HoMA’s big contemporary exhibition of the year—Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson—opens March 1.
It is the artist’s first museum solo exhibition, which surveys his work from 2000 to the present, and is more than a decade in the making. The show was initiated by James Jensen, HoMA’s late curator of contemporary art, while he was still curator of The Contemporary Museum. Swenson’s work, Ebie, in the 2003 New York Armory Show, made an impression on Jensen, who had The Contemporary Museum purchase the sculpture (thanks to funds from Jay Shidler). He contacted the artist in 2006, and a year later visited his studio in Dallas. From there, work on an exhibition started in 2013, with the museum committing to purchase a major new work by Swenson.
People are captivated by Swenson’s fantastic labor-intensive constructions made of resins. His work has become increasingly naturalistic over the years. For example, Ebie looks like a very real creature, but not quite like one you’ve seen before—it is a simian, but hairless and pale like a wan human. The 2015 work The Pest House, on the other hand, is a very realistic mass of writhing snails. Either way, Swenson reveals there is little divide between art, nature and science.
The museum has produced an exhibition catalog, which is available in the Museum Shop. Here is an excerpt from the book of Love’s interview with Swenson. (Love saw the show to its completion after Jensen’s passing in April 2017.)
Katherine Love: When planning a new sculpture, do you have a good idea of the final piece in mind, or does it evolve during your working process?
Erick Swenson: Yes, you have your gut and a foggy vision. What exists in your mind is perfect, whether it’s arguably a good or bad idea. Now you must translate it into the physical world and be stubborn enough to see it through, but flexible enough to go with it when something comes up that works better. Part of being an artist is recognizing these things. So in that way making things can sometimes be organic. There are parts in the making of a work that are rigid, but then there are others that you can be more flexible about, and that’s the paradox.
KL: How did you first become interested in using polyurethane resin as a medium for sculpture? How did you discover it was perfect for creating large, incredibly lifelike and detailed work?
ES: I’ve been making things since I was a kid and started trying all the traditional modes of making sculptures and eventually I came upon resins. It was a natural evolution to use resin-based materials in order to do the kind of detailed work I’m interested in. “Resins” means a lot of things, including mold-making, and it’s a very specific discipline. There is simply no other material that gives the kind of detailed results that I want, and there are no real limitations with using resins and making molds either.
KL: What other technology do you use in the creation of your work?
ES: There are all kinds of technologies out there. Personally, I like the hands-on approach. I appreciate the beauty and (questionably) the efficiency of working with clay and making traditional molds. It’s just that simple … and that complicated. But within that framework are new materials that are being developed all the time, such as new rubbers and ways to make molds. You must stay abreast of these things to increase your vocabulary, and the repertoire of what you can make. I like the physicality of making something by hand. Old school.
Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson is on view March 1 through July 29.
A version of this story originally appeared on the Honolulu Magazine blog.