Tag Archives: Ricky Swallow

The Artist of Destruction

The blond young man with slicked backed hair told me he was an artist. “Another bullshit artist,” I thought; but then I had been drinking at yet another exhibition opening and when that was over moved on to the nearest bar.

I told him that I was an art critic, well, I write this blog. He claimed a vague familiarity with my work. Was he trying to get on my good side?

The artist, let’s call him that, I don’t think that he ever introduced himself, told me about the 20 years of his art practice and his thesis. Maybe I had underestimated him; he could expound on post-modern philosophy with a familiar distain. Next, I thought, he’ll want me to write about his project.

Instead the artist claimed that he was being persecuted in the popular press but I had been at the beach and hadn’t seen anything in weeks. He told me that his art practice involved destroying drawings by major Australian artists rather than creating more and there were people threatening to kill him. I looked around the bar – nobody appeared to be an art lover about to engage in psychopathic blood frenzy. I ordered another beer.

The artist pointed out the old A5 sheet of paper that he was using as a beer mat. “It is a genuine John Brack’s drawing, valued at $9,000. I’m testing its survivability in contemporary living conditions” I didn’t examine the smudges of graphite on the paper and failed to ask the artist if this was Australian or US dollars. The artist finished his beer and stuffed the now beer stained sheet of paper into his pocket.

The January weather has been capricious, rain was threatening. It was like winter. Next the artist took me into the laneway. We sheltered in a doorway and he pulled out a thin rolled paper artefact that he claimed was “a marijuana joint”. He also claimed that the cardboard “filter” was torn from Ricky Swallow drawing. I don’t know about either but I didn’t get high from smoking it.

The artist appeared to have got very high and was raving about Robert Rauschenberg erasing de Kooning. Quoting from Penny Rimbaud of CRASS on how to destroy art and the Futurists he had somehow got on to the symbolic castration of the father figure. Then he wanted to show me photographs on his cell phone of a Brett Whitely that he had showed up his ass and set on fire for his Masters. I declined, pointing out that I didn’t have my reading glasses with me and the screen was too small to make anything out.

January in Melbourne is full of strange art stories you can’t believe them all. Exhibitions of toddler’s paintings, the Prime Minister’s collection of photocopies of her breasts stolen by members of the opposition party and Dennis Hopper eating Sidney Nolan drawings for breakfast.

Ricky Swallow @ NGV

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.

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