16
Jan
10

Ricky Swallow @ the National Gallery of Victoria

Ricky Swallow Killing TimeFriday, 16 January 2010

Dear Diary,

Ricky Swallow’s The Bricoleur exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria – http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au – (which is on view until the end of February), features sculptures and works on paper by this young favourite of fortune. By the ‘tender’ age of 35, he has won the $100,000 Contempora award, represented Australia at the Venice Biennale, and has the curatorial and collectors’ following many artists twice his age and experience would be proud of.

The exhibition concentrates on the last few years of his artistic career, from Killing Time, Swallow’s Australia Council-funded contribution to the Venice Biennale, to more recent works. Killing Time (2005) is indisputably the grandest, yet perhaps one of the weakest sculptures in the exhibition. It is a giant still-life in carved wood, a three-dimensional version of a Dutch painting, teaming with fish and fruit de mer. The didactic panel (one of the many in the present exhibition, which are for once intelligently and insightfully written without the usual condescending attempt to dumb down the arts for the ‘everyday people’) describes it as a complex reflection upon the artist’s childhood and memories of his father. Swallow has succeeded well in interpreting and illustrating this sweet narrative. However, conceptually, and on a deeper level, the work is quote weak. The carving of still-life objects is not as detailed as in Salad Days or Longeron of 2009, on display in the same room. Likewise, drapes and napkins do not have the same perception of tactility as his carvings of material-based objects in other, smaller sculptures. As so often happens, the artist worked on a grand statement, but fell short of the mark. The sheer magnitude of the project seems to have defeated Swallow’s spirit, imagination, and superior carving abilities, which are so abundantly and evidently present in his smaller-scaled works.

The theme of marine still-life is continued in Longeron of 2009, which to me is a more successful work in terms of execution and overall composition than the much-applauded Killing Time. First of all, it has a beautiful picturesque quality to it, like a small three-dimensional vignette out of an Adrian Feint painting. Secondly (and despite the heavy autobiographical programme of the larger work), it has a more intimate, personal quality to it. Once again it feature marine life, illustrative of his childhood; but it also features a hoodie, which at once serves as a table cloth and protectively covers the objects in this delicate arrangement. The quality of its carving makes it look by far softer and more tactile than the table cloth from the large piece, and regains the mind-defying ‘malleable’ qualities of Swallow’s earlier carved pieces.

Ricky Swallow Salad DaysThe Salad Days of 2005 is an arresting piece, featuring dead game suspended over a round tondo. Though the artist’s indebtedness and obvious references to Dutch or Flemish still-life painting are clearly visible in this piece, it is still a magnificent work of art. The sheer quality of carving and execution is overwhelming. The work is “enriched” with the artist’s trademark symbols: the only “living” element among the dead game is a little swallow perched on the side, and the omnipresent skull also makes its macabre appearance. But perhaps the most disturbing element is the presence of dead younglings – a baby bird and a baby mouse – suspended or laid out alongside their dead ‘parents’. Swallow turns this traditional celebration of bounty into a meditation, an evocation of mortality and transience of existence. The work acquires a strong emotional dimension, which is not frequently present in the artist’s works.

The entire room containing these pieces, grey and darkened, has a feeling of an interrupted feast, suddenly abandoned but frozen in time by a cataclysmic event on the magnitude of the Pompeii.

Ricky Swallow Rehearsal for RetirementThe exhibition casts no doubts as to Swallow’s superior carving (or casting) abilities – witness the little bronze swallow (one of the artist’s obvious trademark symbols), or an abandoned sneaker complete with exquisitely carved suspended laces in the title piece of the show, The Bricoleur, of 2006, or his casting of the bones in Tusk, of 2007. It also shows his knowledge and awareness of the Old Masters, which has been mentioned above, and is also evident in the Rehearsal for Retirement (2008) – a study of two severed feet clearly influenced by Théodore Géricault.

Less successful in my opinion are Fig. 2 (2009), which is a carving of a lumpy backpack (with its obvious allusions to youth culture). While Caravan of 2008 (incongruous casts of balloons covered with barnacles) is interesting as a concept, the artist did not succeed in attaining the sense of weightlessness of these balloon, neither is this idea totally fresh in Swallow’s art: it is a repetition of his earlier, more conceptually sound and successful carvings of abandoned, barnacle-covered Gameboys.

Ricky Swallow Bowman's RecordBowman’s Record (2008) and The Days Aren’t Different Enough (2009) are perhaps the most simple yet exquisite casts of cardboard arching targets. They represent a departure from his earlier works in the sense that they are mouldings of actual objects rather than carved or sculpted pieces. Despite their simplicity, they have a magnetically aesthetic, attractive quality about them.

Perhaps the weakest elements of the exhibition are Swallow’s watercolours. He does not excel in that genre. One Nation Underground is hardly a new word in the art practice, as copies from celebrity photographs and album covers have been seen in this country alone since the days of Ivan Durrant in the 1970s or Sadie Chandler in the 1990s. A Sad but Very Discreet Recollection of Beloved Things and Beloved Beings do not add anything to the exhibition, provide further insights into the works on display, or into the artist’s creative processes in general. One can almost argue that watercolours were included for the exhibition designers’ sake to provide a colourful relief to an otherwise white or grey exhibition space – but the nature of a sculpture exhibition demands such simplicity.

Ricky Swallow One Nation UndergroundOverall, the exhibition is quite winsome. Ricky Swallow’s carving and casting skills are undeniable. In fact, they are quite outstanding in the context of Australian contemporary sculpture, even though they do fail him somewhat when the artist is faced with the daunting task of producing a piece on the scale and magnitude of Killing Time. The curatorial choice of concentrating only on the artist’s recent oeuvre is regrettable, as Swallow’s earlier pieces, which had a stronger grasp of the zeitgeist of his generation, would have provided a greater insight into his current artistic practice. Otherwise, the predominantly superior quality of the workmanship in the present exhibition overshadows the deeper intellectual or conceptual concern over death and transience, which is peculiar to the self-obsessive and self-referential generation of the youth today.

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