Ricky Swallow: Watercolours
Toured by the University of Queensland
Christchurch Art Gallery
12 December 2009 - 21 February 2010
Australian artist Ricky Swallow is well known for his finely detailed sculpture (made by carving or casting) of everyday or hybridic objects. The forms are astonishingly precise in the exactness of their execution, with much nuance of planular surface and delicate plasticity – along with avoidance of strong chroma. Therefore to see this show of over eighty loosely executed watercolours is a considerable surprise – for they celebrate saturated colour and wrist action as part of drawing with brushed on pigment. They demonstrate a less cerebral and clinical sensibility, being more overtly emotional in mood.
As a body of work they need to be understood as a response to the tightness of the sculpture, a bodily and mental freeing on the part of the artist, a wish to embrace more of the chaotic and unforeseen. Despite Swallow’s interest in science fiction and current technologies that extend or reproduce the body, he is in a sense a mediaeval artist in his themes and visual treatments. A little like say Roger Mortimer with his guild/craft sensibility (or even Parekowhai), and quite unlike say Dan Arps, et al, Peter Robinson and Paul Cullen who seem to be more about exploring trope (as in the hows of meaning construction) not symbol, process not resolved product.
The exhibition shows Swallow beginning to teach himself the skills of watercolour manipulation twelve or so years ago, and slowly but surely becoming more and more proficient in portraiture, copying images that are often corny in their selection - LP sleeves (James Taylor), art reproductions (Goya, Picasso), photos of folk heroes (Ned Kelly), and movie stills (Jagger as Kelly) - until he becomes like Marlene Dumas, an expert at interpreting the physiognomies of the vulnerable, the savage and the tragic; but with traces of Sydney Nolan. Improving the clichéd source material through transmutation.
You could regard Swallow’s sculpture and watercolours as quite separate: totally independent enterprises but with a little overlap in subject matter – as with skulls - or you could speculate about them on another level. Projects that are linked.
Swallow seems to be searching for his own voice, an individuality readily apparent in his sculpture but in my view not detectable here, a quality through which his 3D practice might eventually become more turbulent and immediate. These drawings are interesting on a non-portraiture level, as an attempt to reach beyond themselves, rather than just as illustrations or explorations of technique.
I think (actually I hope) that they might lead to a looser form of sculpture than what he has made so far. They seem to be tools for thinking about plasticity of form and emotional power. In other words, researching sculpture with psychological and physical atmosphere, objects that are partially dematerialised and far less literal. Devices for researching the presence (or lack of) mass, a shift away from obvious narrative. A self-teaching aid for investigating that.