There’s always a staggering calmness in the body language of someone who has lived a life. A certain relentless acceptance in how things tend to move in the ways they do, and that’s alright. Or, perhaps it’s mostly a matter of confidence that so innocuously seeps through the modes of expression, a form of patience that sympathizes as an existential anchor more than anything.
The New York based artist Ian Swanson has this kind of rare narcotic effect when taking a walk through parts of Lower Manhattan, and especially when sitting across from him in a window booth at Washington Square Diner. There’s the way he speaks about his Detroit childhood, growing up in a working class family, how in his young past he’s seen people dying and living, that make Swanson’s paintings and sculptures encapsulate even further this idea of unromantic melancholia that’s kind enough to tell the truth.
With a tendency towards monochromatic landscapes—whether on traditional canvas or free-standing form—Swanson explores the continuous tension between human temporality and its transitional journeys throughout. Whenever he moves forward with a piece, there too seems to embark a therapeutic process that somehow crystallizes within the choices of visual texture and color, the overall artistic composition sensitive to endure a healthy subjectivity within the larger thematics of existentialism. Swanson openly questions the meaning of individuality, patient enough for answers to materialize whenever they do. And sometimes they don’t, which is why his work is diverse and genuine and never-ending.
What kind of thoughts have consumed your days lately?
Well, outside of general survival, it’s hard to ignore everything going on with national and international politics, naive radicalism, and wealth inequality; all things which are highly visible in the very small art world. I’m tempted to see a lot of what we’re experiencing socially as an ego war between rival idealogues.
As your work seems usually conditioned by the immediacy of your environment, I’m curious how, or if, the current political situation has emulated in your practice.
I’ve always been a skeptic. I've been thinking about the miner's canary; the early mining practice of using caged canaries as indicators of danger from CO2 or other deadly gases. I like this definition of the idiom, "Something whose sensitivity to adverse conditions makes it a useful early indicator of such conditions; which warns of the coming of greater danger or trouble by a deterioration in its health or welfare." The concept feels emblematic of our time.
You grew up in Detroit, a chapter of your past that’s recognizable in the soberness and emotional realism of your work. How has your upbringing shaped you?
I grew up in a working class family—my father was a welder for 42 years, and his grandfather a carpenter and craftsman. My mother worked in Public School positions, taking care of both autistic children and children with working families. We were taught that learning practical skills and going into a trade was the way to live. My mother’s father was a sign maker, and staying around both his shop and my other grandfather’s woodshop caught my interest in drawing and sculpting early on.
Detroit is a very particular place, and in some ways we can think of it like the aforementioned 'miner's canary.' What happens in Detroit has historically felt a bit like a harbinger of what we'll see happen socially, politically, and culturally across the US. Detroit and it's still very economically and racially divided Metro area have also probably made me acutely aware of social divisions since a very young age. I spent most of my formative years on the east side of the city in Harper Woods and St. Clair Shores, pretty ruggedly working class suburbs. It was easy to find yourself in trouble or surrounded with troubled people, and a liberal arts education or awareness of fine art was unheard of to me.
We were also raised Jehovah's Witnesses. Although my parents seemed to stop practicing about 20 years ago, and both my brother and I chose not to be baptized into the religion. So in reality, I guess, we’re probably seen as apostates. It certainly went a way towards establishing us as something as outsiders, socially, since we were children. I was something of a delinquent kid too, and I hated authority, which is likely why as a teenager I got involved in underground music in Detroit. Mainly punk, industrial, and noise. In a lot of ways these communities helped form the foundation for how I approached art and life later on.
It's interesting that people born at different moments in time have different relationships to ideas. This makes me also think about how there’s a certain level of glorification, a fetish, to your Detroit upbringing.
Detroit has definitely become something of a fad in recent years amongst millennial artists looking to ‘slum it.’ There was a lot of myth-making, surrounding the ‘creative freedom’ of the city and its environment. This is mostly media fabrication. While it’s true that property rates can still be generally low, in the areas that seem desirable to transplants are rising rapidly. It’s also true that it can be a great place for artists, but it definitely isn’t a ‘blank slate,’ ready to be co-opted into some bohemian fantasy-land by entitled youth. It has a long history and proud residents. I think it’s pretty common for people with wealth or less exciting childhoods to fetishize the culture of lower classes. It’s basically classist Orientalism.
