New/Now: Marc Swanson

By: Stephen Vincent Kobasa

New Britain Museum of American Art • New Britain, CT • • Through May 13, 2012

Marc Swanson, Untitled (Crystal, Hooking Left), 2011, crystals, polyurethane foam,  adhesive, 30 x 22 x 26". Courtesy of the  artist. Photo: Long Lin.‘All that glitters is not gold.” True enough, but that expression is irrelevant to this alchemy of a show where the more common of stuff is both redeemed and celebrated. The worlds that Marc Swanson constructs are as inventive and melancholy as Joseph Cornell’s, though on a larger scale.

In Untitled (88 Box) tattered trophies evoke the fictional grandeur of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Glory Days”; Untitled (Gold Box) contains
gilded, broken dreams behind a bordello curtain; and Untitled (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof #2) has a still image of Paul Newman in a meditative moment as the character Brick in the film of the Tennessee Williams play. An unidentifiable marble bust in the background might be a memento mori for the dead actor.

The challenge of Untitled (Harold Box) is a demand for recognition of its reference to The Boys in the Band, a 1968 play that depicted a catalogue of struggles for gay identity. Not so well known now, it is presented as an inaccessible private memory that was critical for the artist’s sense of himself. The chains that hang on its face read both as prize and constraint.

But Swanson works outside the box as well, in the glass, enamel, and glitter Boy in Tree with its suggestion of Huck Finn rendered as a Kara Walker silhouette, and the Untitled (Large Devotion Eyes Drawing), its many lined angles of vision like an exercise in Renaissance perspective framing the eyes plucked from St. Lucy, or hidden behind the mask of Venetian carnival; the looker looking, looked at.

On pedestals are Untitled (Jet Antler Pair), ritual artifacts from caves at Chauvet or Lascaux as prehistoric glam, and Untitled (Black Paper Wasp’s Nest) of glass, ominously fragile, as if carbonized by fire. The centerpiece of the show, mounted high on a wall, is Untitled (Crystal, Hooking Left), a singular trophy animal from some Rhineland castle with its catalogues of slaughter. This is the mythic Christmas beast brought low, or Bambi’s dad deified in a glistening incarnation.

Circling inside this exhibition feels like a progressing along a pilgrimage road lined with votive shrines, surrounded by voices of grief and thanksgiving.

—Stephen Vincent Kobasa

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