Monday, 16 July 2012

TONY SWAIN @ FRUITMARKET GALLERY, EDINBURGH

Tony Swain: Drowned Dust, Sudden Word is initially intriguing through its being so underwhelming. The gallery has in recent years tended to focus on sculptural work, as both supports for wall-based pieces and as the main event of an exhibition. This time the space was bare but for a number of relatively small-scale pieces tacked rather unceremoniously to the walls. 

The works’ modest presentation is in tune with their unsophisticated scrapbook aesthetic. Cuttings of newspaper are torn out and shapes carefully doctored – removed, overlaid, and painted over, to create works that are in part abstract but retain some memory of their original representational content. The transformation of the image through this sort of manual photoshopping is far from seamless and the artistic process, that is, Swain’s choices to retain or remove elements of an original image, is very much present. It is a display of personal aesthetic preference; in fact, the works appear to have only these aesthetics as their main event or purpose. In the accompanying video interview to the exhibition, Swain confirms that he wants 'to make images beautiful' - for me, in this, he fails. The colours are drab, but not endearingly so; the compositions clumsily evokes landscapes and cityscapes with the subtlety of a GCSE collage project. 




The interview serves only to reinforce the decided mediocrity of Swain’s work, and its lacking of a critical dimension. The artist’s account is peppered with middle-of-the-road comments. He describes his absurd or unexpected titles as 'a way in' to the work which are ‘not intended to be prescriptive’. He apparently 'relishes changing how the image is viewed' and describes his obscuration of certain elements of an image as having the effect of instigating a compulsion to read the text, and to discover what is under the paint. These are hardly ground-breaking observations.

The gallery’s spotlighting of Tony Swain encourages closer inspection of his work but in most cases I found his works quite disappointing. There is evidence of the artist engaging with his materials and content on only a physical level – any critical engagement with the history of his media or the content of his material is certainly lacking.




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