|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|With a glowing paper cutout pinned over her heart, the artist known as Swoon led a procession through the Brooklyn Museum early one summer night to her installation Submerged Motherlands, a site-specific jumble that includes two cantilevered rafts, seemingly cobbled out of junk; a tree, of fabric and wire, that reaches to the rotunda; and nooks of stenciled portraits.|
A sellout crowd was there for a film premiere and multimedia concert, documenting and inspired by Swoon’s travel on the rafts. As the audience sat spellbound, Swoon, her red curls bobbing, flitted around, snapping photos, taking it all in.
“There’s that feeling that you get when you see something that you don’t understand the origin of: wonderment,” she said. “It brings about a kind of innocence, and I love that. I love to witness it. I love to be a part of making those moments happen.”
Since she began illegally pasting images around the city 15 years ago, Swoon has inspired a lot of wonderment. Born Caledonia Curry, she started her career as a street artist, but quickly leapfrogged to the attention of gallerists and museum curators, which let her expand to installation and performance art, often with an activist, progressive bent. Her intricate paper-cut portraits and cityscapes, often affixed to walls in hardscrabble places, are meant to disintegrate in place, a refrain to the life around them. Meanwhile, her socially minded work has focused on building cultural hubs for far-flung artistically welcoming communities.
The Brooklyn Museum has done solo shows for Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, but hers was the first devoted to a living street artist, let alone a woman who rooted her career in Brooklyn. Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, newly minted Swoon collectors, came to the opening.
“When you look at the work of a lot of her peers, hers stands apart,” said Sarah Suzuki, an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art, which bought several Swoon pieces for its permanent collection in 2005.
“There is a real observational aspect to what she’s doing,” documenting her extensive travels and missions.
In New Orleans, Swoon helped create a shantytown where each house is a musical instrument. In Braddock, Pa., a dwindling postindustrial landscape, she worked on an arts center in an abandoned church. After the Haiti earthquake, she alighted, with a team of volunteers, to build colorful houses in the village of Cormiers.
Unlike other street artists, Swoon’s work isn’t based in “cynicism or a critique of commercial culture,” Ms. Suzuki said. “There’s an emotional core there.”
The last year has been a pivotal one for Swoon, personally and professionally. The Brooklyn Museum show, open through Aug. 24, is also a response to the death of her mother. Now 36, Swoon is grappling with her own choices — she pours most of her income back into her projects — while planning her next moves.
Here's, a glimpse into her artistic life.
APRIL 30, 7:30 P.M.
BENEFIT FOR THE KONBIT SHELTER, TRIBECA GRAND HOTEL
On a rain-soaked evening, Swoon stood in front of a few dozen supporters of her project in Haiti, Konbit Shelter, answering questions in the borrowed screening room of this slick hotel. The project began in 2010, as a quick response to the ravages of natural disaster, but has evolved into a long-term commitment for Swoon and others: a typical trajectory for her ideas.
Building sustainable structures with the residents of rural Cormiers was fulfilling — in a video conference, a group of local residents spoke glowingly of the collaboration — but also challenging. Nobody, Swoon and her collaborators said, wants to be the first family with the exotic house.
As they prepared for another visit this year, the team needed money and resources. Donations were only a trickle. Most of Swoon’s projects are financed through the sale of her work, whose prices run to the tens of thousands of dollars. In a pinch, she will turn directly to collectors to subsidize events. “I think of money as a verb,” she said, “because you have it and it has to go out in the world to do things.” Other artists in her position, especially those who rose to acclaim through the cool cred of the streets, might seek out corporate sponsorship or branding, but not Swoon. Her friend JR, the French artist and TED prizewinner, said he was impressed by her ethos. “The fact that she does it the way she does, and just struggles her own way” allows her “complete freedom” as an artist, he said.
Swoon employs six people in her studio, and many more for projects. “I make a lot of money, and I spend a lot of money,” she said. She’s considering incorporating herself into a nonprofit organization. She still lives in the same apartment in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn that she’s had since her early 20s, and she sometimes worries about how she will pay the $1,000 monthly rent.
BROOKLYN MUSEUM FILM AND CONCERT
“Submerged Motherlands” is a sort of homecoming for Swoon, the culmination of more than five years of work and her first major piece in New York in several years. It’s built around a sculptural mapou tree, a Haitian symbol, as well as the rafts, which Swoon and her compatriots used to sail on the Hudson River and, in an art world coup, into the Venice Biennale in 2009.
