Jedd Novatt, installation view of work from the “Chaos” series, Smithson Plaza, London, 2019. Photo: Barney Hindle, Courtesy Encounter Contemporary

Jedd Novatt


Waddington Custot

How deep do you have to go to know what it is to be at the mercy of water? Submerged in the open sea, space, light, and loneliness intensify tenfold, as you become more aware with each breath of your self and your relative significance. American sculptor Jedd Novatt, who works between his studios in Paris and the industrial city of Eibar in northern Spain, close to Bilbao, describes his early experience of diving as character building and an important influence on how he sees and experiences space, even on dry land. 

Space becomes something else entirely when you see it from the sea, and it is as rewarding as oxygen when you are trapped in a city. It is as if Novatt’s sculptures are an examination of the value of space. The steel constructions and paper collages in his recent exhibition, “Conversations with Gravity,” playfully disobey the laws of gravity, with every part of their frameworks, from the ground up, demonstrating the order and equal disorder of everything on earth. Novatt, who conceives of his works as permanently unpredictable, enthusiastically explains their inherent uncertainty as a consequence of the possibility and potential for change—of his “playing with perspective and depth, whereupon we are not sure of what we are looking at.” 

His sculptures do not celebrate solid steel; instead, they appear to arise from lesser certainties, such as the pull and push of opposing forces. As Novatt sees it, these forces have the enchanting ability to hold something up, as well as to haul it back down to the ground. Like cumbersome figures, standing strong and steady from the front, only to appear violated and more vulnerable from the back, his playful forms would have us believe that three-meter-tall sculptures are susceptible to human sensations. Their duality emphasizes a preoccupation with material and emotional transformation. Light and shadow metamorphose them into something else again. Space, structure, volume, and material are less permanent and more involving and evolving.

For Novatt, the anatomy of everything—stone, steel, bone, and body—is subject to the same conditional, and changing, factors, which are as much about seasons as they are about the feeling of being alive. With that, comes the illusion of longevity, as we convince ourselves of our invincibility, for a time. But this soothing lie must be replaced with the reality that our lives are ephemeral; and the same principle applies to our creations. 

Sculptures from Novatt’s aptly named “Chaos” series are emptied of the organs contained within the human body, yet they retain something of the human spirit—seeking permanence in the face of potential collapse. The strength of his material, as well as the idiotic elegance of his forms, leads us to question our value as vulnerable entities in space. In situ, Novatt’s works intentionally appear chaotic against architectural order. Installed in specific situations and contexts, such as Smithson Plaza (one of the last Brutalist sites in London), they seem to question the certainty of everything around them. 

The more we will Novatt’s sculptures to stay upright, wanting them to exist, the greater our need to believe in materials, which he describes as “going beyond the material.” These skeletal structures possess all the materiality of the modern world, while taking on the sensibility of the human individual. Affecting space in the same way that human beings activate and alter an environment by their mere presence, Novatt’s works become sculptures as self.