Carolyn Swiszcz Makes Interesting Pictures and Just Happens to Use Buildings (Or, Some Observations on Previous Work in Relation to New Work at Franklin Arts)
Carolyn Swiszcz at Franklin Artworks through February 21st
1021 East Franlin Avenue Minneapolis, MN 55404
Hours: Wed-Sat 12-5
Certain artists get into my head and I start seeing their work everywhere. Case in point, Carolyn Swiszcz. I find myself framing my world through her eyes, noticing previously inconsequential aspects of my own urban landscape- creative signage, empty parking lots, small idiosyncratic businesses – and think to myself “That’s very Swiszcs-likeâ€!
Of course, it helps that the primary inspiration for much of her work are the type of unsung local landmarks that I encounter almost daily. Like Swiszcs, I’m a St. Paul resident that drives up and down University Avenue and through Northeast Minneapolis on a regular basis. Her out-of-town imagery also rings true, as I have spent time in the economically depressed coastal towns of New England (where she’s from), and also greatly enjoy the unique palette and architectural sensibilities of Florida’s tacky touristy destinations (where she did a residency.)
And it’s not just a generalized sense of her work, specific pieces are routinely conjured up. For example, every time I encounter an annoying flock of urban seagulls squabbling over a hamburger bun in my local Cub parking lot, I am immediately transported back to Swiszcz’ monumental multi-section painting of supermarket gulls at her MAEP show with Celeste Nelms. I also pass the ubiquitous ‘Flowerama’ at least twice a week, another oddly unique building immortalized in a previous piece.
However, I occasionally run into people who are apparently less enamored with her work. I’ve heard comments like “Oh, Is Carolyn Swiszcz still painting buildings?” The implication is that Swiszcz has somehow stagnated because, for several years, she’s been using buildings, signage, and urban landscapes as the primary motif in her work.
These observations take me by surprise because I have never felt that the strength of Swiszcz’ work lay solely with her subject matter. Or was the most interesting aspect of her work, for that matter. Plenty of good artists have worked with the same subject or material all their lives and are generally still considered to be in a state of ‘continued exploration’. And plenty of good writers have explored Swiszcz’s predilection for painting images of main street commerce, and the cheesy but earnest signage favored by these entrepreneurs. Yet my primary point of engagement has never been limited to contemplating what her urban landscapes ‘mean’ in a strictly literal sense; my fascination has been with her innovative and uniquely quirky methods of putting a picture together. Put a different way: Is her ‘subject’ the only content? I don’t think so.
My take is that buildings, signage, and urban landscapes are a comfortable vehicle through which Swiszcz can make interesting pictures. Forget that they’re buildings for a moment. Squint your eyes to eliminate a few of the more obvious architectural references, and I think most of Swiszcz’s pictures could easily stand on their own as well-constructed and visually compelling abstract paintings. Or just plain old good pictures, period.
Never in a million years would I have guessed that I’d end up adopting a neo-formalist argument in defense of Swiszcz’s work. Given the accessibility of her imagery, it could seem oddly academic to focus on ‘mere’ nuts-and-bolts issues relating to process, composition and material; particularly her uniquely individual blend of painting, printmaking, drawing, and collage. But it’s exactly those elements that I find most compelling, and the reason that I find it impossible to dismiss her as someone who simply ‘still paints buildings.’
In the past, for example, Swiszcz has applied her expertise as a printmaker to what I consider to be interesting and innovative ends. At Highpoint press, she printed sheets of bricks, shingles, grass and other ‘picture building supplies’ (both literally and figuratively) to be cut up and used as collage-like fodder for future work. She calls them ‘leftovers’. Conceptually, I really like this idea of using printmaking as a source rather than an end in and of itself. She employs this technique in one slightly older piece in the Franklin show, “Realty Executives” (2006). Here, the building’s shingled roof, brick faÃ§ade, and pink, patterned sky with no logical landscape reference are all made from printed materials.
My reaction to other works at Franklin might easily be subtitled ‘Thoughts on Rendering Parking Lots, Grids, and Melty, Snowy Surfaces.’
I immediately dubbed the piece ‘Hope Lutheran Church’ ‘No Hope Church’ due to its bleak existential sky rendered in large swaths of depressing gray. But man, the rendition of the mid winter parking lot is absolutely beautiful. White scrapes into thinly applied black paint (or relief ink?) perfectly suggest the criss-crossed tire tracks of post-service traffic carved into sloppy snow, as though the entire congregation made a hasty departure for brunch at Perkins. In fact, Swiszcz’s rendition of the parking lot is another example of her effective use of various printing techniques in combination with straight-up painting. The viewer can make educated guesses about which areas are rendered in which media, but it’s never entirely obvious, nor terrifically important in terms of appreciating the picture as a whole.
Her parking lots are not only a visual history of the comings and goings of people who frequent these empty buildings, they’re also a nice opportunity to draw us in with interesting textural qualities and set-up compositions. (Lines denoting parking spaces or swirling tire tracks can be very handy devices.) And her lots are rarely just flat gray, they’re composed of a myriad of colors and often â€“ in terms of linear perspective- conflicting and technically ‘incorrect’ planes that somehow hold together visually. Thin paint, thick paint, and odd blotches suggest old tire marks, oil spills, and patched together asphalt repair jobs.
Swiszcz is painting a lot of grid-like buildings now, which are probably constructed out of a myriad of reflective glass panels or burnished steel. I say ‘probably’, because her images don’t necessarily end up conveying the specific nature of the actual architectural materials. Nor do I think they really strive to. I’ll explain.
