"When blackness was a virtue/ And the road was full of mud."

Deirdre Swords' show at John Davis Gallery (up until September 9) is her best effort to date and articulates for me something I've been pondering lately: how, through curating, can one demonstrate the range of an activity while 'sticking to the story'. Further, can one send the viewer forth with a myth to live by in mind.

There are 10 paintings on view. Ostensibly, abstract and gestural, the works slowly reveal a theme under the color and brushwork. Each work reinforces, then subtly contradicts the next, adding information to a baseline of brushstroke and rough drawing. In four paintings a concentric structure dominates; a radiating network of lines haloes a central area which is either a form or void. In two others, lines dance in opened spaces, energized and calligraphic. Color is either muted browns and pinks or lurid yellows and green. One painting presents a whitish and light blue grid, accented with crosses and triangles, and there is one small radiant watercolor that suggests that Swords want us to read the works closeup.

“Eshu”, Acrylic on board, 48 x 36”, 2012

On the whole, under the radar, subtle, contradictory, even clumsy. So, what is going on?

The room, which is really two rooms divided by a narrow open hall, rings with clarity, yet the works are elusive. They don't at first form a static 'body of work'. The surfaces suggest imagery, but none emerges quickly. They also indicate dedicated work and attention, but to what? The paintings emit yin receptivity, a watery, translucent and decidedly feminine unfolding and 'enfolding', but simultaneously hit us like a hatchet chipping away at a log.

Intention begins to reveal itself at the far end of the space, where the light blue grid confronts a dark brown and blue painting. This painting, the last to be perceived by the viewer, reveals itself, first by a feeling of, but then by an image of a crossroad. Presiding at the crossroad is a spirit, perhaps a deity, represented by a blue triangle and two brown dots for eyes. The painting seems to be made of dirt!  Its the dirt at the crossroad, dirt worn into a path, a road, a 'meta hodos', a higher road, a methodology.
The painting sheds a dark light. It retells the pattern of the African folk tales that Swords loves.

"Crossroads" Acrylic on Board, 30 x 40", 2012

Once the African connection reveals itself, the light blue painting across the room makes sense, referencing textiles or triangles painted on the outside of  earthen houses. I am now sent forth to find the content of the other paintings. The underlying geometry stitches the show together as a family, or maybe 'a tribe'. Each piece asserts its individuality, retains shadow close to its heart, but gives like a musician in a band. The music reminds me of Miles Davis' '70's funk: Pete Cosey, Mtume, Billy Preston, Miles on organ as well as trumpet. Aggressive rhythems, loud solo lines, perplexing transmission of pain and vulnerability, color ranging from garish to subtle.

"Congress", Acrylic on Board, 30 x 40", 2012

The writer James Hillman says that in contemporary psychology the question is not 'what is the subject?', but 'where is the subject?'.  For Swords the subject is at the crossroads. In the painting of the painting there is a moment, brief usually, where unspoken intentions reveal themselves, and suddenly the painting can be 'finished'. Swords tries to wander away from a signature formal style to make the 'subject' reveal itself. This is the process we see on display in these 10 pieces. Relations to contemporary painting, including the paintings of Margrit Lewzchuk and Bill Jensen are brought as offerings. The personal is crossed with the tribal. A huge inspiration for Swords as well as the two above mentioned painters is the west African music of Kakande. Impossible to listen without dancing! Old, new, African, western, polarities dissolve. The fabric of the music, like the surfaces of Swords' paintings goes and goes, rewarding when considered in extreme close up; details are not 'put in', but happen as part of the complexity of the method, revealing 'nature' under the language.

The installation of the paintings is totally dialed in to the 'call-and-response' between the works. The whole space rings and leaves me with the same smile on my face that I have after a Kakande performance, a smile that says I have been included, given to. That I have participated in the quasi religious ceremony of this ritual called painting.  The radiating lines suggest growth patterns and infer whole families of paintings in each of the family trees on display. Paintings, like families, like tribes to a western anthropologist, are projective fields. This show seems like this to me. I can bring my stories and interpretations to the works, but Swords' paintings will always be beyond them, mysterious.This show takes time.

“Sugulum’s Belly”, Acrylic on paper on canvas, 30 x 24”, 2012

To see more images of the paintings go to http://johndavisgallery.com/deirdre-swords/.

ⓒ Form In The FIre

Form In The FIre is co-authored by Peter Acheson and Deirdre Swords but this one is pure Peter.


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