Though her installations may look thrown together, they are in fact meticulously planned. In her studio are precise scale models for the rafts, which are officially registered watercraft. For her Brooklyn Museum show, Swoon was the first artist to use the full height of the rotunda, according to Sharon Matt Atkins, the museum’s managing curator of exhibitions. That meant many consultations with architects and engineers to figure out how to support the tree and display the rafts.
“It was also,” Ms. Atkins said, “the first time an artist has used a fire extinguisher to paint our walls.”
Swoon employed a small army of friends as installers. “I love to be able to create a micro-economy out of that,” she said. “You’re creating jobs, and it’s jobs that are fun and bringing people together.” But she exceeded the museum’s $100,000 budget. “I actually couldn’t even tell you how much I went over,” she said. “But quite a bit.”
She put a call in to Sandra Powell and Andrew King, major street art collectors from Melbourne, Australia, who stepped in to buy a print, to add to their collection of some two dozen Swoons. “Once you understand Callie and become even a small part of her world, it becomes impossible not to admire and support her in every way you can,” Ms. Powell said in an email.
Growing up in Daytona Beach, Fla., known to friends and family as Callie, Swoon long considered herself the scrappy sort. At 10, she began taking oil painting classes; her classmates were mostly retirees doing beachscapes and sunsets. But her talent was evident. “I got this epic amount of encouragement, and I just rose to it,” she said. In high school, she started selling her paintings and ceramics — to her teachers. In Brooklyn, she studied painting at the Pratt Institute. “People would email me, and I’d take them to my house, and I’d be like, ‘Do you want to buy this art that’s on my floor?’ ”
The gallery owner Jeffrey Deitch helped to build her reputation with a solo show at his SoHo gallery in 2005, and an installation at the “Greater New York” exhibition at PS 1 in 2005 helped to sell MoMA on her. She brought her prints to MoMA in a backpack, on her bicycle, not long after she’d quit her waitressing job. Since Mr. Deitch’s gallery closed, she has mostly sold work on her own.
JULY 14, 3 P.M.
Swoon packed the cardboard and balsa scale models for the new iteration of her musical shantytown project, The Music Box, into her suitcase for her travels.
The project started in 2010, in a template version in the Bywater, a bohemian neighborhood in New Orleans, and is now looking for another pop-up home. Swoon worried about how it would affect the neighbors, “that it wouldn’t feel like a gentrifying force,” she said.
She meant to stay in New Orleans and help build it, but changed her plans: She hadn’t had real time in her studio in Brooklyn in months. “I really have to fight to keep personal time for drawing,” she said. She asked a local blacksmith to scale up her models. “We talked about what could be made without me and what couldn’t,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve dropped off a model and left,” she fretted. “But there’s a lot of right angles.”
Like the building in Braddock, Pa., the New Orleans installation carries a message about a community in rebirth, but not a didactic one. JR, who called Swoon an inspiration, compared her to Ai Weiwei. “She has always managed to have some social impact with her work and at the same time stay an artist, not an activist,” he said. “That’s very rare.”
AUG. 2, 6 P.M.
1278 MYRTLE AVENUE, BROOKLYN
With a pair of bolt cutters, Swoon slipped through a fence into an empty lot in Bushwick.
She carried a paper portrait of a cityscape and a teenager from Braddock, and quickly pasted it on a cement wall. “I loved the little rebellion of it,” she said of her early experience wheat-pasting, though now she mostly does it legally. (She had permission to work here.) Wherever she travels, she leaves images like these behind. “It just feels like the spine of my work,” she said. “I still love all of the stories that get related to me about what different pieces mean to people, and how it affects the neighborhood and how they feel about the decay and passing of each piece.”
For Swoon, art is a way to process monumental change, on a global and personal level. “Submerged Motherlands,” commissioned after Hurricane Sandy, was meant to be about rising sea levels; after the death of her mother, from cancer, Swoon found herself adding more maternal imagery. Dawn and Gemma, a grand portrait of a breast-feeding woman, dominates the installation’s entry, providing, Swoon said, a new sense of nurture to the piece.
“When I was a kid, and I was like, ‘I want to be an artist,’ I had all these dreams and all these thoughts: ‘What’s it going to be like, and what am I going to make?’ ” she said. “And I just feel like I have exceeded my wildest dreams by, like, 5000.” Projects all over the world beckoned. Now, she said, she could perhaps afford to pause for a moment and think, “where is my compass needle pointing?”
Swoon packed up her wheat-pasting gear, and rode off. Next stop: Tunisia.
"Life of Wonderment: Swoon Blurs the Line Between Art and Activism", Art and Design, The New York Times online, 8/10/2014
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