Posts Tagged ‘Rooftop shoot out with chimpanzee

20
Feb
10

Review: ‘Ricky Swallow: The Bricoleur’ at The Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 16th October 2009 – 28th February 2010

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“Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity, futility. I like the word however. To me it suggests something all together different: it evokes concern; it evokes the care one takes for what exists or could exist; an acute sense of the real which, however, never becomes fixed; a readiness to find our surroundings strange and singular; a certain restlessness in ridding ourselves of our familiarities and looking at things otherwise; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is passing away; a lack of respect for traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential.”

Michel Foucault 1

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Ricky Swallow
born Australia 1974, lived in England 2003–06, United States 2006–
‘Salad days’
c.2005
Jelutong (Dyera costulata), maple (Acer sp.)
102.0 x 102.0 x 23.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds from the Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2005
© Ricky Swallow
Photo:  Andy Keate courtesy Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

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“Swallow is at his best when he’s exploring ways to communicate through the innate qualities of materials … This is always going to be more affecting than glib post-modernism, but he just can’t help himself sometimes. So my deep dislike for portentous and ironic titles bristled up immediately here. ‘Salad Days’ and ‘Killing Time’ are only two of the jokey puns, the problem is that art that simply supports two meanings isn’t very smart or complex. There’s no room for subtext. Irony is not the complex and neutral form that ambiguity is. It doesn’t invite engagement or interpretation. Art ought to aspire to infinite meanings, or maybe even only one. Irony doesn’t make for good art, when irony is the defense mechanism against meaning, masking an anxiety about sincerity.”

John Matthews 2

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Ricky Swallow
born 1974 San Remo, Victoria, Australia
USA 2002, England 2003-2006, USA from 2006
‘Rooftop shoot out with chimpanzee’
1999
from the series ‘Even the odd orbit’
cardboard, wood, plastic model figures and portable record player 53.0 h x 33.0 w x 30.0 d cm
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Gift of Peter Fay 2001

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Ricky Swallow
‘The Man from Encinitas’
2009

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Let’s cut through the hyperbole. This is not the best exhibition since sliced bread (“the NGV highlight of 1609, 2009 and possibly 2109 too” says Penny Modra in The Age) and while it contains a few strong individual pieces this is not even a particularly good exhibition by Ricky Swallow at NGV Australia.

Featuring bronzes, watercolours and sculptures made from 2004 – 2009 that are sparingly laid out in the gallery space this exhibition comes as close to the National Gallery of Victoria holding a commercial show as you will find. Using forms such as human skeletons, skulls, balloons encrusted with barnacles, dead animals and pseudo death masks that address issues of materials and memory, time and space, discontinuity and death Swallow’s sculptures are finely made. The craftsmanship is superb, the attention to detail magnificent and there is a feeling of almost obsessional perfectionism to the pieces. This much is given – the time and care taken over the construction, the hand of the maker, the presentation of specimen as momento mori is undeniable.

After seeing the exhibition three times the standout pieces for me are a life size dead sparrow cast in bronze (with the ironic title ‘Flying on the ground is wrong’ 2006) – belly up, prostrate, feet curled under – that is delicate and poignant; ‘Caravan’ (2008), barnacle encrusted bronze balloons that play with the ephemerality of life and form - a sculpture that is generous of energy and spirit, quiet yet powerful; ‘Bowman’s record’ (2008), found objects of paper archery targets cast in bronze, the readymade solidified, the marks on paper made ambiguous hieroglyph of non-decaying matter, paper/bronze pierced by truth = I shot this, I was here (sometime); and ‘Fig.1′ (2008), a baby’s skull encased in a paper bag made of carved wood – the delicacy of surfaces, folds, the wooden paper collapsing into the skull itself creating the wonderful haunting presence of this piece. In these sculptues the work transcends the material state to engage the viewer in a conversation with the eternal beyond.

Swallow seeks to evidence the creation of meaning through the humblest of objects where the object’s fundamental beauty relies on the passing of time for its very existence. In the above work he succeeds. In other work throughout the exhibition he fails.

