Symbolic melange on view through the head of commedia dell’arte character
“He is a very faithful individual who prefers to live in the present day. Zanni never looks for a place to sleep, it just seems to happen to him often in situations where it shouldn’t. Lastly, all of his reactions are completely emotional.”
Johannes Vogt Gallery, which has recently relocated from its Lower East Side space to the new Upper East Side location, added its name to a list of exhibition spaces that are shifting from the ubiquitous ‘white box’ style toward converted living spaces. Zanni Zann Za Z, the first solo exhibition of the Canadian artist Michael Swaney, is currently on view at the gallery’s new polished and more intimate space.
Swaney’s works presented at the gallery represent a shift away from the artist’s prior more representational, style. He describes his style as a ‘faux-naif ‘ – indeed his work at a first glance could appear deceptively simple.
The exhibition consists of several large canvases, some drawings, and paintings on paper. The paintings are created on unfinished canvas and linen, which lends them an aura of immediacy and rawness. Despite their rough lines and deliberately unbalanced compositions they reach overall structural equilibrium.
The artist has laid a deliberately circuitous path towards comprehension of the work – the viewer must grapple with a deceptively simplistic childlike style to get at the sophisticated themes beneath the surface.
WHO: Michael Swaney
WHAT: Zanni Zann Za Z
WHERE: Johannes Vogt Gallery, 958 Madison Avenue, New York
WHEN: November 8 – December 8
The canvases are comprised of mélange of deictic symbols and motifs that seem to function as part of the artist’s private visual and linguistic discourse. These motifs suggest an array of occluded meanings. It is this ‘otherness’ that aids in transforming the optical into emotional. For instance, an ‘X’ symbol, which represents a cancellation in computer programming language is rendered nearly unrecognizable when placed near a photograph of Nefertiti bust sculpture, collaged directly from the antiquity to the canvas. This crushing-together of history and symbols leads one to recognition of self against the flow of history.
Three of the larger paintings depict multiple iterations of a clown’s head. As the title to the show suggests these are representations of Zanni, the clown characters in Commedia dell’Arte. Historically in this theater form the figure of Zanni represented both wit and simplicity and served to advance the narrative arc of the play. In the context of a theatrical performance these masked clowns existed entirely in the present, with no thought of the past or the future. In Swaney’s paintings, as the titles suggest, the clowns are depicted with multiple faces that are pointing in opposing directions – the ones pointing left represent the past, the ones to the right – the future. In the third painting, titled ‘Grover Tracer’, the heads are pointing toward both directions – they seem to suggest evanescent space between the past and the present. The evocations of the moments past, future and now in Swaney’s work refer to inescapable multiplicity of self in dynamic juxtaposition with the world.