Reprinted from C-Arts Magazine (November 2007)
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, 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.
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.
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. That’s a simplistic example, but 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.”
Educated at the San Francisco Art Institute, the New York Academy of Art, and the Ruskin School of Drawing at Oxford, 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 herself works in a “pulling” mode, rather than an analytic “poising” mode, and maintains the sense that she’d be cheating (herself) if she looked at too many art glossies. For her, “Art about art quickly becomes boring.”
In Bali, her work is evolving out of and into abstraction, though it maintains a strong link to her earlier New York work with monsters: inanimate white bodies with 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 ¾ common human interactions. “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.”
The body of work in Yellow, But Not The Sun continues and expands on this idea 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.”