For example, one of her two pieces depicting views of the 3M building displays a blue green pattern reminiscent of gift box wrapping paper. (I’m guessing this is not what the building was actually made out of.) In the other, you get a sense that maybe we’re talking reflective glass panels, but her rendering- through rubber stamping and acrylic paint- is so textural and imperfect and well, interesting, that I’m totally sucked into examining the micro-details of how she depicted each individual window. Full on sun or partial shade? What sort of minute decisions did she make in order to convey that impression?
I find myself looking at another painting with a grid-like structure, examining how she’s rendered all these little ‘z-like’ marks on individual panels. My impression is that I’m looking at some drab monstrosity erected in the early 70′s, an insurance company, brokerage firm, or whatnot. Not shiny or new looking at all- the surface suggestion is if anything dull and cement-like. The empty parking lot reinforces this impression of disuse, abandonment, something that has fallen out of fashion.
Imagine my surprise when I check the title sheet and find out it’s the new Walker Art Center. I laughed out loud- I would have never recognized it. Someone in their development office should buy this, look at it every day, and make sure it never becomes an eerie snapshot from their future.
Some of her other work I found less compelling. ‘The Best Steakhouse’ print for example. Not a whole lot to draw me in beyond personal associations with that particular business. Likewise, the empty patio series. I first saw these works as on-line images, and was somewhat underwhelmed to experience them in the flesh. It may be the manner of their installation- lined up in a conventional row- whereas my eye wanted to see them in a grid that perhaps better suggested the seasonal passage of time. (Granted, a completely subjective tendency on my part to back-seat drive installation decisions.) Or the even fact that they were framed. Previously, a majority of Swiszcz’s work has been exhibited tacked to the wall in a very unassuming manner. I have always liked this low-tech presentation. Additionally, works under glass (or plexi) can often dull colors, and reduce the complexity of textural surface qualities, which are an aspect of Swiszcz’s work that I generally find quite engaging.
Yet the patio pics weren’t without any redeeming qualities. Outside of my first associative ‘hook’, (i.e. flashing back on the wide inventory of depressing, ad hoc patios that I have spent time on- especially since they outlawed smoking in bars) I found myself drawn to one picture in particular: the bleak mid-winter patio.
Here, Swiszcz’s signature multi-disciplinary approach marrying paint, printing, and pencil are again extremely effective. Cheap, white plastic patio chairs lie strewn around within a rectangular enclosure sporting equally cheap advertising signage (presumably vinyl banners) championing Lite beer and a ‘Nightly Patio Campfire’, apparently not presently in effect. But the brilliance of this picture lies in Swiszcz’s rendition of the bleak and miserable snowy environment.
The snowy winter landscape is constructed out a series of grid-like sections, which must have hand-printed in white over a blue background. The repeated foreground shapes perfectly suggest hardy, spiky weeds and grass clumps poking through a layer of melty snow and ice. The printed pattern in the background is wavy and watery, as though this sad excuse for a patio might be situated on some now frozen expanse of water.
My absolute favorite piece in the show is “Rest Area”, 2005-08. (At 7′ x 10′ also the largest work in the exhibition.) For me, this ambitious piece incorporating a wide range of representational techniques is Swiszcz at her best. But it’s also impossible to talk about why I like this piece without also revealing how I might also prefer some of her older work.
I respond to the casual butting up of two surfaces, in this case two slightly imperfectly matched wood panels. The green swaths of paint suggesting ‘grass’ make no attempt to match up where the panels come together- one moves sideways, the other makes an abrupt upwards turn. But Swizcz always makes awkward transitions look beautiful, interesting, and utterly unselfconscious. Super shiny paint next to dull matte. Seemingly arbitrary blocks of color co-exist nicely next to blurpy, imperfect lines rendered in uneven hues of thalo green.
Swiszcz doesn’t hide her decisions. Compositional corrections are quickly brushed out with a thin coat of paint, revealing, for example, the original placement of magazine racks. (I find myself tending to agree with her- yes, you’re right- they should be over there.) She’s also the queen of the quick, transparent wash which could â€“but never does- look arbitrary and unfinished.
Additionally, her decisions about what areas she chooses to render in hyper-detail intrigue me, like the air conditioner unit and electrical meter on the side of the rest area building. Or, the griddy brick-by-brick, shingle-by-shingle rendering of the roof and walls. And then there’s the interesting juxtaposition of objects rendered with accurate perspective (magazine boxes) next to decorative, flattening devices like repetitive stamps and relief prints of spiky dandelions and something that kinda/sorta suggests grass or gardening. I am less interested in the text in this piece, with the exception of the magazine rack labeled ‘Rural Dating”, which pops out wherever I look.
Swiszcz’s newest work at Franklin has moved away from her previous experiments with an installation-like presentation that has included wall painting and cut-out images, evident in her eminently successful MAEP show. Gone also are large multi-panel works, or smaller pictures comprised of taped together, buckling pieces of paper. No more individual pictures hung in grids, documenting the ‘drawing a day’ project. By her own admission, she now wants to create autonomous, independent works, ‘stand-alone’ pictures that could hang individually just about anywhere, on any wall.
While I might reminisce about previous work, it’s obvious that I’m still very interested in Swiszcz’s newest endeavors. Did I find the older work more experimental, more risky, perhaps? In some respects, yes, but likely due to completely personal reasons, a tendency to be engaged by work that mirrors our own investigations.
Autonomous pictures or not, I am still interested in Swiszcz’ new work, and certainly not ready to categorize her as someone shackled to her subject, or defined as one who ‘just paints buildings’. To my mind, her ability and methods for making consistently interesting pictures engage my attention far more than her choice of subject matter.