24 November 2004

Ricky Swallow: Wood for Thought

Australian sculptor Ricky Swallow, a mastercraftsman carving out a significant niche in the artworld, joins hallowed company with his appearance at the Venice Biennale, writes Michael Hutak.

TIME is running out for rising art star Ricky Swallow. The Venice Biennale is only eight months away and Australia's official representative is feeling the pinch. Two large blocks of jelutong, the Malay hardwood that this master sculptor favours, are still being chainsawed down to size by an assistant, not yet ready for Swallow's chisels and hammers to hone into an immaculate replica of the human skeleton that sits at their side, waiting patiently. Across the studio another curio, a bicycle courier's crash helmet overrun with snakes, is only just taking shape. The man himself is softly spoken, slight, and slightly harried.

"I believe you should only do one thing at a time," he tells The Bulletin on this grey London afternoon in his East End studio. "But right now my head is in three pieces instead of one. This one [the helmet and snakes] should have been finished by now. That one [the skeleton] needs to get started, and the other involves taxidermy and I still have to see a taxidermist next week." The time pressure and logistical demands of the Biennale are intense. "We can't afford to let things lapse into overtime - it's not like you can get an extension - and when things are sitting around half done, it can make me quite anxious."

He needn't be. The centrepiece of his show in the Australian pavilion on the Giardini de Castello will be his acclaimed "masterpiece" Killing Time, recently acquired by the Art Gallery of NSW. During the Renaissance the masterpiece was the work that marked the end of an artist's apprenticeship, whenceforth the artist joined the ranks of master and could set up his own studio. Killing Time has afforded Swallow just such a rite of passage. Seven months in the making, it is a graceful, compelling and uncanny full-scale replica of Swallow's childhood family table, decked with a messy array of "freshly" killed sea creatures, and country kitchen detritus - all meticulously carved from jelutong. It is the art-world equivalent of a barbecue stopper, with the devil in the detailing: "It's an attempt to try and catalogue all the things that I've killed," Swallow says dryly.

Astonishing as it may seem, Swallow is completely self-taught in wood carving, relying on persistence rather than formal training. "You've either got some sort of gift for it or you haven't. I've always thought it better to be a pirate than an expert in any medium; it's better to find your own attitude within it." At one point, when he declares, cautiously, that he thinks "skill is back", it comes almost as an admission. Yet it is precisely his skill as a craftsman that has put him front and centre with critics and collectors alike. While his contemporaries wring their hands about what it means to be an artist in the age of digital reproduction, Swallow has been busy carving hand-made 1:1 replicas of obsolete consumer items and pop cultural icons - a cardboard bust of Darth Vader, a metal detector made of PVC and epoxy, a BMX bike, an '80s ghetto-blaster, a Pirelli tyre, an Apple Powerbook and mouse made of wood - objects rendered with such precision that the artist's hand is actually effaced.

"For me a work is finished when it looks like no one's touched it," he says, "because what I do when I carve is somehow to eradicate that process, kind of removing the mark, in a way I keep promising to leave some more of those marks and I think it's gonna happen with this guy [pointing to the skeleton] because ultimately it's a known fact that I've made them."

We might be tempted to look for a conceptual smuggler in Swallow, an artist able to ferry subversive ideas to the cognoscenti while everyone else remains dazzled by the simple novelty of a contemporary artist who is master of his medium. But since moving to London last Christmas after two years in Los Angeles, Swallow has been taking cues not from Duchamp, Warhol or even Damien Hirst, but from 18th-century masters like art history's most acclaimed still-life painter, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, or forgotten styles like the vanitas, popular in 17th-century Holland, where images are composed with a symbology of death and mortality. In works such as Everything is Nothing (2003), in which a skull inhabits a sporty adidas hood, the execution is delivered with a light touch, and the work is anything but morbid, speaking instead of transcendence.

"I've always been attracted to the skeleton ... it's something that's been ingrained in my brain since I was a kid, through things like skateboard graphics and my brother's heavy metal posters. I'm now trying to arrange these influences with other more classical influences."

Thus Killing Time, for example, is not just an eccentric inventory of the sea creatures Swallow has "ended"; it is also a portrait of his father's profession (a fisherman), one that Swallow had the option of continuing. "Out of all my parents' [five] children, only my eldest brother pursued fishing for a while. Now he's stopped so the work also marks a pause in that tradition if you like."

In Venice, Killing Time will occupy the upper space of the pavilion while down below a second large-scale work, a wood-carved wall hanging, will mimic the still lifes of Chardin. "Upstairs things are preserved in time," he says. "Downstairs is much more about showing the ravage of time."

