The Southwest School of Art and Craft
Gary Sweeney’s recent work achieves the rare feat of being both smart and funny. In contrast to the sea of packed summer shows that increasingly rely on an art fair sensibility—a little of this, a little of that—Sweeney’s dense but precise installation seems more inspired by the aesthetic of a regional science fair than Art Chicago. The show, loosely organized as chapters of Will and Ariel Durant’s seminal survey of world history The Story of Civilization, probes the complexities of semiotics, politics, history and humor in quirky, smartly made work steeped in nostalgia, pop culture and personal narrative.
Sweeney orchestrates an ongoing negotiation of meaning between the viewer, the artist and the artwork based on the underlying premise that as a system of signification, language is infinitely reliant on context and interpretation. His palindrome pieces, installed under a large plaque that reads The Origins of Language, are assembled from found signs, cut up and reconfigured to create nonsensical expressions like Yo Bob Muga Gumbo Boy. In this display, order and chaos coexist; Sweeney shifts the paradigm of language from meaning to pure structure, in a sense divorcing the signifier from the signified. These disjointed text pieces exhibit a Frankenstein-like fragility, cut up and pasted back together—each segment in service of a larger entity but never completely divorced from its origin. Sweeney’s palindrome pieces critique the underlying assumption that any thing, time or subject can be wholly understood in simple, linear terms.
Sweeney’s decidedly postmodern uncertainty is further confused by a penchant for a kind of fifties, Leave it to Beaver aesthetic, which, at least in terms of its popular identity, points to happier, simpler and in many ways more confident times. But much like Andy Warhol’s Marilyn portraits or Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles, Sweeney’s use of popular iconography is not purely ironic and functions on multiple levels at once.
In Duke of Earl (2004) identical, framed portraits of a young tuxedo-clad Sweeney flashing a smile that rivals Troy Donahue are accompanied, visually and audibly, by the song of the same title. A series of equally clean-cut backup singers—fellow artists Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing (The Art Guys), Ken Little and Bill FitzGibbons—are also portrayed, repeated above Sweeney’s picture. This arrangement forms a kind of storyboard with the rhythm and lyrical structure of the song mirrored on the wall, its composition punctuated by the printed lyrics of the song.
Gary Sweeney, Georgia O’Keefe’s Signature, 2004
Routed wood and paint
48 1?4 x 48 1?7 inches
As Gene Chandler croons, “As I walk through this world...Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl...,” the viewer connects the whimsical, largely nonsensical lyrics with Sweeney’s portrait. The self-aggrandizing, romantic optimism expressed becomes the voice of Sweeney’s smiling face. Installed under the heading England 1337, Duke of Earl pits the historically tangled web of French and English monarchies against the road taken by Chandler, Napoleon and Michael Jackson, to name just a few self-anointed royalty.
While many of Sweeney’s pieces are lighthearted, some are surprisingly dark, including Hurricane Camille Victims (The Death of Fashion). The series consists of framed grave rubbings—unidentified victims from the 1969 disaster—surrounded by cartoony illustrations of the clothes they were wearing at the time their bodies were discovered. The tombstones were written with censuslike generality—gender, race, etc. Clothing items like “green slacks” and “paisley pullover” are the only personal, distinguishing characteristics attributed to the victims. The paintings reflect an odd sentiment: though these individuals remain anonymous, by some strange series of events things as menial as their clothing are immortalized.
Installed under the heading Empire, It’s a Sure Sign the Sun is Setting When Small Men Cast Long Shadows, the popular quotation (by seventeenth-century English dramatist Nathaniel Lee) is paired with a hilarious George W. Bush action figure clad in flight fatigues. The Barbie-sized action figure stands at the entrance to a small room, flanked on either side by a patchwork of campaign signs. Bush, illuminated by a floodlight, does indeed look very small compared to the enormous shadow cast on the wall. The piece effectively places our current political chapter within a much larger narrative through a simple pairing of lore and kitsch.
Overall, however, the most successful work in the show is also the most straightforward. Georgia O’Keefe’s Signature is a routed wooden panel tracing O’Keefe’s progressively sloppy signature from ages ninety-one to ninety-six. Pastel hues and slick, impersonal signage contrast with the mangled signatures, each more illegible than the previous. The signatures are funny and heartbreaking, illustrating the very human struggle to maintain autonomy in the face of old age.
“It (civilization) begins where chaos and insecurity end. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are fuel and man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life,” reads one of the first pieces in the show, a photograph of Sweeney standing next to text taken from the opening paragraphs of The Story of Civilization.” This quote reflects our blind yet enduring determination to get to the bottom of things—a sentiment that resonates in Sweeney’s work. He applauds our collective effort to triumph over adversity, all the while reminding us that while civilization is undoubtedly in full swing, the end of chaos, collective fear and insecurity is nowhere in sight.