‘Less exciting childhoods’ is definitely a way to describe a wealthy upbringing, and probably in many scenarios the case. It’s fucked up how we—society as a whole—have arrived to this point of hyper-sterilization, the ultimate definition of luxury yearning for hardship superficially. You predominantly work with painting and sculpture, both traditional forms of expression yet different in their physical context and performance. When and how do decide to move between the two mediums?
I’m not concerned with media specificity. My choices are made on a subjective basis. A scene or a less concrete image operates more effectively to me as a painting, like in the ‘ATM’ or ‘Aging’ series. It wouldn’t make much sense to render these images in three dimensions. They’d lose the detachment necessary for them to be successful images to me. Plus, it’s just impractical from a utilitarian perspective. I've also forced myself into a position with the paintings that’s incredibly unforgiving as far as the execution and materials are concerned, using almost exclusively airbrush and raw pigment on unprimed fabrics. There really isn't any room for error, so it forces a very slow and somewhat methodical approach.
Sculptures allow for more degrees of freedom, at least from a technical perspective. I suppose in some ways I think of paintings as images which you ‘read’ much like a poem, and sculptures as images whose sensibility is better expressed through their physical presence in relation to our bodies. A living body or common object is usually just more evocative in the flesh. It’s a very sort of neo-traditional approach.
But paintings also render a certain sensibility in terms of physical presence, even if they might be less tangible than a sculpture. Paintings have this silent poetic quality to them. Perhaps because they evoke a somewhat inexhaustible history that continuously expands, whereas a sculpture somehow always exists within the presence and doesn’t abide further.
Of course, paintings are also objects, and a lot of critically well received painters deal more heavily with materiality and scale, which has more in common with craft—than tone or content, which leans towards the cinematic or narrative. No approach is superior, but I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older the formalities of craft have become less interesting to me, although they’re intuitively present. That isn’t to say that I’m not deliberate with the craft in my paintings, but just that it plays a supporting role rather than a starring one.
Your work caters an outlet of various themes, subsisting usually around the margins of existentialism.
I like to muse intuitively before getting more analytical about any particular image or subject. I'm not super keen on a strictly formal investigation of contemporary art, and I'm not really into aesthetic decisions for their own sake. I try to make all of my choices in an artwork serve the greater tone I'm trying to express. My primary themes are universal motifs of humanity: mortality, suffering, hope, fear, pain, wonder, etc.
The work I make is personal, but I’m reluctant to make it too explicit, preferring instead to keep things in a place where they may be more intrinsically affecting. For instance, for several years now I’ve been exhibiting CO2 detectors as sculpture and am now painting canaries, which are like the CO2 detectors of the natural world. There’s a personal anecdote here; when I was a young child and my family lived in a crummy flat, there was a CO2 leak that nearly killed us all. It’s a common enough story, and it’s not critically important to me that anyone knows my individual story, but I think these devices tap into a generalized anxiety of self-preservation; which is unfortunately a much greater concern for the poor.
Throughout my MFA at a semi-traditional art school, I noticed a general hostility towards ‘personal’ contextualization within the expression of art. One of the reasons—as you just mentioned—there being this reluctance because the personal seemingly undermines the effect carried into the public. I find work that successfully manages to access the personal much more stimulating, also somehow extremely necessary, probably because it beholds such tremendous capacity for responsability.
I agree, and think a distrust or distaste for the personal in art/academia may have been a casualty or misinterpretation of modernism in some way. I guess it’s seen as low or common, and not ‘high art.’ It could also just be that a lot of artists don’t actually have anything interesting to share. I don’t pay it too much mind. I don’t have a problem with artworks or artists that are both honest and disingenuous. Perfection is boring and frightening. I’d rather connect with people on a base level than in an intellectual competition.
If we address current ideals of perfectionism within the setting of art and academia, I guess I immediately think of the sort of relentless hyper-intellectualization of everything, stripping away the meaning of it all. It’s interesting how we’ve moved so far away from experiencing art with the entirety of our senses. As though art no longer demands the progression of a certain degree of emotionality, but primarily a static evidence of the scholarly.
