There is a layer of heartbreak in Every Portrait Is a Vessel, the materially varied exhibition of works at Seattle’s Treason Gallery by artist Swoon, née Caledonia Dance Curry. The heartbreak doesn’t emanate from the works themselves, that part comes from the events that have elapsed as Swoon has been churning out similarly warm, layered portraits for most of the last fifteen years. Her subjects have been peering warmly from variegated recycled surfaces since Swoon’s beginnings as a street artist. She began by creating wheat paste images on the sides of dilapidated buildings. Currently Swoon’s work is more likely to be encountered in galleries and museums, but the heartbreak lies in the draconian marginalization that has been applied with such brutal force to the very populations the artist depicts. Swoon focuses her portraitist eye on people of color, folks of all ages, and mothers and children in swirling compositions bedecked with flowers and earthy mandalas. The work is generous and lively. Walking into Treason, you can feel it in the first image you encounter, George, from 2016, a flowerlike, textured painting of a man with a smile that seems to say “welcome.” But as Swoon has created work of increasing institutional acceptance, the world around us has contorted into a place of rising authoritarianism and fear. Swoon’s ‘vessels’ seem more fragile now than ever.
Ten years ago, Swoon floated barges made of trash toward the Venice Biennale, a bohemian and romantic gesture that seemed to signify a willingness to run against the currents of commercialization in art and provide a sort of utopian, ocean-bound alternative. You could see clear echoes of the DIY Occupy Wall Street movement. But since this project, which was known as The Swimming Cities of Serenissima, the many fingers of capitalism have succeeded in scooping up and commodifying most of the subversive street art movement of which the artist herself was an integral part. This process was pilloried brilliantly in 2010’s Banksy-produced maybe-documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, in which Swoon was briefly cameoed. Our memories are short in the internet age, though. Banksy’s anti-hero Mr. Brainwash is now exhibited by galleries across the world.
The works on the walls at Treason seem to reach out from a time before our current moment. George reminds us of a time which it seemed hopeful to mull the interconnectedness of all life, in a western-Buddhist sense. The sage wanderer of Milton II (Diogenes) is reminiscent of a moment when it seemed possible to foment a leaderless revolution. But it’s that very interconnectedness has proved threatening to millions of species, bringing attention to our far less-romantic “accidental” trash barges that are choking oceans worldwide. And it’s arguable that very leaderlessness created a vacuum of left-leaning political energy that made it possible for nouveau-fascism to take hold. Swoon’s use of earthy textures and recycled materials feel somewhat quixotic in the face of these massive problems, but perhaps this was her point all along. It’s important to keep our eyes focused on humanity in a system bent on revoking it from so many, and this focus is offered in spades throughout Every Portrait…
On my way to Treason Gallery I took public transportation. There’s a section on the light rail where the next generation of street artists have painted massive, sanctioned murals on the walls of Seattle’s old warehouses. Some of them are very good. One of my favorites is by artist Georgia Hill, a black and white pattern with massive letters that reads I’LL BE THERE SOON. Looking at the idealistic works of the artist known as Swoon, I can say with optimism but not certainty that there is a chance we might be there someday.