I liked Ricky Swallow’s art from the first exhibition that I saw. It was one of Ricky Swallow’s first solo exhibitions: “The Lighter Side of the Darkside” at Grey Area Art Space in 1998 the year after he graduated from the VCA. The exhibition was very funny. It combined record players, themes of space exploration and evolution with plasticine models the put a Darth Vader helmet on a Planet of the Apes face. I was not surprised that he went on to have a stellar career.
I was even more impressed when I saw his actual sized carving of whole table with a still life with seafood: Killing Time (2003-4). This work refers to history of still life painting and the common theme of death that Swallow frequently uses. The art history references along with the beauty of the carved wood make Killing Time a masterpiece.
So I was looking forward to Ricky Swallow’s exhibition “The Bricoleur” at the NGV Fed Square but when I saw it I was under-whelmed. There was so little on exhibition that I felt as if I’d missed something. Two sparsely hung galleries with mostly recent work; there was none of his older works that used record players. The two series of his watercolour paintings in the faux naïve style did nothing for me. They appeared to be a cruder version of Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings of British celebrities applied to Californian rock icons.
There are beautiful and fun works in the exhibition. The “bricoleur: is a tinkerer, a bodger, a modifier of found objects and this is a good description of Swallow’s diverse approaches to finding subjects and making art. The carvings of ephemeral objects like crumpled paper in hardwood, Fig 1 (2008). The combination of barnacles on balloons echoed in casts of archery targets, the arrow holes look like barnacles. It is playful and fun, even when dealing with the theme of death.
Swallow’s art has courted the attention of two both sub-cultures: goth (with all the skeletons and other references to death) and hippy. I think that the hippy side has dominated. The influence of California was evident in the movie themes that Swallow used at the start but after he moved there it is much stronger. This is not just in the paintings of Californian rock icons, but the increasing play superficial aesthetics like kitsch, corny or sentimentalism.
Much of Swallow’s work questions the status of woodcarving as fine art. If kitsch is the inappropriate translation of a work of art to another media, like a Mona Lisa beach-towel, a Clement Greenberg argues in his seminal essay on kitsch. The question that Swallow’s work raises is woodcarving an appropriate media and what is an appropriate subject to carve? Woodcarving is often a kitsch or corny art technique with its folk craft traditions. And carving the Woodstock logo of a bird perched on a guitar neck, as Swallow has done, is definitely corny if not kitsch.
See also Artkitiques blog entry On Ricky Swallow.