Swoon at the ICA, Boston

I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

– John Dryden, The Conquest of Granada, 1672

At this point, everyone knows that street artists leave completely unexpected artworks that don’t last long but that are often more absorbing than the works we usually get to see in museums. Because of the ambitious and courageous nature of illegally staking your claim to expression, translating the fresh thoughts and passion of street art into the sedate world of the white cube has always been near impossible.

Swoon, Anthropocene Extinction (detail), 2011, Courtesy of the artist, Photo: John Kennard

To me, Swoon has always been aware of this. She stands out as having an inherent understanding that “street art” in the modern art market involves that translation. She has unabashedly kept her work from being simple objects; slick, archival consumables that works within the limits set forth by collectors and institutions. To use an analogy, she wants to produce the symbolic rawness of the Andre the Giant sticker, not the corporate efficiency of the Obey brand.

Swoon has been commissioned to create “Anthropocene Extinction” for the Boston ICA‘s fifth installation of the Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall (on view through Dec 30, 2011). Her work is a sermon built from international symbols of humanity’s relationship to planet Earth. It’s an alluring mural of cut paper and relief prints with an umbilical cord of cut paper party-streamers running to a bamboo sculpture that lives next to the museum’s giant glass elevator. It enlivens the space like no other Fineberg Art Wall installation. The work shows off her skills with lines and drawing, her ability to control color, and the quality of her printing techniques.

Swoon, Anthropocene Extinction, 2011. Photo: Geoff Hargadon for Brooklyn Street Art.

The rhythm and composition of the individual prints/paper cuts is exceedingly regular and controlled. The mural is a hodgepodge of stuff with no given proportion. It’s a scalable image capable of being resized for almost any application. The bamboo sculpture takes after Asian scaffolding. It seems like a pagoda, but has what looks like wedding cakes on it and a beehive surrounded by butterflies at the top. No matter how attractive it is, I’m not sure what it’s supposed to represent or how it relates to the mural.

Swoon’s message relies on the myth of the noble savage. Ms. Bennett, the last living nomad personifies a blameless innocent, a buddha sitting on top of a string of Tibetan deity masks, surrounded by animal totems that represent the extinction in the work’s title. Why Ms. Bennett is 20 times larger than the animals, I’m not sure. It certainly encourages the reading that the animals are less significant than the human. It also seems very Victorian to send out an artists to bring back the last living nomad to a museum setting.

Swoon, Anthropocene Extinction, 2011. Photo: Black Rainbow Extraordinaire Magazine.

Not that it makes it less of a work, but this installation has nothing to do with street art. It uses wheatpaste, but is that all it takes to be a street artist? The work as exhibited is a printstallation; a hybrid format (of installation made from or about prints) that has been a part of the print community for years. Do street artists get shipping budgets and 9 days with a crew of 5 plus an equal amount of student assistants to put up their work? To insist that this is a street art piece implies that her work is so unexplainable and independent from the norm of contemporary art that she’s some kind of freak outsider. She is an artist. An artist who still leaves jewels for people to find on the street, but an artwork in a museum does not parallel the relationship between artwork and street.