Right, if the work isn’t affirming towards the individualized socio-political or moral fidelity of the artist it’s made out to seem lazy and stupid. Fiction is barely tolerated. There seems to be a desire for the artist as a pure voice, someone whom has ‘figured it all out’, so to speak. But speaking truth to power within the confines of a system built around maintaining its power and authority just seems cyclical and masturbatory. I don’t really understand that, and I think this ‘hyper-intellectualization’ has gone a way towards diminishing the humanity in a lot of art. I’d also argue that a lot of contemporary art does appeal strongly to our emotions, but that it’s the same sort of psychic weightlifting that advertising and popular media appeal to, which is generally divisive.
Speaking about how art appeals to our sense, I’m wonder if our emotionality has shifted for the past many decades, especially with these continuously expanding online existences. So, this emotionality is merely unfamiliar, new.
I’m not sure I think that anything has fundamentally changed in terms of our emotions. Different things have been exacerbated and other things put on reserve. If anything maybe we’ve become more knowledgeable or inundated with social data and we’ve become receptive to more nuanced ideas, and subsequently more sensitive to them. The cynic in me wants to just see history as cyclical, and thinks that culturally we’re bound to repeat our mistakes indefinitely.
Your work, especially the paintings, bear a geographically-diverse sensitivity in terms of history. Somehow there’s always evidence of a lived past that overlaps with the present.
Realism can do that, but it’s also usually quasi-banal and I’m fine with that. I also think painting has always dealt with its own history. That’s one of the most interesting things about it for me. We can refer to our own histories and a universal history and try to translate that into something that can be useful for us currently. I’m less interested in reinterpreting styles, that’s where things cross from being banal into being vapid.
What role does memory play within your work?
Some of my work is instigated by explicit memories, but I wouldn’t say it’s a formula that I give much power. Accessing old lingering memories and updating my understanding of them through the labor of art making can be somewhat therapeutic. I actually feel like I have a really terrible memory. The thing about memory is that we can never really be too certain about how accurate it is. I don’t fuck with nostalgia in a stylistic sense, but traumas and memories have informed certain paintings or sculptures. I’d rather generalize and humanize than be self-referential. Narcissism is very much alive and thriving without my contributions.
Do you experience actual catharsis throughout the process of creating?
I wouldn’t say that it’s the process of creating work that results in catharsis, but that on occasion it can help towards recognizing mental patterns that can make catharsis less elusive. It’s therapeutic for me in a similar way that many solitary activities can be, whether that’s a long walk or a great film, and I’m relatively adamant about the frequent need for solitude in both my life and art. I don’t think that social disengagement necessarily equates with selfishness.
I agree. Solitude authorizes a physical reaction, that shifts automatically once the environment changes. The body always needs to get into a specific climate before it can start creating. I’m not saying we aren’t good at creating when we’re in company, but there’s a certain impact upon the mind and all other senses when another being is around.
I definitely feel a physical and cognitive difference. I think most people can attest to the way they feel different when they are certain they’re alone versus when they’re ‘presenting’ in one way or another. We always are when it involves other people. I feel like physical distance is essential in order to unpack my thoughts. There’s almost always a degree of ritual/habituation involved with well-worn romantic artistic tropes, and that can be comforting in a way that opens us to introspection.
Is there a specific hour in the day that feeds you the most energy in order to work? I think it’s important to have such time to oneself, as it creates a very special intimacy between you and the work. If anything, it’s probably right then when you become the work, and the work becomes you.
I fit in what I can when I can. For a couple of years in NYC I had a studio outside of my home, since that seemed to be an expectation that a lot of arts professionals had. I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t like that way of working, and that I was much more productive and considerate of my thoughts in a home studio with minimum separation from day to day trivialities and maximum separation from other people. It’s also absurdly unaffordable. I do the vast majority of physical work in the early evenings, and use the mornings and afternoons more often for reading and quiet contemplation when I can.
I mean, I still need to work for other people. In Detroit I most often had home studios which I loved, and it took a minute to shake the brainwashing of ‘professional practices’ forced upon me during grad school. I found the romantic notion of the industrial artist studio both creatively stifling and boring, and I work much more effectively in a very piecemeal sort of way throughout my days.
Images courtesy of the artist Ian Swanson
interview LARA KONRAD
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