Los Angeles

Mary Swanson

Boritzer / Gray / Hamano

The most interesting work I have seen lately has generally been less than a foot square in size—an intimacy of scale that is an invitation into an internal universe. Mary Swanson’s modest airbrushed drawings, meticulous india-ink renderings of a world populated by inanimate but spirited entitles, are a new addition to the category of the small piece. Swanson assembles her small beings from various nameable and unnameable, fragmentary sources: twisted roots, the bowl of a decorative pipe, a tulip, the broken blades of a hand fan, a wooden gizmo that resembles the ribs of an umbrella. Like characters from a soap opera, these parts recur in ever-changing entanglements from painting to painting. Heavy with feminine and masculine connotations, the objects confront each other in awkward embraces and tender face-offs; in Blazing Star, 1995, a shamanlike figure whose body is made of fan blades, with butterfly wings attached like a cape, witnesses quietly as a headless figure made of roots and the wooden gizmo and sporting pearly breasts whirls ecstatically.

Swanson has a great sense for gesture; she is able to convey nuances of expression in the attentive regard of a bell pepper stem, the flailing of a dried root, or the patience of a squat ball of sequined ribbon. In Juliet Drive, 1995, she portrays a pert, confident extraterrestrial belle swathed in a boa of tulip petals, the curve of her thin metal stem suggesting a swish of hips, her cyclopean head disarmingly fringed by what might be a tiara, or perhaps outsized eyelashes. Even in Swanson’s less anthropomorphic still lifes (e.g., Putter Points Lane, 1995, which evokes a desert landscape in which broken jewelry and an uninflated balloon grow like sparse cacti), there remains an auratic presence, which comes partly from the objects’ recurrence from image to image—a sort of internal history—and partly from the loving devotion of their maker/medium.

Although Swanson’s assemblagelike style seems closest to the work of Surrealists such as Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico, her craft also evokes traditions predating Modernism (her devotion to a world of objects brings to mind Dutch still life, and her application of luminous chiaroscuro to the images makes me think of what might have resulted if a Renaissance master had had access to an airbrush). But if Swanson’s works most resemble the Surrealists’ “exquisite corpses,” her figures don’t share this sense of dread: the animation is internal, as though the assemblies permitted some sort of inherent life to flow from one part-object to another. I write “part-objects” because all these wooden gizmos and flowers and broken corkscrews seem to be implicit in each other, even as they meet in ever-different configurations. Energy moves through the entire group of paintings as through it were one body, investing now one part, now another.

Laura U. Marks