The Australia Council, the federally funded body which backs the Venice venture, has high hopes that Swallow's work will, at the very least, be timely. For the artist, expectation is high: "I haven't been banking on Venice but it is an opportunity to really start things internationally on a different level ... having your country's pavilion in Venice is the biggest opportunity you could get to be seen and, hopefully, respected in the art world."

At 29, Swallow is the youngest artist to be despatched to Venice since Australia's 1954 Biennale debut, when Sidney Nolan, William Dobell and Russell Drysdale flew the flag. Swallow joins an honour roll that also includes Arthur Streeton, Arthur Boyd, Mike Parr, Rosalie Gascoigne, Howard Arkley, Imants Tillers, Rover Thomas, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and in 2003, Patricia Piccinini - a veritable Mount Olympus of post-war Australian artists.

"It's a compliment to be in that company but I don't think I make necessarily Australian work," he says. "You don't go over there to represent your country ... but I do want to land quite heavily in Venice. I do want to put a kink in some general perceptions about what happens in Australia. Because of the geographical distance and clich‚s about what Australia's about, there's not much awareness about how much good work's being made down there."

He believes he had to leave Australia to grow as an artist. After winning the $100,000 Contempora 5 Prize in 1999, Swallow was named Australia's most collectable artist two years running by Australian Art Collector. It all got too much. "When things were taking off in Australia and there was a lot of attention, I thought, 'Too much too soon, this is bad news and it's gonna really mess me up'. I feel less like that now. I'm starting to be recognised as an artist who has an international profile. The audience is bigger, more opportunities are opening up, whereas in Australia I can think of a handful of contemporary artists who stayed and have almost exhausted their museum opportunities and I'm not sure what else they can do next." Swallow is content to be an ambitious little fish in art's biggest pond - London is now the irrefutable epicentre of the known art universe.

Our interview took place on the Monday after London's biggest weekend in contemporary art in recorded times. No less than three major contemporary art fairs were mounted, with more than 250 of the world's leading galleries representing the work of 3000 artists. The biggest of the three, the Frieze Art Fair, attracted 42,000 visitors and turned over the equivalent of $64m in sales. In only its second year, Frieze is now the world's pre-eminent art fair, further indication that Swallow has chosen the right place at the right time. After being courted by leading London gallerist Stuart Shave at the Basel Art Fair in 2003, Swallow decided to not only move to London but also to cut formal ties with his American dealer, paring back his representation to Shave's Modernartinc, his long-term Sydney dealer, Darren Knight, and the Hamish McKay Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand.

Key to Swallow's work is investment of time and labour. These are unique objects, not multiples that can be dashed off by the score by assistants. But if success is measured by demand, then Swallow is feeling the pressure to increase output. "It's funny, but the more pressure there is, the less I've made every year. But because the pressure is there, because commercial galleries are businesses as well, it was a conscious decision to work with fewer galleries for now."

London may be home but he admits to recurring bouts of homesickness - for sunny California. "I still have attachments there and the climate is pretty seductive. You gotta dig deep to find the love in London. But I'm in a great position, I have a gallery that I think I'm gonna be really happy with, I'm in a relationship I'm happy with [with fellow artist Saskia Olde Wolbers, whose art-world fame eclipses Swallow's after her win in the prestigious Beck's Futures prize this year], I have the best studio I've ever had and I live in a nice place. All that softens things but it's still a hard city - even if you stand up, you're often not counted."

What does appeal to the diligent Swallow is the work ethic: "People work hard here; I know artists whose studios are like the Temple of Doom but they still go there to toil every day."

Taking the long view that we're all destined to dust, Swallow remains indifferent to the obligations recent art history places on young artists. Instead his art seeks to transcend death by rendering the everyday immortal. His armoury isn't irony: it's sincerity, skill, discipline, hard work - and a chisel.

"Three or four years ago when I was working in different types of media, it was all about looking at what I wanted to say and how best to say it. But since I've been working in the wood for the last three years, it's almost like I've found a medium that still challenges me all the time. There are pieces I can imagine that wouldn't work as a carving but this is the medium I'm working in and I've chosen to stick with for a while."

Swallow's neo-traditionalist gambit at Venice will be to invoke the past that lasts, an imaginary arcadia when paint was paint and being an artist meant more than turning on and off a light switch. Swallow eschews post-modernity's obligation to transgression and radicality for their own sake. "I don't have any moral stance on art. My role as a contemporary artist should be to mark the times."

Against a contemporary landscape that's cut its ties to hands-on talent and skill, Swallow's selling proposition is his talent and skill. Come Venice next June, we will discover if he's indeed swimming against the tide or if one Swallow doth a summer make.

First published in The Bulletin, Volume 122; Number 47

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