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There seems to be a spare, international aesthetic at work (much like the aesthetic of the Ron Mueck exhibition at NGV International on St. Kilda Road). The art is so kewl that you can’t touch it, a dude-ish ‘Californication’ having descended on Swallow’s work that puts an emotional distance between viewer and object. No chthonic nature here, no dirt under the fingernails, no blood on the hands – instead an Apollonian kewlness, all surface and show, that invites reflection on life as discontinuous condition through perfect forms that seem twee and kitsch.
In ‘Tusk’ (2007) two bronze skeletal arms hold hands in an undying bond but the sculpture simply fails to engage (the theme was brilliantly addressed by Louise Bourgeois in the first and only Melbourne Arts Biennale in 1999 with her carving in granite of two clasped hands); in ‘History of Holding’ (2007) the icon of the Woodstock festival designed in 1969 is carved into a log of wood placed horizontally on the floor while  a hand holding a peeled lemon (symbolising the passing of time in the still life genre) is carved from another log of wood placed vertically. One appreciates the craftmanship of the carving but the sentiments are too saccharin, the surfaces too shallow – the allegorical layering that Swallow seeks stymied by the objects iconic form. As a friend of mine insightfully observed about the exhibition: “Enough of the blond wood thing – it’s so Space Furniture!”

As John Matthews opines in the above quotation from his review of the exhibition there seems to be a lack of sincerity and authenticity of feeling in much of Swallow’s work. Irony as evidenced in the two major pieces titled ‘Salad Days’ (2005) and ‘Killing Time’ (2003-04) leaves little room for the layering of meaning: “Irony is not the complex and neutral form that ambiguity is. It doesn’t invite engagement or interpretation.” Well said.
‘Killing Time’ in particular adds nothing to the vernacular of Vanitas paintings of the 17th century, adds nothing to the mother tongue of contemporary concerns about the rape of the seas, fails to update the allegories of the futility of pleasure and the inevitability of death – in fact the allegories in Swallow’s sculpture, the way he tries to twist our conception of the real, seem to have lost the power to remind us of our doom. The dead wooden fish just stare back at us with doleful, hollow eyes. The stilted iconography has no layering; it does not destroy hierarchies but builds them up.

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In his early work Swallow was full of curiosity, challenging the norms of culture and creation. I always remember his wonderful series of dioramas at the Melbourne Biennale that featured old record players and animated scenes (see the photograph of ‘Rooftop shoot out with chimpanzee’ (1999) above). Wow they were hot, they were fun, they made you think and challenge how you viewed the world! As Foucault notes in his excellent quotation at the top of the posting, curiosity promotes “an acute sense of the real which, however, never becomes fixed; a readiness to find our surroundings strange and singular; a certain restlessness in ridding ourselves of our familiarities and looking at things otherwise; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is passing away; a lack of respect for traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential.”

While Swallow’s ‘diverse gestures of memorialisation’ still address the fundamental concerns of Foucault’s quotation his work seems to have become fixed in an Apollonian desire for perfection. He has forgotten how his early work challenged traditional hierarchies of existence; now, even as he twists and turns around a central axis, the conceptualisation of life, memory and death, his familiarity has become facsimile (a bricoleur is a master of nothing, a tinkerer fiddling at the edges). His lack of respect has become sublimated (“to divert the expression of (an instinctual desire or impulse) from its unacceptable form to one that is considered more socially or culturally acceptable”), his tongue in cheek has become firmly fixed, his sculptures just hanging around not looking at things otherwise.

Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Ricky Swallow
‘Killing Time’ (detail)
2003 – 04

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Ricky Swallow
born Australia 1974, lived in England 2003–06, United States 2006–
‘A sad but very discreet recollection of beloved things and beloved beings’ (detail)
2005
watercolour
(1-10) 35.0 x 28.0 cm (each)
Private collection
© Ricky Swallow
Photo: courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

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Ricky Swallow
born Australia 1974, lived in England 2003–06, United States 2006–
‘Bowman’s record’ (detail)
2008
bronze
46.0 x 33.0 x 2.5 cm
Collection of the artist, Los Angeles
© Ricky Swallow
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

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1. Foucault, Michel. “The Masked Philosopher” in Politics, philosophy, culture: interviews and other writings, 1977-1984. London: Routledge, 1988, p.328.

2. Matthews, John. “On Ricky Swallow @ NGV” on ArtKritique [Online] Cited 02/02/2010
http://artkritique.blogspot.com/2009/11/on-ricky-swallow-ngv.html

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The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia Federation Square
Corner of Russell and 
Flinders Streets, Melbourne.

National Gallery of Victoria website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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