For more than a decade, Paul Swenbeck has made cross-media work that materially explores the translation of marginalized practices into contemporary culture. The artist’s visual and theoretical sources range from the occult (he grew up in Salem, Massachusetts), folk expression, and pre-scientific phenomena, to sci-fi illustration and the debunked psychoanalytic experiments of Wilhelm Reich. For “Dor and Oranur,” his third exhibition at Fleisher/Ollman, Swenbeck draws upon prehistoric forms to produce two dramatic tableau envisioning the early conflicts and practices of human and animal life.
The exhibition’s epic staging is multisensory. Orange, green, and blue filtered lighting dapples the walls and ceiling; low-lying octagonal plinths stretched with shiny spandex sag under the weight of Swenbeck’s ceramics; and an ambient soundtrack produced in collaboration with Aaron Igler pulses via multiple speakers. Reminiscent of young children’s weird and wonderful drawings of plants, the highly colored, squirming forms populating the first display are all tentacles, mouths, and exoskeletons. Modelled after small, Devonian-era fossils collected by the artist, the finished pieces range in height from a few inches to over six feet. This dramatic play with scale deserves comparison to modernist sculptor Henry Moore’s work with miniscule animal remains – also pocketed on long walks – as maquettes for overwhelmingly large works.
Kippilization of Oranur, 2011, is a fragment of a flattened, black, skeletal form, with a surface that is shiny and matte by turns. The work references paleontology as much as human archaeology: its curvature and color bring to mind the delicately preserved Peat Bog Man currently in London’s British Museum, while its flipper-like structure recalls early amphibious life. In a recent interview with Jeffrey Bussman, Swenbeck explained that his interest in “primordial soup” stems from a discovery that early science fiction illustrators took inspiration from the fossil record (Title Magazine, 2012). The work’s tongue-twisting title derives in equal parts from Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi writing and Wilhelm Reich’s renegade psychology: both of the strange, invented terms refer to decay, destruction, and negative energy.
Yet, far from being totally dark, the exhibition’s semi-imaginary ecosystem demonstrates an artist’s pleasure in color and the material properties of glaze, paint, and resin not often seen in contemporary sculpture. The lower surface of the bulky and grotesque Parasitic Rider, 2011 – a slug-like mass – breaks into crusty barnacles of pale and dark green glaze; the off-cylindrical Familiars, 2011, glints diachromically blue and brown. In the second tableau, cherry red resin drips into tongue shapes across the smooth, grey-painted boulder Dolmen, 2011. This homage to neolithic burial monuments acts as a sombre threshold between unruly animal life and the human desire to make, or mark, meaning. Within this second arrangement, two abstract works stand out. Kite shaped loops of dry, cracked clay, pale as bone, are fixed to the wall with twists of black wire. Their titles Spectral Evidence and Blowing Their Bewitched Breath, both 2011, highlight with humor and sentiment our age-old human ability to think creatively about death.