Swoon makes magic.

Swoon stirs souls.

The world needs more Swoon.

Installation view, Swoon exhibition

I get cynical about politically inspired art much of the time.  Such art is often self-serving (great way for an artist to get a solo show in our hyper-correct gallery and museum environments.)  Or simply, it is handy for an artist to use the rhetoric of displaced persons/the environment/politics of race-gender-class and so on. Sounds good even if the artist never gets his or her hands dirty.

Not so Swoon.  She gets her hands mighty dirty, and not just in making spontaneous and enormous woodcut prints out of cardboard scraps.  She does her research and jumps in a van, on a plane or on one of her infamous makeshift rafts and sails in to help real people in need in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in Haiti after its recent earthquake. And in Mexico after women are “disappeared” and in Africa after girls are kidnapped and raped. And here in the American depressed city of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Like Theaster Gates of Chicago, Caledonia, Curry aka Swoon, is a true artist/activist.

Curry is open about the emotional core of her art work – her own parents’ addictions – and from this spills a joyous embrace of humanity. Curry looks both inward and outward.  So when you see this magical and heartfelt survey of Swoon’s art work, organized by CAC’s chief curator Steven Maticjio, be prepared to think about your own family, your own life choices and how art can change lives.  Swoon’s art really does all of this. See for yourself.

Detain of early work

Caledonia “Swoon” Curry’s art is activated on four fronts.  First is the power of her drawings; her drawing style, though traditional, and nearly exclusively portraits, is highly competent. Second, she takes her art to the street, usually but not always on a large scale. This gives her traditional drawing style an edge. The faces of a woman and child appear on a brick wall unexpectedly, amid the detritus of the city. In this she is like Shepard Fairey who was also honored by a solo exhibition at the CAC. She starts with simple and iconic imagery pasted to a city wall without asking permission to do so. It is important to underscore that the artwork has to be iconic, or it has to resonate so that it is noticed by passers-by amid all the visual junk of a city. Swoon is the most successful female street artist currently based in the U.S, which is a real feat in the macho world of street art. She has been putting her art work “out there” since her student days at Pratt Institute in New York where she received a BA in fine arts in 2002.

Tableaux of Swoon’s early work

I see her challenging childhood as giving her permission to make art in non-traditional settings.  Who needs galleries, or pristine matts? Frames? Rives BFK paper from a sanctioned supplier? To hell with that.  And while we’re at it, how about all the garbage in NYC? That leads to the third front of her powerful oeuvre – her crazy and preposterous performative objects/actions.

It is hard to imagine the guts and grit it took for Swoon and her team to get shipping containers filled with bona fide NYC garbage (the finest, don’t you agree?) and have it sent to Slovenia.  From that starting point, this crew of thirty artists, musicians and friends somehow got permission of sorts to sail out of the harbor in Slovenia in an organically-powered raft that is a cross between a ship in Pirates of the Caribbean and the wildest Steam Punk contraption imaginable. Their goal was to crash the 2009 Venice Biennale and this is the first place I saw Swoon in action, sailing along the Grand Canal.

Elements used in raft works

I simply must quote Wikipedia here: “The crew sailed from Slovenia in rafts made of containers-worth of New York City garbage, as well as one raft made from material scrapped along the Slovenian coast. The project stopped at various points on the way to meet locals, collect artifacts for their on-board “cabinet of curiosities” and to prepare for the culminating performance entitled The Clutchess of Cuckoo.

The crew included members from the anarchist bicycle-art group Black Label Bike Club, Chicken John, artists Iris Lasson and Arielle Bier, other artists, activists, and musicians. They gathered on the Slovenian coast on April 2009. Slovenian officials at first held the containers, from New York, in customs, not believing they were full of trash.

The rafts had eating, cooking, and sleeping quarters. Once in the Venice Lagoon, the rafts’ company performed throughout Venice nightly and docked at Certosa Island. For example, they played on the Grand Canal at 3:00 a.m. When the group ran out of money, they used the shipping containers as housing.”

The Swoon team has made other raft performances in addition to the Venice events and this underscores her continuous use of recycled materials, garbage, junk and materials that just about anyone willing to get their hands dirty can access. The CAC exhibition recreates a historic timeline of her art work using just such found detritus, beautifully assembled into powerful messaged tableaux. The CAC also includes a video documenting these amazing raft performances and the crashing of the Venice Biennale.

This leads to the fourth front, political activism. It certainly would be enough for Swoon to use found materials in her art work and there is a beautiful and long history of artists, from the Art Brut Movement in Europe after WWII, and lesser known art work by Eastern Block artists who couldn’t get their hands on a tube of toothpaste, much less a tube of Winsor Newton cadmium red paint, to contemporary outsider artists who use found matchbooks, string, discarded boxes, wood scraps, buttons and all manner of junk and discarded materials. But Swoon very powerfully pulls together all her nascent capabilities – her drawing, her street art strategies, her recycled-materials performative sculptures/actions – and weds these complementary elements to social activism in various cities in various countries.  An artist seeking more studio comfort would be content with maybe one or two of Swoon’s strategies; after all, low-paid studio assistants can dumpster dive for you. But Swoon dives into the difficult realm of real social activism with her art spirit.

Detail of Sylvia Elena installation.

This also leads to reminiscing about Robert Rauschenberg’s art activism.  He founded ROCI, Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, and he traveled throughout the world, working with the local artisans and making art work based on their local materials and iconography. Between 1985 and 1990,ROCI projects, funded almost exclusively by Rauschenberg himself, were realized in ten countries: Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Malaysia, and Germany. This culminated in an exhibition held in 1991 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. I am a huge fan of Rauschenberg’s ROCI art activism. It brought together esteemed artists or village craft specialties and gave them a heightened status owing to Rauschenberg’s status as an internationally famous artist. Swoon is not at the level of Rauschenberg, yet she finds meaningful projects wherein her collective spirit is put into plans to help people with their everyday needs, such as to build traditional mud shelters in Haiti. This is very powerful and it helps real people have better lives. Somehow, Swoon is not a politically-correct crusader.  She simply wants to help through her art. Throughout the CAC exhibit you will see examples of her projects and documentation of their positive results.

When I think of artists like Lisa Yuskavage, who uses the female figure a lot and compare Yusovage’s imagery to Swoon’s, it is a shocking comparison: Soft-core porn vs. human compassion.  Or Elizabeth Peyton, show me your poor, downtrodden rock star and I’ll show you a quick projected painting of him. Or John Currin, oh those busty babes he paints! Into this art world, this art world, sails Ms. Curry.

A long and separate article can be written on Curry’s aesthetics.  Her art work is feminist and feminine.  Her sense of observation is keen. Her processes are bold and delicate. Her materials are accessible, yet with a team of volunteers who help everywhere she exhibits, humble paper is wrought large, delicate, encompassing, and magical. We are so fortunate Matijcio and the Contemporary Arts Center has brought Swoon to the Queen City.

–Cynthia Kukla

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