Revival and contemplation
Albright-Knox Northland reopens with an immersive installation
Installation view of SWOON: THE CANYON: 1999-2017, at the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati
photo by tod seelie
Sept. 26–Jan. 10
At the Albright-Knox Northland, 612 Northland Avenue
If there was a silver lining to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG) closing for its two-year renovation and building project, it was the debut of the museum’s Northland facility on the city’s East Side, across from the Northland Workforce Training Center. A spectacular inaugural exhibition and January 17 reception was followed by a series of programs and workshops as the space attracted new audiences, particularly from the surrounding African-American community. Just seven weeks later, New York State entered a coronavirus shutdown for all but essential services, and the voluminous new facility went dark.
On September 25, Northland rises again, with what promises to be a spectacular crowd-pleasing exhibition by Brooklyn–based artist Caledonia Curry, better known by her art world alias, Swoon. It is a welcome return to large-scale exhibitions by the type of world-renowned artists usually hosted by the AKAG. Expect Northland to be wondrously transformed.
Caledonia Curry is better known as Swoon, her art world alias.
photo by Chia Messina
Curry has garnered international attention as the first woman to gain widespread recognition in the male-dominated world of street art. Her success is partly attributed to her eclectic and refreshingly nonderivative approach, incorporating historical and folk sources in styles referencing such things as German expressionist wood block prints, classical drawing, and Indonesian shadow puppets.
Street art had its origins in graffiti and vandalism but has evolved over time into a more socially conscious form in which artists use images, illustrations, and symbols to bring social messages and aesthetic beauty to public audiences. Over the past two decades, Swoon’s global reputation has blossomed along with her work, which now includes large-scale murals and installations, along with exhibitions in museums around the world.
Swoon’s signature technique involves recycled newspaper, which she meticulously paints and cuts in her studio, then attaches to building surfaces with wheatpaste. Her work often entails intricate compositions featuring images of ordinary people—often the artist’s friends and family—seemingly caught in everyday moments. These are combined with whimsical elements of fairy tales and myths, a recurring motif of the sacred feminine, and her own personal history. The result is both richly elaborate and visually sumptuous.
To get an idea how monumentally elaborate Swoon’s work can be, consider that she and a crew of thirty artists crashed the 2009 Venice Biennale with the Swimming Cities of Serenissima. It was a fleet of three elaborately handcrafted floating sculptures constructed from containers of New York City garbage, with an appearance inspired by dense urban cityscapes. It navigated the Adriatic Sea from Slovenia to Venice, stopping along the way to meet locals and collect artifacts for its on-board “cabinet of curiosities.”
Swoon’s exhibition at Albright-Knox Northland is titled Seven Contemplations, which the museum describes as an open and meditative environment through “an installation of sculptural objects, collages, and the presentation of her first-ever animation work.” The immersive exhibit includes several iconic artworks from Swoon’s career including Thalassa, which was originally commissioned by the New Orleans Museum of Art, inspired by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The work depicts the namesake Greek goddess—the mother of all sea creatures—gazing upward overhead, with tattered-fabric-draped tentacles extending out and downward.
A motif of the sacred feminine recurs in the works.
photo by tod seelie
It’s a reflection of Swoon’s concern for the environment, including climate change and the ecosystems that surround cities. She has used the central figure of Thalassa on various occasions, adapting it to the specific environment where it’s exhibited. It’s a monumental work that would feel crowded in the Albright-Knox Elmwood location, but fits comfortably at Northland, which is why this satellite space holds so much potential.
All told, the seven “contemplations” of the exhibition comprise meditations on the primordial self, birth and death, fear and suffering, transformation and healing, and grace and forgiveness. It entails a complex installation of multimedia collages, drawings, and paintings, along with space for reading, meditation, and contemplation. Cicada, the artist’s first stop-animation video work, is a haunting surrealist feast for the eyes, incorporating living humans emmeshed within fanciful abstract environments.
Curry says viewers will be able to explore the exhibition without participating in or even being directly aware of the central themes. It seems inevitable, though, that it will directly or indirectly invoke the state of humankind today, engulfed as we are by a world pandemic. The museum will conform to state-recommended safety measures to protect the public, including social distancing. This might produce a more intimate tone to the exhibition, one that contributes to the theme of contemplation.
The museum has been monitoring developments and gathering information on the status of the pandemic and its potential impact on the reopening date and will share updates on its website at albrightknox.org and on social media.