William Swanson’s coolly compelling, rigorous-yet-playful paintings depict conglomerations of human artifice and natural landscape, which seem to have been put into a blender and electrified. They feel at once familiar and alien, presenting aspects of the 21st century-built environment as we know them and something a bit more jumbled, fractured and dystopian. They suggest a looming near-future that needs only another Katrina or Enron, or electrical grid breakdown, to reveal itself: in other words, a near-future of ongoing technological overload and natural disasters that has already arrived, though we may not recognize it yet.
Although his work evokes “classic sci-fi notions of other-worldly landscapes,” as he explains, there is also a “definite California influence. Maybe more Southern California, even though I live in the Bay Area… For instance, driving down on the I-5, you end up traveling through these manufactured or altered landscapes, passing the California aqueducts with their redirecting of natural resources…”
Born outside Chicago, raised in Cleveland, Swanson attended the Rhode Island School of Design and graduated 1992. He moved west the next year and has lived in Oakland for the last six years. While still in school, “I experimented with pouring paint on canvas, it never worked. I tried different supports-steel, aluminum-and ended up on plywood, pouring big quantities of liquid.” His paintings today consist of acrylic on plywood, which gives them their memorable flat surfaces. His diagrammatic vistas center on pieces of landscape stranded amid frenetic abstract elements in smooth color fields, drawn from a vivid earthy-pastel palette right out of the early ’70s. Originally, “all of the compositions were more or less framed as a landscape; there was a foreground element, a midground and a reference to a horizon line,” he recalls. “The new pieces are focusing on an isolated mass that I invent, so the peripheral elements can float away.”
While the scenarios Swanson depicts are conjured internally, he gathers his building blocks from real-world referents. His titles-such as Utility Easement, Component Remainder, and Energy Complex-are culled from phrases he gleans from old texts. Likewise, Swanson’s slyly retro view of the future is reflected in his source material: he collects vintage Time-Life Library books about science and nature, using the photographs and diagrams to inform his works. “What I do is, I trace profiles of shapes from those sources; I have a file on those on vellum. I have a bunch of those pasted up on a window, it helps if I want to glance over…on each page I have various diagrams: shapes of trees or mushrooms, intertwined.”
Throughout Swanson’s paintings, he observes, “the technological and the organic are fused, as if simultaneously growing together.” A similar dynamic applies to the mixed-media sculptural installation Mainframe Displacement that he recently spent a week installing in the backroom of the Walter Maciel Gallery in Culver City in conjunction with his new show of paintings entitled “View Beneath a Mechanistic Wilderness.” Split into two uneven sections, the piece depicts a set of black rectangular units recalling an early room-sized computer of the 1960s, sloping downward precipitously, interrupted by a narrow, brightly-lit window encasing a display of spore-like forms: a displaced splice of biological software mutating amidst the hardware. “The organic element comes in as if almost overtaking the sculpture,” he says, “as if breaking it down or infecting it, bringing it back to nature.”
In Swanson’s disorienting hybrid landscapes there is ongoing, ever-shifting conflict between nature and technology, but there is also symbiosis. It’s hard to tell which one is more unsettling.
“Utility Easement,” 2007, acrylic on wood panel, 30″ x 42″
“Views Beneath a Mechanistic Wilderness” was on view from September 8 through October 13 at Walter Maciel Gallery, 2642 La Cienega Blvd. in L.A.; (310) 839-1840 or www.waltermacielgallery.com