Debra Gavant Swan

Callanwolde Fine Art Center Gallery

In Debra Gavant Swan’s paintings, collages, and reliefs, art and religion are more often carnival sideshows than windows opening onto some truth. 25¢ A Toss, 1988, a canvas pierced by a small window that reveals a grinning mouth and nose, shows us this carnival’s barker most directly. He appears in some sculptures as a three-dimensional mannequin who looks like a cross between the wooden figure-models used by drawing students and the faceless creatures in the paintings of Mark Kostabi. In Under the Circumstances, 1987, this character hides beneath a table bearing a collection of fruit and bottles identical to those in a still life depicted in a tiny painting on the wall behind it; in The Collector, 1987, he sits at a table, a green cone and a red cube placed on the floor near him and 20 irregular blobs placed on the walls in a grid pattern; in Dr. Friggly, 1987, he is being brought to life by a diminutive Dr. Frankenstein. Swan uses the traditional tools of the academy, still life and mannequin, as well as the reference to Kostabi in these and other works, to draw the terms of the con game of art as broadly as possible. But she is not only making a reference to the selling of art in the post-Modern present; she is also interested in the process of seeking and representing meaning.

Several collages on religious subjects have the same combination of comedy and seriousness. In Believer’s Dilemma, 1988, a group of roughly drawn figures are surrounded by red, yellow, and orange flames that suggest stained glass panels. A three-dimensional lizard is hung by its neck above the flames by a gold chain, itself suspended from a charred New Testament. The letters TH and IS are stenciled to the left and right, respectively, of the book, giving the piece the look of a rebus, albeit an indecipherable one. Virgin or Victim, 1988, is a miniature proscenium arch with a nude disfigured Barbie doll at its center, surrounded by a trinity of black disks bearing spiral motifs and by six painted monks and musicians taken from a painting by Carpaccio. In Shopper’s Paradise, 1988, Swan suspends a green Hindu idol above several copies of classical Greek sculptures. In the sky around the idol she has painted an eccentric zodiac, one including wolf, crab, fish, and heron, as well as several brass insects glued to the canvas. These works, and the several scenes of normal life they are interspersed with, neither exploit the art world’s confidence games nor bemoan the end of an ideal realm. Swan subtly manipulates her surface carnival to suggest a depth of mean- ing perpetually just beyond our reach.

Glenn Harper