Ricky Swallow / MATRIX 191
For Those Who Came in Late
April 22, 2001 - May 27, 2001
Download the exhibition brochure (PDF) .
"I realized that my studio is a place where objects come to die or to be rendered in their final moments. Bleached of all their functional charm, they serve to commemorate their past operations." - Ricky Swallow1
A cross between a cultural archeologist and a hobbyist model maker, twenty–six year old Australian artist Ricky Swallow explores the circular motion of culture in his meticulously handcrafted sculptures and coyly rendered drawings. Blending whimsy with a disturbing undertone of malevolence, his works are informed by science fiction, pop music, the Planet of the Apes, art history, evolution, and the paranormal. His sculptures reference architectural models, product prototypes, and the museological archiving of formerly essential objects. Regardless of scale, from miniatures to life-size sculptures, craftsmanship predominates in Swallow's work. For those who came in late, Swallow's MATRIX exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum, can be divided into three pseudo-thematic parts: broken communication, human disappearance, and the celebration of the time that follows.
The artist's early signature works incorporate 1950s and 1960s phonograph turntables, which Swallow transforms into miniature dioramas that rotate between 16 and 78 rpm. The sculptures thus revolve endlessly, literally replaying a moment in time over and over. Even the odd orbit (1999), a group of twenty-one turntable models organized into four distinct groups, encapsulates many of Swallow's recurring themes. One work is a model of a gallery displaying a Ricky Swallow retrospective complete with miniature replicas of earlier works as well as a rethinking of Humans are smarter, a 1998 work as it would appear in an exhibition later that year. Swallow's works offer subtle social commentary on the situations they depict: a crashed BMX and its rider sprawled face down beside it; faceless youth seated at video game terminals; chimpanzees holding human hostages at gunpoint on a rooftop.
Like many of Swallow's works, I Don't Want to Know if You Are Lonely/Harry Feinberg's Communicator uses elements of 1980s culture as a point of departure. The positioning of the content in that era is less important, however, than its placement within traditional art historical genres, such as still life and formalist modes of representation. The dual title, I Don't Want to Know if You Are Lonely/Harry Feinberg's Communicator, combines that of a song by the punk band Husker Dü and the name of the designer of the object for the movie E.T. (The Extra–Terrestrial). Swallow says he included Feinberg's name so that the communicator would assume an air of historical importance. Carved from balsa wood, this work is one of a series of objects by Swallow that allow a type of transcendence: the telescope which facilitates eyes travelling into the universe; the metal detector which makes hidden things visible; and, the E.T. communicator which promises the hope of returning to another world. Swallow's works vacillate between a yearning to celebrate the magic and mocking those who would believe such a hokey invention would have any hope of success.
Silence Kit/Upturned PowerBook is the exact size, shape, and form of the artist's own computer, which he used as a model. Swallow makes replicas developed to unusable perfection. He has described his use of the 1:1 relationship employed in prototype making this way: "The idea that you are approaching something that in every way looks like, and has all of the parts of, the thing that you really want it to be, but totally emphasizes the fact that it is just a fabrication of that thing."2 Swallow's sculpture functions as a non-functional prototype for the prototype of the Apple PowerBook, which was, of course, not carved out of wood. The work commemorates the pre–use or pre–communication phase of the object. Swallow's PowerBook is mutated into a static, inoperable form. He exacerbates its uselessness by turning it upside down. As such, his computer posits its eventual and inevitable fate: extinction through obsolescence—a victim of the technological survival of the fittest.
The body of a pigmented resin skeleton patterned in gray, olive, and black camouflage forms the horizontal section of a park bench in For those who came in late. The head and feet fuse with the architectural elements of the bench. This amalgamation recalls a scene from the sci–fi cult film Logan's Run. In it, a man who is being pursued is shot and killed and then sprayed with a chemical that causes his body to dissolve into the pavement. For those who came in late is Swallow's second major work involving the full body of a skeleton. The idea of repetition is essential to Swallow's work, and many of his objects either prefigure or reconfigure others. He continually perfects his ideas and themes through updated sculptures. The establishment of a dialogue between individual works (or series of works) and between exhibitions is part of Swallow's strategy as an artist.3
A skeleton is seen climbing a ladder in the original work; it is unclear whether he is in the process of rising to his first moment or descending to his last. Swallow says of the skull, "It is an image or icon that has been laughing at me all my life in a way...I have been looking at the skeleton as, rather then being a sign of mortality, being the sign of immortality."4 Here Swallow attempts to capture someone or something's last moments before it disappears forever. The artist often references the ruins of Pompeii when describing his works. Accordingly, he records objects unaware of their impending, untimely demise, things whose importance becomes elevated because they happened to be saved.
