New York

Corin Sworn


Children’s playgrounds have long been characterized by a combination of artificial materials, intense colors, and oversize geometric forms, making them natural subjects for an artist interested in the flows of influence among Minimalist sculpture, civic architecture, and social anthropology. Canadian Corin Sworn, who made her New York debut at ZieherSmith recently, begins with just such a preoccupation but narrows her focus still further. Sworn concentrates on structures built in the late 1960s, when an intensified curiosity about the lasting significance of early human development coincided with emergent construction techniques to produce an extraordinary array of purportedly liberating—but in fact highly ordered—recreational environments.

Sworn renders examples of still-futuristic-looking playgrounds from Europe, Japan, and the United States as small, naturalistic graphite drawings, excluding backgrounds so that each image hovers in the middle of an expanse of white paper. Despite the works’ dry precision—they emulate the appearance of black-and-white photographs but also have a slightly diagrammatic feel—their mood is enigmatic, occasionally even melancholic. Tiny prepubescent figures populate each sheet, some appearing purposeful, others lost. Clambering through serpentine networks of tubing or hefting colossal inflatable globes, they might be the subjects of some mysterious test administered by unseen researchers of dubious intent.

Interspersed between the playground drawings are drawings of David Vetter, a Texan who died at age twelve in 1984. Vetter was the victim of a rare genetic condition known as Severe Combined Immune Deficiency Syndrome, an “allergy to everything” that condemned him to an isolated life in a sterile environment. His situation encapsulated a range of contemporaneous anxieties, attracting intense media attention that transformed his nickname, “The Boy in the Bubble,” into an enduring pop-cultural trope. The visual and thematic parallels between the absolute artificiality of Vetter’s germ-free home and the play- grounds’ overdesigned scenarios aren’t hard to discern, but the pattern of attitudes that Sworn’s project suggests—toward the psychology and sociology of medical technology, the mass media, and the built environment—is more ambiguous.

There is clearly an element of nostalgia at work here, but it’s tempered by a critical interest in the visual manifestations of modern and postmodern bureaucracy that is shared by Liam Gillick, Nils Norman, and others. Ultimately, what Sworn’s drawings illustrate is an oscillation between—or Orwellian fusion of—freedom and slavery, a paradoxical state for which the repurposed tangle of cables depicted in Italy, 1971, (all works 2005), and the open but carefully marked-out playing field of U.S.A., 1970, are graphic analogies. And while her investigation has yet to approach the breadth or sophistication of Gillick’s or Norman’s (to be fair, Sworn is considerably younger than either artist), it achieves a lasting resonance with modest means.

In fact, if there’s an obvious formal flaw in these works, it’s that they’re too unassuming. Unframed, slightly dog-eared, and arranged (apart from one pair, on an opposite wall) in an amorphous cluster, they work only if the viewer is prepared to squint and could easily disappear into the background of a less-sympathetic context. More strident is Hop Scotch, 1970 France, a large silk-screened banner based on an updated design for the traditional children’s game. Its heraldic styling alludes less directly to a specific time and place, allowing for a freer meditation on functionality and abstraction than the drawings do. Sworn’s work mines a rich vein and her technical facility is clear; her next move—hop, skip, or jump—will be one worth watching.

Michael Wilson