Sep 28, 2011

REVIEW | Perspectives 175: Marc Swanson, The Second Story, The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston

Marc Swanson, Untitled (Gold Box), 2011. Wood, polyurethane, chain, broken glass, gold leaf. 36 x 24 x 8 in.

The Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Texas is a non-profit exhibition center for the contemporary arts with the lower gallery, the Zilkha Gallery, dedicated more recently to a Perspectives exhibition series where artists who don’t typically get showcased in Houston have the opportunity to be seen. The museum does not collect art, which allows for constant change and the opportunity to show the most recent Contemporary art forms. Perspectives 175: Marc Swanson: The Second Story is the 175th exhibition to be displayed in this ever-changing and fast-paced series. Swanson’s The Second Story is a fabulous exhibition to be displayed in this series because it plays with a contemporary art trend of levels of meaning and interpretations as being “out of fashion” and the artist’s purpose for the work is irrelevant in the viewers’ reaction and understanding.

After researching the exhibition Perspectives 175: Marc Swanson: The Second Story by reading a background blurb provided by The Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston’s website, experiencing the exhibition, and finally reading the accompanying exhibit catalogue, it is clear that there is an experience to be discovered and processed. Since there is an important psychological experience to Swanson’s The Second Story, the format in which I discuss this exhibition will be presented in chronological order following the journey set up by Swanson into my personal interpretation of the work.

The information provided by the museum on the website about Swanson’s exhibition was critical to my full experience. The preview of the exhibition also contains information about Swanson’s expectations for the viewer to try and read into the peculiar and perhaps seemingly unimportant pieces in the exhibition. I hadn’t even walked into the museum and already it was clear that there was a particular participation task given to the viewer. It was almost as if a puzzle was just given to me and someone dared me to figure it out. This same type of background information to the exhibition could be gathered while walking through the space as it is blown up and part of the installation. I like how Swanson doesn’t count on the viewers to research beforehand and includes this information in the installation perhaps in the hope that everyone will have the same chance in reading into the installed puzzling layers of information.

Installation view of Perspectives 175: Marc Swanson: The Second Story at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2011.

The mood created by Swanson in The Second Story was evident immediately after walking through the small, eerie, black draped entrance where you are suddenly eye level with what seems to be a taxidermy trophy of a turtle shell covered in rhinestones reflecting every wavelength of color right back at the viewer. Instantly I want to look around and I’m thinking, “Why and what are these strange statues and shadow boxes?” The underground Zilkha gallery has fairly low ceilings and the blankness typical of a gallery space. There were exposed industrial fixtures contrasting against the vernacular, flamboyant, and complex pieces of Swanson’s work interspersed throughout the intimate and enclosed gallery. There are reoccurring materials and themes throughout all the pieces, but each is still puzzling and waiting to be revealed. The reflectiveness is engaging and the recurring draped chains, ever so slightly moving from the wind created by the buildings vents, create an abandoned look, as if these complex pieces just appeared and are luring the viewer to discover something more. The Dark Room installation contains a looped video accompanied by strange, suspenseful, peculiar music, which can be heard throughout the space but it is unclear where it is coming from until one discovers the installation hidden in the corner behind a wall. The only information revealed consistently throughout the installation is with the title of the work, usually titled “untitled”, is a complete list of the materials used to make the piece.

Left: Marc Swanson, Untitled (Gold Box),  2011. Wood, polyurethane, chain, broken glass, gold leaf. 36 x 24 x 8 in.
Right: Marc Swanson, Untitled (White Corner Floor Piece), 2011. Wood, mirror, paint, stain, fabric, plaster, photo. 82 x 40 x 28 in.
Leaving the exhibition I knew that there was perhaps a specific concept to be understood and there was clearly something more to what is displayed, but no answers or explanations were given. This gives the viewer the option not to read into the pieces like contemporary art trends suggest. Likewise, the option to further understand is given in the essay included in the exhibit catalogue that accompanies the exhibition written by Bill Arning, the museums director. Although some pieces are explained in the essay it is made clear that each piece is very complex and maybe can never be fully understood because there are so many multiple meanings Arning explains:

The exhibition title, The Second Story, implies that there is always a second story, usually a third, and often more. Psychological art interpretation tends to have a lot of “aha” moments when we feel that we have something on the artist, something that was not meant to be revealed, and then there is doubt: “What if the artist did mean to give this away?”

Perspectives 175: Marc Swanson: The Second Story is only slightly being revealed in Arning’s essay and actually even further recruits viewers to engage in Swanson’s work. Using his self as a starting point for a backstory, Swanson successfully engages viewers to understand the complexity of layers and meaning one could experience and discover. I would recommend this exhibition to any age group willing to seek the meaning of the work. Without their participation, an exhibition goer might be let down by the simplicity and seemingly ordinariness of the pieces.  

-Melissa Weatherall

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