Dan R. Goddard
Gary Sweeney, Dear God, Please Make Them Stop Using Children To Represent Innocence And Purity, 2009; enamel on MDO board; 46 x 66 inches
Maybe If Your Metaphors Weren’t So Obvious, installation view, Sala Diaz, San Antonio; images courtesy the artist
When does an astute metaphor become a mindless cliché? In his solo exhibition at Sala Diaz, Maybe If Your Metaphors Weren’t So Obvious, Gary Sweeney considers just such a tipping point. Sweeney made a list of common visual metaphors—lighthouses, innocent girls, film noir detectives, flowers and so on—and painted each on large panels resembling giant playing cards. He then used the paintings to build structures and yet another metaphor: two, not-too-sturdy-looking house of cards constructions.
This sort of installation work is a departure for Sweeney, who has been using remnants of old advertising and political signs to recompose famous quotations for years. At one point, he was determined to transform the entirety of Will and Ariel Durant’s ten-volume The Story of Civilization into a text piece. What remains from that monumental effort is Sweeney’s knack for matching compelling images with evocative quotations on almost any topic imaginable.
Humor is Sweeney’s most potent weapon. On each card in Metaphors, he pairs a somewhat nostalgic image with a poignant quote, either from a famous writer or artist, or an acerbic aside of his own. These literary accents are rarely as trite as the images and seem intended to poke ironic holes in the images’ stolid predictability. For example, the film noir detective depicted on one card might be Philip Marlowe in The Maltese Falcon. Sweeney paints a rough-shaven man in a fedora leaning out of the shadows to say, in a cartoon dialogue balloon, “Yeah, I know it’s a metaphor and so is my gun.”
On another card, a quote from Melville’s Moby Dick wraps around the jaws of a great white whale: “There are certain times in life when man takes the universe for a vast practical joke and he more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.” Sweeney always seems to be able to laugh at life, and he’s not above the puerile. The petals in The Language of Flowers murmur, “Stop being such a dick.” He also can be tongue-in-cheek maudlin. Sweeney accompanies an image of a praying girl and her dog, appealing to heaven with, “Dear God, please make them stop using children to represent innocence and purity.”
While a sort of fifties postwar optimism marks much of Sweeney’s output, he is also sensitive to the dark side of a generation fueled by Cold War paranoia. The possibilities of technology solving every problem imaginable may have been more inspired by Mutually Assured Destruction than good intentions, as Sweeney observes in The Future as Metaphor. In Deluge, a backdrop of flooded houses in New Orleans is overlaid with all-too-familiar spray-painted FEMA hieroglyphs. The tagline reads, “Rich people write history, poor people write the songs.”
Stacking his cards into rickety houses makes it intentionally difficult to see each image clearly. This suggests larger problems associated with cliché and the passivity it elicits. Any culture erected on the foundations of trite perceptions and rooted in shallow stereotypes invariably threatens not just widespread ignorance but collapse—a house of cards, if you will.
Dan R. Goddard is a writer living in San Antonio.