New York-based artist Ena Swansea's large-scale paintings offer intimate snapshots of the contemporary American social and natural landscape. Nicknamed 'slow' paintings for the long durations they require to be completed, her works navigate a dreamlike world, resting between fiction, reality and memory. Drawing inspiration from reproductions of paintings found in books and her background in film, Swansea experiments with uniting disparate source material with traditional painting techniques.
Swansea's works are known for their reflective and iridescent surfaces, which the artist creates by painting with oil on a background layered with a special graphite mixture. The graphite's metallic sheen is visible through the paint, adding a luminous, ephemeral quality to the images. In a way, the graphite texture functions like a screen by allowing the painting to appear as though its imagery shifts with light.
Drawing particularly from her Southern roots (Swansea grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina), she manipulates scenes of city and rural life until the images become ambiguous. Swansea's concern with the South is associated with Thomas Dixon Jr, who was a Southern Baptist minister, white supremacist and the artist's great-great-grandfather. His duality—preaching mortal sin on one side and participating in immoral activities on the other—has led her to search for contradictory moments in her surroundings. Scottish marching band (2017)—a depiction of a marching band during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City—for example developed from Swansea's notion of 'parade' as both a spectacle and an event that is 'somehow so wrong', according to her 2008 interview with The Brooklyn Rail. At the same time, Swansea denies the presence of narrative content or emotional overtone in her artworks, commenting that 'certain images are flexible; they can be about different things depending on who is looking.' Grounded in reality yet hazy in depiction, Swansea's paintings reflect the various possibilities of human perception, prone to changes and divergences.
While much of Swansea's inspiration derives from contemporary life, some recurring subject matters echo the concerns of Impressionist painters. The Delight of Painting (2013)—a solo exhibition at 313 Art Project in Seoul—included paintings of seascapes and haystacks in the countryside. Concerned with the changing light of the sky, the works on display revisited Monet and his fellow painters' similar fascination. The 'backlit waves' (2012) series encapsulated the moment when the sun sets or rises from the sea and when, for a brief moment, the light hits the water from the behind.
Swansea studied film at the University of South Florida. She has exhibited extensively in cities in the United States, South Korea and Europe. In 2008, the Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean in Luxembourg organised her first museum survey. Swansea has also been included in numerous group exhibitions, notably Greater New York 2005 at MoMA PS1, New York (2005).
An older woman in the art scene once told me, 'How we experience art is as important as the art itself.' After witnessing high ceilings and transformative décor in one of the most traditional areas of New York City, I had quite an experience indeed.
'The Salon: Art & Design,' the toniest of the November fairs (and certainly the one with the most aristocratic title), reminds you how the categories of art and design tend to blur in the rarefied world of ultra-high-end décor.
'I'm in the middle of painting the Goyesque,' the artist Ena Swansea texted from the Roman amphitheater in Arles just a couple weeks ago. When we finally spoke hours later, there was such a background din that it wasn't much of a call. 'I'm in with all the matadors,' Swansea explained.Perhaps I should backtrack here.
On the occasion of her two recent one-person exhibits, a survey show at MUDAMLuxembourg (Musée d'Art Moderne Grand–Duc Jean), curated by Marie-Claude Beaud (on view till February 2, 2009), and new paintings at Arndt & Partner Zurich (on view till November 22, 2008,) Rail Consulting Editor Irving Sandler welcomed the painter Ena Swansea to his...