When you enter the current exhibition Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson, the first thing you see is this form, almost seeming to swim out of the shadows. The single metal rod holding the sculpture up is strategically placed so that it is not visible from some angles. That’s the kind of carefully considered detail that is a hallmark of Swenson’s work.

For the exhibition, the museum commissioned the artist to create a work that would become part of its permanent collection. When the Dallas-based Swenson proposed a shark, the museum had to think about it first.

Interim director of curatorial affairs and curator of the Arts of Hawai‘i Healoha Johnston explains:

Manō (sharks) are not only important members of the ocean ecoysystem, they are important members of the social and spiritual fabric of Hawaiʻi. Some manō are considered ʻaumākua, or ancestral dieties, who are thought to be guardians of certain fishing grounds and the ancestors of the fishermen and women of those waters. Interestingly, Erick Swenson was unaware of the manō’s significant place in Hawaiian culture when he proposed creating Present in the Past as a commission for this exhibition. The Honolulu Museum of Art carefully considered his proposal and ultimately arrived at the conclusion that the ideas behind this hammerhead shark sculpture are conceptually consistent with the revered status of the manō in Hawaiʻi.

Erick Swenson and his sculpture "Present in the Past."

Erick Swenson and his sculpture “Present in the Past.”

Made completely of resin, the striking hammerhead shark is encrusted in crystal-like formations—like it is being eaten alive by sparkling tumors.

Swenson says that he originally had envisioned the geode forms being inside the shark—as with his work I Am What I Isn’t, a skull housing a geode.

And he created a maquette of that. “But there’s a big difference between doing a maquette and the real thing,” explains Swenson. “It’s small, you can play with it, it doesn’t have to conform to any real properties like gravity. There’s always a chance that it changes and goes in a different direction. And usually it’s better, I have to allow the piece to say what I want.”

Maquette of an early version of the shark.

Maquette of an early version of the shark.

You can see how the shark evolved in these later maquettes.

You can see how the shark evolved in these later maquettes.

He also had a version of the shark with the geodes on the outside in his sketchbook. When version one didn’t pan out, he turned to that. “It’s more of an eruption, a taking over, or invasive sort of experience,” says Swenson.

There is also an element of time to the shark, as there is with many of Swenson’s works. “The modern shark as we see and know it today has existed for more than 100 million years,” he explains. “By comparison, modern man has only existed for a mere 200,000 years. In fact, the shark as a species is actually older than trees. The shark and rock formation are alternative metrics in which to measure the immense age of our world and emphasize the relatively brief role that modern humans have played thus far. The geode is also meant to reference a galaxy, reminding us of our origins—that we arose from minerals—that we are all stardust.”

Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson is on view through July 29.