Ricky Swallow closes this weekend, and catalogue review
This week is your last chance to see Ricky Swallow's The Bricoleur at the National Gallery of Victoria. While you're there you might want to pick up a copy of the exhibition catalogue, reviewed here by Hop Dac.
The gallery catalogues that accompany most major exhibitions are underestimated things. Often they’re how people first come to be exposed to the artist’s work, prone as they are to popping up in second hand bookshops. I remember seeing a Peter Booth catalogue from his 2003 retrospective at the Ian Potter Centre in the window of Grubb Street Bookshop a couple of years ago, that stopped me in my tracks and had me digging around in my pockets for the necessary funds. I didn’t come across Booth’s work until after the retrospective had been taken down and those who love his work will know what a prize it is to be able to have his images in their hands. Unfortunately I was short and, being fiscally irresponsible, didn’t have the means to purchase it. I still think about it with regret, as books of contemporary Australian artists’ work are rare as hens’ teeth.
So it was with some interest that I received Ricky Swallow’s catalogue for his exhibition, The Bricoleur, also at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. The catalogue is a slim volume, A5, case bound and section sewn, which is already more trouble than most people go to. So it’s disappointing that the images of the work in the exhibition are somewhat lacklustre after all the thought that has gone into making it an enjoyable book to hold. Unlike painting, sculpture is something that doesn’t adapt very well to the printed image, so perhaps it’s a fraught exercise to begin with. In the case of Swallow’s work, the two dimensional reproductions (of wood that has been wrangled by a deft hand into crustacea, fish and fabric), fail to communicate the visual pleasure of seeing the work in a gallery. In some instances, where an image crosses one and a half pages, the crease detracts from the already diminished power of the work, as it does with the wonderful and mind-boggling Killing Time, that was shown at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Of the twenty-odd watercolours in the exhibition, only two have avoided being relegated to thumbnails on the pages. I guess as Swallow is predominantly a sculptor, his watercolours aren’t what he’s known for, but it still would have been nice if they had been given greater consideration, given he majored in drawing during his time at the Victorian College of the Arts.
There are two illuminating glimpses into Swallow’s work process at the start of the book. Both are images of works in progress that can be seen in their finished state in The Bricoleur. The first is a photograph of two birds lying side by side; one is stuffed and used as a reference for the other, carved of wood and presumably a study or model for the little bronze piece Flying on the ground is wrong. The other photograph is an in progress shot of the work Unbroken ways (for Derek Bailey), an entire arm up to the shoulder laying on a table with tools and wood chips around it, the fingers still clumsy and yet to be found by the artist. The pieces on display at the Ian Potter are so masterful in their transcendence of the limitations of raw materials that it is easy to forget they are the work of an artist and not a magician: wood appears soft as feathers, bronze as supple as skin. These two images, however, give you a glimpse of the craft, a reminder that these marvellous objects have been painstakingly rendered by hand and tool.
The catalogue begins with two essays. The first is an introduction to Swallow’s work by the curator of The Bricoleur, and Swallow fanboy, Alex Baker. He gives insight into the significance of Swallow’s themes, personal narratives and work practices, as well as contextualising the work in the lineage of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymades’. Baker suggests that, unlike the ‘delineated division of labour’ inherent in the work of artists like Jeff Koons, Swallow’s work is executed primarily by himself, so that his “hand is always evident”. Swallow’s creations urge the viewer to stop and take a moment to meditate on the effort that went into making them, in stark opposition to the way we are encouraged to approach so much in our fast consumerist world.
The second essay “The Grit and the Oyster”, by LA art critic Michael Ned Holte, explores further the folk sensibilities apparent in Swallow’s work that Baker briefly touches upon in the earlier essay. The carving of wood and other traditional methods of sculpture, the artist’s metaphors (skulls, dead birds, the itinerant wanderer) and the influence of musicians such as John Fahey and Phil Ochs on Swallows practice – either played while he works or whose song titles he appropriates to lend brevity to his own work – all point to this aesthetic. Both essays suggest that Swallow’s work is motivated by an autobiographical response to his inner and outer worlds, while at the same time developing the personal esoteric language required to explore those worlds.
The catalogue has obviously been inspired by Swallow’s handmade aesthetic and while there is room for improvement it succeeds in giving the reader an adequate overview to compliment the appreciation of his work. It’s rare to find a book on the work of any young Australian artist, let alone one as successful as Ricky Swallow, so – if you don’t want to find yourself fumbling around in your pockets in a second hand bookshop in a couple of years time – I suggest you go along to this brilliant show and get yourself a copy.
Ricky Swallow – The Bricoleur on Artabase