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Marc Swanson: hurry on sundown

Dioramas and taxidermied animals are usually the stuff of natural history museums, to teach about evolution and extinct species. Contemporary artist Marc Swanson, however, employs them to a quite different end, all the while smudging the borders and neat delineations between natural history, art, mythology, and popular culture. This kind of sampling is not only apparent in the subject matter but also in the wide variety of objects included in the exhibition. Like most contemporary artists, Swanson works across traditional artistic disciplines, resulting in an exhibition of sculptures, installations, assemblages, box constructions, collages, and drawings that are rooted in the history of art and popular culture.

Borrowed from a 1970 rock song by the British band Hawkwind, the exhibition title not only refers to music as one of the ongoing influences in Swanson’s work but also evokes the time of day, when the brightly defined shapes of day give way to the hazy outlines of twilight. Something between human and animal, the creature of Swanson’s installation Killing Moon (Self-Portrait as a Yeti) exists in this indeterminate space. The sculpture started out as an investigation into how natural history museums misrepresent the nature of animals by projecting human characteristics onto them. Casting his own hands, feet, and face for the figure, Swanson realized that “he was the Yeti and the Yeti was him.” In the gallery installation, the self-portrait is paired with a set of rhinestone-encrusted antlers, which have become signature pieces for the artist. Three black portals on the walls of the gallery simultaneously allude to a darker side of life and a formal abstract aesthetic that, like in the rest of Swanson’s work, according to Bill Arning, curator at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, “perfectly rhyme content with form.”

The other major piece in the exhibition is the mixed media installation, Always and Nothing. Consisting of trees and tree branches, antlers, birdcages, a painted taxidermied peacock, and other handmade and found objects, Swanson’s immersive environment contains many layers of meaning. Not only does it refer to the artist’s upbringing in New Hampshire as the son of a hunter and Marine, it also commemorates his experiences as a hardcore punk-rock kid with the hand-sewn felt flags that bear the initials of each stop on his journey. Moved by the sense of mystery and melancholy in Always and Nothing, one critic described it as a “Yeti’s lonely refuge,” making this installation a fitting companion for the Yeti environment in the other gallery.

Also steeped in the history of art with personal heroes such as Joseph Beuys (the “JB” in some of his drawings), Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, and Bruce Conner, Swanson’s attention to materials and their combination point to a sensibility that is shaped by dualities and contradictory influences. The glitter-covered deer head is a good example of the artist’s strategy: eye-catching layers of biographical history serve to turn a classic representation of masculinity upside down, as a trophy traditionally connoting male prowess becomes an alluring object in Swanson’s hands. “Antlers are already contradictory,” Arning notes; “they are failures of weapon design: located on the head for greater show than practicality.”

While Swanson’s work draws inspiration from his own biography, he also manages to involve viewers in acts of self-reflection and self-construction that resonate with his way of working. Swanson’s mirror and etched glass pieces—Psychic Studies, Untitled (Antler Box), and Nests—engage viewers’ participation both thematically and formally. As their reflections are bounced back at them, viewers are reminded of the complexities of identity formation. “Through his brave self-revelations,” Arning points out, “Swanson triggers audiences’ sympathetic responses rather than leave them merely in the passive role as witnesses to his terminal uniqueness, thereby inviting and allowing them to better consider their own unlikely path of self-creation.”

While his earlier work openly dealt with “gay culture,” Swanson has stated that he prefers not to be categorized as a gay or straight artist. Instead he has always embraced contradiction in both his work and life. “As an artist willing to revisit identity as an issue a decade after its heyday [in the art world],” Arning argues, “avoiding being any type of poster boy for ‘the good queer role model’ remains a prime concern of out artists in the first decade of the 2000s.”

This exhibition was funded in part by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Additional funding provided by a grant from the Cornell Council for the Arts.

Andrea Inselmann
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art