Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson at HMA
Abstruction, a temporary exhibit at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HMA), is Dallas-based artist Erick Swenson’s first major solo museum-exhibition. His labor-intensive sculptures, cast from cast polyurethane resin, each of which can take up to two years to complete, resonate in Hawai’i because life here is inextricably interwoven with nature. ʻĀina (land) is central to the Indigenous Hawaiian sense of identity, and inhabitants reside in the physical and energetic space between towering mountains and a vast, formidable ocean. Hawai’i can be a mystical place, even for those who are only visitors; the already-dreamy quality of the tropics is here enhanced by salty humidity and remoteness—Hawai’i is the most geographically-isolated bit of land on Earth. Swenson’s themes of nature, universality, morbidity, and transcendence provide a fitting complement to this natural and spiritually-powerful place.
Though the eerie animals, and mounds of mucousy snails, which evoke a sort of primal disgusted-fascination, are not endemic to Hawai’i, Swenson contributed an island-inspired piece, crafted specifically for HMA show. The monotone manō (shark) is adorned with algae-like crystals and serves as a sort of bridge between his more typically forest-animal pieces, and the islands where they are currently on display. The manō is perfectly placed at the entrance/exit to the show, which is itself presented in a loop. This layout reflects the artist’s central theme, which is the passage of time, and “its effect on living beings.” (Does time loop back on itself? Can it move in either direction? Are the creatures depicted meant to be in motion, or immobile?)
It’s difficult not to wonder if the “beings” depicted are meant to be living. Some, like the human skull/crystal, or the partially-dismembered deer, are obviously not. Untitled (https://www.themodern.org/collection/artists/swenson/erick), which depicts a deer either being lifted or dragged by a cape, is one of the most impressive pieces of the show, and not only for its feat of engineering (possibly the largest, and certainly the tallest, piece in this show, it balances on just one small point: the fawn’s front hoof). The look on the small, white fawn’s face is haunting, as is the human-shaped (but unworn) black and red cape that threatens to displace it.
All the creatures depicted in the show are obviously distressed (with the exception of the snails, who don’t visibly emote, as far as one can tell, but they are all piled on top of one another, which is probably not relaxing). Swenson’s pieces tell a story of life as something that is beautiful and precious, but terrifying; temporary and fleeting, yet permanently present here on display. His art presents decay, in all its satisfying, gory glory, but the pieces themselves are meant to last forever, preserved (stuck?) in a perpetual state of immobilized dilapidation.
An additional entrance fee of $10 applies to this special exhibition, which is probably inexpensive from the museum’s point of view—especially when considering shipping costs to Hawai’i—but feels expensive to the visitor, since the museum’s general admission fee (for non-residents) is already $20; this is the artist’s first major solo museum exhibition; and includes few pieces, from the viewer’s perspective (eleven, to be exact, so it feels a bit sparse, even though the time put into each piece is obviously extensive). For tourists and visitors who have never set foot in HMA before, there are enough treasures to explore without seeing this small, temporary exhibit. For those of us who live here and pay an annual membership fee of $30, however, and/or those who have seen the permanent exhibits countless times, the Swenson exhibit is absolutely worth the price.
(Tip: if you live in Hawai’i and are not an HMA member: July 31 and the first Wednesday of each month, museum admission is free.)
Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson at Honolulu Museum of Art March 01, 2018 - July 29, 2018, Honolulu Museum of Art’s Henry R. Luce Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art
About the artist: Swenson first received international exposure when his work was featured in the 2004 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Since then his works have been exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; Nasher Sculpture Center; UCLA/Hammer Museum of Art; Saatchi Gallery, London; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; and Musée des Beaux Arts, Lausanne, Switzerland. His works are in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.