The patterning on For those who came in late covers the entire object and reveals the artist's gesture as well as providing a more straight forward (and humorous) art historical reference by aping the process and product of Jackson Pollock's archetypal painting Lavender Mist.
Vacated Campers, two 1:1 scale tennis shoes constructed out of binders board, paper, and glue, is a metaphysical self-portrait. Swallow replicates his own empty shoes in a way that suggests he will himself one day be replaced with an updated model. The worn soles indicate aged and traveled objects. The shoes, absent of any apparent owner, can be positioned within the context of urban lore. Similar to abandoned sneakers seen hanging from telephone wires, intentionally but oddly placed, they function as representations of vanishing civilizations and urban decay.
The sixty skull keyrings that form We the Sedimentary Ones/Use Your Illusions vol. 1–60 are souvenirs of the artist's practice as well as of his recent artist's residency in New Zealand. Created from layer upon layer of pigmented resin, they recall the glass animals filled with colored sand that children buy to memorialize a family vacation. The keyrings are commemorative elements of the eventual disappearance of humanity and our culture. Says Swallow, "It is probably the equivalent of going to a concert and bringing home a tee–shirt and hoping that the tee–shirt is going to contain everything till it falls off of your back. In a scale it is quite diminished from the original concert, but I guess it is what you attribute to it."5
All of the drawings included in Swallow's MATRIX exhibition display the reversal of evolutionary processes. In Aping the Humans, a drawing inspired by the dramatic contrast and haunting figures found in the work of El Greco, an ape stands off to the side intensely watching two youths. Here Swallow records the transfer of knowledge that is necessary for the apes to take over the planet once humanity disappears. In Swallow's world, as in Planet of the Apes, the apes win in the end.
While artists such as Keith Edmier recreate objects of personal importance from their childhood; Tom Sachs constructs replicas of ordinary objects and cultural icons; Callum Morton explores the concept of the architectural model; and Michael Ashkin fabricates miniature scenes of dystopic events, Ricky Swallow combines all of these elements and more into his unique and arresting art.
In the introductory text for his first solo exhibition in 1997, Swallow asked what would or could be learned from his objects if they were sealed as is in a gallery excavated in the future. Swallow mines culture for content and peppers his work with social commentary. His acutely contemporary objects, resembling nature morte and presenting vanitas, are actually somewhat conservative: representational with an overt interpretation. Themes of death and immortality, evolution and survival, and transience and permanence filter in and out. The most moving and poignant description of Swallow's work that I have read was written by critic Justin Patton: "Think of the gypsy Melquiades, in the first scene of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, whose magnet pulls a cargo of lost objects out from their hiding places. His motto might be Swallow's: 'Things have a life of their own. It's simply a matter of waking up their souls.'"6
Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator
1 Telephone conversation between Ricky Swallow and the author, 3/14/2001.
2 Marah Braye, "The Voyeur Awakes," Art and Australia, Winter 2001, vol. 38, no. 4, p. 566.
3 Ibid., p. 565.
4 Lara Travis, "None More Blacker," None More Blacker (Melbourne, Australia: 200 Gertrude Street, 2001), n/p.
6 Justin Paton, "The Recreation Room," Above Ground Sculpture (Dunedin, New Zealand: Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2000), n/p.
The MATRIX Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is made possible by the generous endowment gift of Phyllis Wattis.
Additional donors to the MATRIX Program include the UAM MATRIX Council Endowment, Ann M. Hatch, Eric McDougall, and the California Arts Council.
Ricky Swallow / MATRIX 191 For those who came in late has been assisted by the Commonwealth Government through Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
Ricky Swallow acknowledges the support of the following people: Kati Jane Rule, Chad Chatterton, Fiona Abicare, Nick Johns, Damiano Bertoli, Andy Alexander, Darren Knight, Hamish McKay, Karyn Lovegrove, Justin Patron, Mike Conole, Yani Florence, Chris Gregory, and John Brash.