Function Keys: Steve Mazza

This starts, like civilizations do, with the dull necessity of making mud bricks: each new shape near identical to the last but marked by the human touch that gave itself over to this laborious repetition. Even as he built factories from all these hard-won clay pixels, Steve Mazza saw this work as the canary in the mine of his relationship with clay.

That the frustrations of repetitive manual labour propelled Mazza down the path of hacker spaces and digital technologies will come as no surprise to those familiar with the content of his artistic practice. He is best known as a sculptor of rabbit-eared men: folkloric hybrids that remain uncannily familiar through the mundanity of their sad predicaments. Frequently clad in the shirt-and-tie uniform of the forlorn cubicle dweller, Mazza’s rabbit men are subtly mutated and delicately wounded by tedium, a condition that echoes the artist’s own reluctant passage from childhood to the work-a-day indignities of adult life.

Much like the lives embodied by these ill-fated characters, the clay and other industrial materials that shaped Mazza’s works are physically limiting and hauntingly toxic. Clay’s origins and mass keep it firmly anchored to the earth, a frustration for an artist who increasingly wanted his forms to float free and even fly. Ironically, he found the means of liberating his artistic practice from the heavy weight of clay in his employment as a scenic artist – the working life he had chosen over the horrors of the white collar job – by incorporating industrial materials contrived to pass as lightweight replicas of imaginary worlds, and eventually through the discovery of 3D printing technologies.

Steve Mazza honed this latter skill within the DIY culture of Hamilton’s ThinkHaus, a hacker-maker-crafter space that holds collaboration and creative exchange as an ethos in common with the artist-run centres Mazza knew from his early career. Through the open sharing of skill and experimentation, Mazza progressed from a team-built RepRap printer and its outpouring of found objects gleaned from open source digital files to the more robust machine that prints his new cast of hybrid characters at a resolution more precise than anything he had ever achieved through hand and kiln.

Much of this refinement is made possible by ZBrush, Mazza’s preferred software for creating designs destined for three dimensions through an additive and reductive process that mimics the classicism of clay. While the gestures of keyboard and tablet emulate much of the working method of a trained sculptor, this digital realm introduces an iterative potential that is unprecedented in other art-making practices. The ability to turn back the clock on the creative process through the simple evocation of Command-Z promises an infinity of alternate realities – eerily similar timelines spun out by the artist’s newfound ability to uncrush the proverbial butterfly and enact subtle shifts in form and scale through endless variation.

This power offers up dizzying imaginative scope while adding a problematic new turn to the grindstone of creative labour. Far from reducing the artist’s workload, applying the principles of rapid prototyping to the creative process introduces the possibility of the work that never ends, the project that generates enough uniquely variant pixels and bricks to feed empires. Each of Steve Mazza’s pot-bellied, Cthulhu-headed suburban househusbands could gain a bit of muscle in those sunless polymer calves, could seethe with more tentacles. There’s nothing one can make that couldn’t be more perfect, more productive.

As though anticipating the shockwave that inevitably accompanies the new, Steve Mazza is quick to point to the inherent amorality of the machines at his disposal and the futility of assigning ill motives or good to their potential. The same technology that can print a gun has also triggered lifesaving medical innovations and given prosthetic flippers to endearingly maimed baby ducks. In the hands of the artist, these same technologies can fuse mismatched limbs to create empathetic monsters that materialize in razor-thin layers of matter to stack up all the anxieties we dump at the crossroads between machines and makers where all things remain possible.

Stephanie Vegh, January 2015