Upon entering the Honolulu Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson, one feels a heightened sense of unease. Perhaps it’s because of the gallery’s sparse lighting, temporarily plunging guests in shadow as they walk from one sculpture to the next. It could be the eerie silence enveloping the room, compelling one to speak in a voice no louder than a whisper. Or maybe it’s the deer lying on its side exhibiting the last stages of decay, its flesh falling away to reveal, in vivid detail, what life after death could mean.
No, the piece, named Ne Plus Ultra, is not an actual decomposing deer, but with the pain-staking craftsmanship of Dallas-based artist, Erick Swenson, the urethane sculpture is as close as one can get. Swenson’s life-like sculptures present vignettes for audiences to ponder the complex relationship between nature, humanity, and death. As his first ever major solo exhibition, the Honolulu Museum of Art will feature an array of Swenson’s work with 11 sculptures spanning 2000 to the present. Katherine Love, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Honolulu Museum of Art, explains that the works are remarkable in their power to affect the audience not only visually but also emotionally. We feel for the animals’ struggle, yet wonder at how Swenson could have constructed them.
If it feels like his work is straight out of a horror film, it may be because Swenson first found artistic inspiration in monster movies and slasher flicks. As a teenager, he recalls whiling days away flipping through Fangoria magazine and watching The Exorcist. But beyond the movies themselves, Swenson was intrigued by the artistry of practical effects.
“The special effects, those were the artists to me,” Swenson says. “They were using clay and processes that were fascinating. It became less about the monster making [for me] and more about the technical aspects.”
Swenson immersed himself in developing the craft of special effects, reading books and experimenting with clay molds. He decided that he could either train in special effects, sweeping floors and cleaning brushes, or he could go to school and become an artist. He decided to transition the hobby into a career path and obtained a bachelor of fine arts degree from the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas. In the years since, the 46-year-old artist has honed his artistry. Swenson has mastered every stage of the sculpting process, making everything himself, including producing his own polyurethane resin, the material from which he molds his pieces. “Art is more than just about having a concept to say, because, ideas and concepts are a dime a dozen,” he says. “Part of art is craft—it’s about how you make marks. And the execution of those ideas, now that’s where it gets really tricky.” Swenson has learned how to execute his ideas in exquisite detail. The artist’s labor-intensive process can cause his concepts to take months or even years to come to fruition.
The artist marries craftsmanship with surreal scenes that urge audiences to contemplate loaded themes like death or the minuteness of humanity in relation to time—a concept that is addressed in his newest work, Present in the Past, which which will be unveiled to the public at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Depicting a hammerhead shark engulfed in sparkling geodes—which too are, shockingly realistic, made of resin—the sculpture was commissioned by the Honolulu Museum of Art specifically for the exhibition, and expresses Swenson’s romanticism with nature’s complexity.
Although the tone of much of Swenson’s work can lean toward the macabre (“I’m a very depressing, dark kind of guy, so I make depressing, dark art,” he says), tucked in the depths of his pieces is a hint of hope—if audiences are willing to look for it. “I don’t see a problem with making art that’s about our biggest fears,” Swenson says. Confronting your mortality, and facing your fears, he says, can make room for learning about yourself: “Confront that early on and life could mean more.”
Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson will be on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art from March 1 to July 29.