Swoon might just be the world’s busiest street artist. When she’s not building houses in disaster-stricken Haiti, she’s illegally wheat-pasting her haunting images of urban isolation on streets across the world, crashing the Venice Biennale with an armada of handmade boats, or creating immersive three-dimensional installations within gallery spaces. It’s the latter that has brought the artist for her first visit to Australian soil, flying from her hometown of New York City to the alien arts hub that is High Street, Armadale.
The artist stands in stark contrast to her environment. The workman's belt dripping with tools looped around her paint-spattered jeans looks particularly out of place against the pristine walls of a white cube gallery. But as Swoon sets to work, unpacking roll after roll of delicately wrapped paper and mylar prints, the depth of her vision becomes clear.
Visitors to the space will be forgiven for thinking they’ve stepped into a shantytown as opposed to a commercial art gallery, with Swoon’s rambling installation – a gallery space grants her the luxury of time she can’t afford working illegally on the streets – leaving not a single surface untouched. The walls of the gallery are either painted in a wash of earth tones or covered in rough assemblages of cardboard, mortar and chicken wire. The artist’s lovingly rendered life-size portraits of city dwellers loom from all corners; groups of children huddle together; lovers hold one another; a rag-picker pushes a trolley that slowly evolves into a wandering cityscape.
Swoon’s classical training is most evident in these figures. The prints, produced from traditional wood blocks, are both tender and considered. The black ink she uses is balanced with hand-painted detailing and organic constructions of discarded objects. Decrepit doors and corrugated iron are given a new lease in life as part of Swoon’s vision. Delicate paper works that are cut into beautiful lace-like patterns are draped from the ceiling, echoing the architecture of cathedrals. For Swoon this is a sacred arena, with threads of joy and wonder snaking through the gallery as the viewer becomes completely lost in the experience of simply being in the space.
The strength in Swoon’s work lies in her ability to balance her various identities. She refuses to be classified as simply a street artist or printmaker, and instead adapts and moulds mediums and imagery in order to create a complete fiction. Swoon is a provocateur, but the message she is bearing is universal. Thekla speaks of connection at the most basic human level, and in the creation of a complete environment Swoon has offered us an opportunity to escape into a complex emotional refuge that manages to negate the outside world for a few short minutes.
Thekla opens tonight, February 16, from 6.30–8.30pm, and runs until March 5.