Ricky Swallow, Make-Do Suite, 2010, patinated bronze, wooden table, 52 3/8 x 96 1/2 x 24 1/8".

Ricky Swallow, Make-Do Suite, 2010, patinated bronze, wooden table, 52 3/8 x 96 1/2 x 24 1/8".

Ricky Swallow

Stuart Shave/Modern Art | 6 Fitzroy Square

Ricky Swallow, Make-Do Suite, 2010, patinated bronze, wooden table, 52 3/8 x 96 1/2 x 24 1/8".

Ricky Swallow, who represented Australia at the 2005 Venice Biennale, is best known for painstakingly carved wooden sculptures that update the vanitas tradition with imagery such as serpents slithering through a bike helmet, a skull sinking into a beanbag, and a lone bird nesting in a sneaker. Although at thirty-six he is still relatively young, the success of these works has, to a large extent, typecast him. So it was striking that in his recent exhibition in London there wasn’t a piece of carved wood in sight. What initially seemed a radical departure, however, turned out to be pure Swallow—just a little older, and maybe wiser too.

This exhibition was made up of bronze casts of battered and torn cardboard archery targets that Swallow had collected from a practice range in Los Angeles. As one would expect from this artist, verisimilitude was king, with every fold and piercing perfectly remade. In Plate 25 (slate, fog) (all works 2010), the original had taken such a hammering from arrows that its center had completely disintegrated. Its cardboard incarnation would have been headed straight for the Dumpster, but Swallow’s version, frozen in bronze, took on the presence of a Lucio Fontana. This wasn’t accidental: Modernist nods—rather than Swallow’s usual vanitas references—ran through the entire show. This was most obvious in the vessels and stand-alone sculptures that Swallow constructed and then cast from chopped-up archery targets, paying homage to British ceramicists such as Hans Coper, and Californian modernists such as Peter Voulkos. Bottle/after L.R. (bone), for example, made no secret that it was modeled on Lucie Rie’s pottery.

In pieces such as Large Crucible (indigo), Swallow showed off his alchemical knack for making one material look alarmingly like another: The vessel’s rich indigo patina perfectly mimicked a ceramic glaze. The largest work in the show, Make-Do Suite—a number of patchy vessels on a table—plays similar transformative games. Its title refers to the practice of clumsily repairing antiques to extend their life, but the work also seems to poke fun at the way we fetishize functional objects from the past: Several of the vessels are so riddled with holes that they look like they’ve been unearthed in an archaeological dig, then spruced up for museum display. And in another clear modernist reference, the ensemble’s careful arrangement has the poise and fragility of a Morandi painting.

Whereas his wooden sculptures have always been based on real objects, Swallow’s bronzes—knowing simulations made from discarded cardboard that was first obliterated by archers, then doubly obliterated by the artist—are fabrications of fabrications. They are the death masks of throwaway things, which Swallow allowed to exist only for as long as he needed to grant them their immortality. This creates a weird hall-of-mirrors effect, a layering of references that goes deeper into our urge to collect, preserve, remake, and display than his wooden sculptures have ever done. Swallow’s new work shows an exhilarating maturity, and continues to remind us that, painful as it is to admit, nothing lasts forever.

Anthony Byrt