Frozen fantasies

The Angstrom Gallery's chilling display of Erick Swenson's snow creatures is making the cityscape a lot cooler

But there is a tiny sub-genre of art, aptly, comically called "fantasy art" that might marginally apply here. Not so aligned with Frank Frazetta prints of buxom warrior princesses facing off with saber-toothed, twin-tailed beasts, or early editions of Elfquest, or black-light "paintings" of muscle cars. But it still involves unearthly scenarios, pumped up fluffy and brawny with mysticism, adventure, and naive sensuality. Swenson affably shakes hands with these kitsch-meets-dreamy aesthetics, and does so unapologetically. How else are we to interpret the miniature '70s-era sweaters that warm the little snow creatures as they breathlessly track the sheep-like, larger--er--snow creature? The fleece-lined, crisp denim snowsuits worn by the explorer baboons have all the panache of fashion-forward skiers in early-'80s cigarette ads--"Benson and Hedges and Weekends and Me"--though the expression on the monkeys' faces is acutely pained and alert. Sell the initial visual impact--the fantasy--with warm-and-fuzzy methods (one patron was overheard saying, "It's like Christmas at Joske's"), but jerk back on the viewers' reins with a dose of piercing freakishness. Those cute, bright-eyed snow weasels have razor-sharp claws. Are they just following the golden-hoofed beast, or hunting it?

Obviously, this brand of fantasy art is honed not for teenagers' bedroom walls but rather for galleries, created not as mass production by craftsmen but rather as precious exhibitions by pedigreed artistes. No parent in their right mind would allow little Suzy to install in her bedroom the Chapman brothers' phantasmagoric sculptures of frolicking, mutated children who sprout oozing genitalia over their nubile bodies. Laurie Hogin's paintings of fanged animals and Matthew Barney's filmic, pastoral dips into sexual myth are no less intense. "Fantasy" no longer stands for a place and time you may want to visit--now it can mean any counter-reality more ethereal and unsettling than our own. As with Swenson's cunning presentation, the basic premise of fantasy art isn't always so extreme. The real difference between old and new fantasy, between Ralph Bakshi and Swenson, is the complexity of emotion involved in the interpretation. Everyone knows how to interpret Heavy Metal. Very few will know what to make of Edgar.

Erick Swenson: Obviously a Movie is at the Angstrom Gallery through September 27. Call (214) 823-6456.

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