This is the first solo exhibition by Dallas’ own Erick Swenson since what could have been called an early career retrospective in 2012 titled “Sightings,” held at the Nasher Sculpture Center. In the pieces selected here, the common aesthetic thread and artistic issues that Swenson has grappled with, which were as evident in “Sightings” as they were in his groundbreaking show “Obviously a Movie” at Angstrom Gallery in 1998, are firmly in evidence. His work explores the unexpected surprise and quick flash of action that leads to oblivion, with pathos, irony, and regret, fully in play. A fierce perfectionist, Swenson seeks to make art that corresponds on a formal level with objects and things as they are, or what they might look like if his fantastical fabrications actually existed. From a tableau of animals in human clothing that look like they belong in a natural history museum, to playful creatures on Persian rugs, or whirling caped deer spinning out of control, everything the viewer sees is crafted in the studio with obsessive rigor. Cubist assemblage and Duchampian readymade aesthetics may as well have never happened as far as Swenson is concerned; merely buying a prop as a set piece would be a type of cheating.
Recurring themes surrounding both a Baroque-like motion and cinematic action inform the work, as well as the latest manifestation of Swenson’s deer, Muncie. Perhaps an alter ego, Muncie has appeared in various sculptural ensembles: twirling in a whirlwind, fate unknown, then crash-landing during a blizzard frozen in ice, decidedly dead. The latest version in this show, Ne Plus Ultra (2010), which presents a rotting carcass with exposed bone, sporting mysterious scrimshaw carvings, might be his final treatment of the whimsical animal. Despite the grotesquery of the rotting flesh, its beauty as an art object still comes through, as it does in all of Swenson’s work, regardless of the dire situations his characters sometimes find themselves in. There is something clinical about this sculpture; the body rests atop a cold white slab like a dissected lab specimen, compelling the viewer’s morbid curiosity, perhaps after the initial shock. In the humorous Schwärmerei (2012), countless lifelike snails engulf a beer stein as they race up toward the opening, ravenous to get at the beer. What the snails don’t know is that the stein is empty; instead of beer an infinite pit portends their long fall into a void. It’s easy to forget that, ultimately, the creatures in all of these pieces are probably surrogates for people in Swenson’s carefully choreographed Grand Guignol.