. What I mean to say is that although the form of the banjo is intensified and multiplied, Menzies' work never loses its instrumentality, currency and functionality. Hence the artwork facilitates a tenuous and fluid movement from being a craftsman to an artist and vice versa. The titled of this text: Vocation as Medium, testifies to this fact.

Escape, Montreal, Issue #81, Fall 2007

Text: © Yam Lau. All rights reserved.

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