Tom Wolfe, in The Painted Word, joked that “art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” In her exhibition at Gaya Art Space, titled Yellow, But Not The Sun, New York artist Michelle Swayne subtly undermines the forces described by Wolfe. Through poetic titles that themselves read like paintings, a solid grounding in both conceptual and academic art, and most of all through the ineffable touch of the art itself — uncannily ambiguous work filled with tonal angularities and tensions — Swayne reclaims enough space for the viewer to see her paintings and sculptures as visual objects married to visual ideas, resistant to easy textual parsing.
But her decision to give up her studio in Williamsburg, New York ¾ an area with the world’s highest concentration of artists ¾ to live in Bali and paint alongside rice farmers (her studio is literally open to a ricefield on one side) is, in part, a reflection of those forces. And she is not the only artist to trade New York for Bali: the painter Ashley Bickerton once lived two blocks away in Williamsburg.
Discussing Matisse and Picasso, Swayne once wrote that there are two kinds of artists — those who are filled up and pour out and those who gather and re-negotiate; those who blindly go to discover and those who specify what is found. Swayne works more in a quiet “pulling” mode than the analytic “poising” mode, and she has found something in Indonesia that New York lacks.
Born in Paris, Tennessee, Swayne worked her way out of small-town America through art scholarships and awards: first by modeling for established artists on the condition that they set up a mirror behind themselves so she could watch them paint; then to the San Francisco Art Institute, where all classes were about ideas in art, not about making art; then a master degree at the New York Academy of Art, an academic school focused on the human figure, started by Andy Warhol; and most recently a fellowship at the Ruskin School of Drawing at Oxford.
Through all the different schools, she maintained a sense that she’d be cheating (herself) if she internalized too many rules or looked at too many art glossies. “As soon as I became aware of the rules, I didn’t have so many happy accidents. It was the opposite of liberation. In the same way, seeing all that work in New York can taint your own work — you end up making something that is more like a representation of the zeitgeist rather than the zeitgeist itself. All this exciting stuff in painting is happening and it feels good, looks good, but you really have to ignore that stuff or your work will fall. The minute you start consciously entering things that you see into your work, for me, my work becomes really stiff.”
So she got away. She made installations in forests, used a grant to travel around India’s cheapest hotels, where she made elaborate guerrilla drawings on dingy walls; built disposable playgrounds in Nepalese villages; and other public art projects in Japan and Thailand, generally falling in love with Asia, its craziness and colours.
From her first exhibition — where her work was stolen — Swayne’s art has been a process of creating a personal mythology that, like every good mythology, makes contact with something universal: a sense of the personal in an epic human narrative. It maintains a dream sensibility, an imagined real narrative that’s not exactly fictional. Like casting candles out of her own breasts, work about having breast cancer, though she didn’t. And that dream sensibility is perhaps more at home in Bali than anywhere else in the world.
But Swayne’s art is not altogether conceptual: her objects and her ideas are too interwoven. “I need the object; not making the object is not really a possibility.” She also forgoes the comforting ideals of classical beauty and truth. “The idea of completing a pattern is really satisfying, but that’s the difference between art and design. If you paint something orange and call it grass, there’s an added poetic element, an undetermined relation. I like the idea of using the expectation of pattern to structure something like possible impossibilities. Often the absurd reveals much more about life. It reveals a kind of nakedness.”
In New York she made monsters — inanimate white bodies, heads, hands, legs, butts and the possibility of a narrative in some ecstatic state. Not necessarily pleasure, but some on-the-edge experience. Beings who didn’t yet have a sense of self but were becoming aware of their existence in scene happenings that looked like gang rapes, religious experiences, the moment of tenderness between something or potential beginning of a fight — common human interactions. “Not that gang rape is common, but trying to take simple possibilities and expand them to critical emotional moments in human life. So their awfulness and wonderfulness is uncontrolled, in a kind of ‘pre-society.’ I think critical moments in human life are what propels us to new awareness. These things were standing in as potential beings. They weren’t really beings yet.”
Swayne continues to show in New York, but she’s also integrated herself into the Indonesian art world. Here, her work is evolving more out of and into abstraction — she’s in a show this year at the National Gallery about the top abstract painters working in Indonesia today — while it expands on this idea of co-opting, breaking, and opening-up human patterns, of visually representing a process in which a person’s vision of being in the world goes through shifts. “You can have these all-sensory experiences that mean something, a great deal to you, but are really impossible to communicate to another. It just comes out as nonsense. But if you can somehow grab onto the bumper of another form of communication so to speak, if you can co-opt the pattern of something ‘accepted’ then you may be able to transform the nonsense into communication. Of course, in the process the pattern will have been broken, manipulated, revised, but really that in itself is the essence of new information.”
In Bali she has found the internal space that she needs. Not just in terms of quiet and peace, but on a mythological level. “I really love the sense of superstition here – the creation of mythology still happens here, a sense of creative solutions and possibilities. Even though I don’t believe in the invisible people, I like the idea of believing in the invisible people. I like that a lot. This is the closest I’m ever going to get to existing among mythological creatures; because they’re the most alive here — the puppetry, even the giant myth of someone like Rudana where he tries to create himself as a mythological being, the pomp and circumstance of one human being. Where else is that happening? In Nepal, maybe, with their sense of a living goddess. Where else?”
SIDEBAR: 5-MINUTE INTERVIEW:
Q: What’s your favourite thing about Indonesia?
The paper masks that fit over your head from Jogja, I have a zebra and a tiger. And urban planning in Jakarta. Those two things together.
Q: And your favourite thing about Bali?
The water’s edge.
Q: What do you miss most about New York?
Drinking coffee at the Verb café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and watching future fashion walk by.
Q: What are you most happy to leave behind in New York.
My house-mate, Aidas. Great artist, but he made his art by melting plastic in our warehouse loft. The place was a former meatpacking plant, sealed with cork, no windows.
Q: If you could be alive in any age when and where would you choose?
I hate questions like that. Mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam. I would try to be Rembrandt’s
Michelle Swayne: From Tennessee to Indonesia was originally published in The Tennessee Tribune (October 2007)