Erick Swenson: “Reality” in the Post-Truth World

May 11, 2018

Erick Swenson’s sculptures look so real, they make people gasp.  You simply do not expect to see a life size seven point buck, flayed, its flesh peeling back from bones, lying, surprised, on a gallery floor.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports, Swenson mixes animals and humans too, so you begin to think maybe some odd looking creatures really exist.

Sculptor Erick Swenson was dubbed a star of the 2004 Whitney Biennial, which became his entree to international recognition. He has mounted shows in London, Italy, China and across the U.S.
Credit honolulu museum of art

“Abstruction:  The Sculpture of Erick Swenson,” continues at the Honolulu Museum of Art through July 29th  2018.  A ten dollar additional charge applies to this exhibition.  

Erick Swenson. Schwarmerei, 2012. Acrylic on resin, silicone, MDF on bespoke base.
Credit honolulu museum of art

What pins you first in sculptor Erick Swenson’s show at the Honolulu Museum of Art, is it clarity of vision.  A tender, white, fawn-like animal has its leg caught in a red blanket that is billowing upwards.  Why??

Swenson:  I'm actually just trying to capture your attention for a small amount of time and I hope I can make something that you think about afterward.  You know, for a while.

Swenson says he realizes he’s competing with a lot of media. 

Swenson:  To come to an art gallery in general is kind of incredible, looking to look at a static object for more than 10 seconds, that’s even more amazing.  So I like to make something that grabs your attention aesthetically on one level, then emotionally you can think about for the rest of the day, or a week, or the rest of your life.

Swenson laughs, but these are painstaking projects, some requiring two years to complete.  And some of these images are tough to forget—like the 800 snails swarming over a colorful beer stein.  This piece is called “Schwarmerei,” a German reference to the excessive enthusiasm of crowds.  Gardeners know beer attracts snails—then they fall in and drown. 

Swenson:  I thought they would be kind of fun to make, amorphous blob creatures.  If you really look at live ones they 

Erick Swenson. I Am What I Isn't. Urethane resin, arcylic paint.
Credit Kevin Todora

have this really sweet face to them, they kind of have an anthropomorphic quality about them that I thought was very fascinating.  And that, well,  you know, it turned out to be a nightmare!  I think it was worth it in the end, but…

Swenson:  When I was younger, I looked at a lot of special effects artists and that’s actually what I kind of wanted to be.   That’s what really got me into the idea of making things, just to watch Rick Baker, Tom Sevigny, and Dick Smith, these old school special effects artists and I wanted to know how they did it!

Those people are trying to make us feel like something is real.

Swenson:  That’s part of the fun about art.  Well, fun is the wrong word.  (laughs) It’s why you make something, it’s to take something out of the ether and to make it real.  And in the end, when it’s done it’s done, that’s how it lives for the rest of its life.  Know what I mean?  It’s a thrilling experience.

Erick Swenson. Ebie. Urethane resin, glass, oil paint.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Swenson:  There is just one moment when, a project is finished, you step outside of yourself, outside of your ego and outside of your fears, and if it's a good thing that you’ve made, you can look at it and it's an addictive thing, you see the work as somebody else might see it.  You go, Oh cool, I made that!  It lasts for a couple of minutes.   

Sometimes longer.  Like "Ne Plus Ultra"---an unforgettable seven point buck made of resin, medium density fiberboard, and paint.  Some of its bones have delicate scrimshaw etching. 

Swenson:  I just love it, it has the perfect sentiments that I'm interested in, which is pretty much horror and beauty.  Or poetry.  And sadness.   It drives me crazy every time I see it.  Yeah lucky me.

Lucky us.  With their searing verisimilitude, Erick Swenson’s works make you wonder about the difference between life and death. 

Erick Swenson. Ne Plus Ultra (detail). Resin, MDF, Acrylic paint.
Credit Noe Tanigawa