MORE TRAD THAN RAD? Swoon’s work fares better in the wilds of Somerville and Central Square than in the ICA.
Swoon is one of the most celebrated street artists in the US, so why does her wall of bugs and monsters inside the Institute of Contemporary Art (through December 30) feel so meh?
The Brooklyn artist pastes the lobby with linocuts of a giant, grinning old lady sitting atop arcs of demon heads. The woman could be a Cambridge doyenne/Buddha, with spiky short hair, a plump belly, and baggy yoga clothes. She's surrounded by an aura of blue and white starfish, moths, lizards, spiders, whales, seahorses, and hummingbirds. Below are rows of heads resembling Balinese masks, each with five eyes, fangs, long devil tongues, and necklaces of skulls. The mouths of a couple of the heads sprout black paper chains of cut-out fish, beetles, and horseshoe crabs that run along the ceiling and connect to a makeshift bamboo, white paper, and foamboard tower suspended next to the building's elevator shaft. The tower (check it out from the elevator) is a fairy-tale shantytown wedding cake temple decorated with cut-out paper birds, moth wings, and peacock feathers, and topped with a beehive dome. The imagery is pleasantly diverting, but without adjunct curator Pedro Alonzo's wall text, can you guess what it's about?
Swoon was born Caledonia Dance Curry in 1977, and grew up in Florida, before moving to New York in 1998 to study art at Pratt. She began illicitly wheatpasting designs to New York walls while in school. Her linocuts are straightforward, scratchy realism inspired by German Expressionist Kathe Kollwitz, though without Kollwitz's pointed, soulful social critique. Check out Swoon's work in the wild in new paste-ups on Starlite Lounge in Somerville of a beautiful punk boy standing amid the ruins of little buildings, and on the Graffiti Wall at Central Kitchen in Cambridge of an old man holding flowers and people in a flood (high up on duct work) and a boy (squatting low at the far right, and already half graffitied over by late last week). Her traditional draftsmanship stands out on exteriors awash with graffiti, ginormous cartoons, and slick graphic design. But in museums, it can feel oddly conservative.
Swoon's street art expanded to include impromptu street festivals and giant walk-in gallery installations. She and dozens of collaborators worked on a series of projects constructing ornate, recycled-junk rafts and floating them down the Mississippi (2006 and '07) and Hudson (2008), and around the Adriatic Sea to Venice (2009). They motored into ports like beautiful visions. Think The Road Warrior as directed by Fellini. "Art making," she tells me at the ICA press preview, "is a way to build the world you want to live in."
Since the new ICA opened in 2006, it's taken little advantage of its spectacular waterfront location. "That's actually why I was invited here," Swoon says. But instead of the floating art the ICA sought, she accepted the project because she wanted to hang out indoors, drawing.
Swoon's theme for the ICA's awkwardly-angled lobby wall is her title, Anthropocene Extinction, referring to the era in which humans have been a primary driver of environmental destruction. The giant lady is a 90-year-old woman said to be the last Australian aboriginal nomad, for Swoon a symbol of sustainable living. The demons are supposed to be eating those chains of paper critters, representing humanity's voracious consumption of natural resources. But these intended meanings are obscure. Instead, it feels like random, neat-o images composted into a decorative design, but not an inspired one.