Instagram is one of my main tools for discovery. There comes a time though that photo glimpses on a 3" screen cease to be enough: curiousity takes over; buses, trains, and accommodations are booked; bags are packed, and just like that, it's off to Detroit on a solo art field trip to experience Calendonia Curry - aka Swoon's work as it was meant to be - in immersive 1:1 scale.
The first stop was the beautiful Detroit Institute of Art, where Swoon's Thalassa hangs overhead in the Woodward Ave foyer, just beyond the Grand Hall until March 2017. The 20ft tall piece is grace and strength and triumph and an invitation to look up, up, up. Originally conceived for the NOLA Museum of Art, Thalassa was inspired by New Orleans' ties to the sea, humanity's relationships to water and the natural world, and her Greek goddess namesake, who is mother of all the sea creatures flowing from her fabric and handcut paper tentacles. Given the recent narratives of the two cities where Thalassa's been shown, more than anything else she spoke to me of optimism and resilience.
The next day I visited The Library Street Collective, where Swoon's The Light After solo show is on view until November 26th. While the sun shone gloriously and bathed Thalassa in beautiful light at the DIA, the weather was much more somber (really, downright wet and dreary) when I made my way to the downtown gallery. The mood was set perfectly though, for a show that deals with the transition between life and death, Swoon's research on shared- (by friends, family, and caregivers of the dying), and near-death experiences, and her own experience of her mother's passing.
The immersive installation takes viewers on a journey from the gallery's Library St front room -- a reconstruction of a dream and the calm Swoon experienced during the moments of her mother's passing; through a dark tunnel -- a space often recollected by those who had been resuscitated from near-death; and finally a bright meadow in the gallery's Belt Alley annex -- the imagined Light After: a warm, welcoming place where those who have been near-death commonly recall moving towards, but of course are called back to the world of the living and never reach.
Turning the corner from the tunnel to be welcomed by this last figure was one of the most disarming moments of the exhibit. He emanated such incredible kindness; looking at him I completely felt what Swoon meant when she referred to her works as "vessels of empathy" - I wanted to know his story and it felt like he could care deeply about mine. Although the exhibit drew on experiences and research surrounding death and dying, it was also easy to appreciate the journey from the stance of life's own difficulties and darkness. To surround visitors in warmth and have this guy waiting to greet them just beyond the jagged dark was such a wonderful, hopeful thing.
Beyond the artistry of her portraits, Swoon's use of space and scale and place are reasons to go experience her work in real life if you can. West coast friends - one of her pieces will be in the Juxtapoz Superflat exhibit at the VanArt Gallery starting November 5th. If you can make it out to Detroit (go!!) her work can be found at the DIA until March 19th 2017, as a large scale public mural on the corner of Jefferson St. and Manistique Ave, and at the Library Street Collective until November 26th.