Frozen fantasies

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

Leave it to a 26-year-old eccentric to make it snow in Dallas in August. Yet filling an art space in Exposition Park with cheerfully whirling snow is the least of Erick Swenson's magic show. Visions of those sad, creepy animals he's got traipsing around in the dramatic white stuff are what the Saturday-night opening crowd took home with them, and they won't shake off those images nearly as easily as they did the plastic and Styrofoam flakes that clung to their hair and shoulders.

It was hotter in the Angstrom Gallery than it was outside, the space thickly crowded with a sweating culture elite (a legion of artists, musicians, gallerists, collectors), so the theatrical flurry didn't pull off the illusion of actual cold. But Swenson's bizarre, earnest creatures--baboon-like, deer-like, mink-like--looked chilly enough, as though their blood ran thin and clean and icy; quite a feat, considering these oddities are as fake as the snow itself. A deceptively simple one-man show, a distillation of young Swenson's brains-meets-guts impact, made up of three separate-but-equal dioramas--not unlike the carefully orchestrated nature scenes in increasingly obsolete natural-history museums. Only Swenson's scenarios could never be nullified by modern zoos and PBS documentaries and educational computer software. His creatures are completely fantastic and unlikely, sprung fully-formed from his heavily populated, droll imagination, and in need of a refuge they'd never find outside an art gallery.

Snow falls in quiet, even smatterings from the ceiling. Against the most immediate wall, a dog-sized, wooly rodent perches atop a jutting, rocky ledge. His wet, shiny nose points toward his companions below--his determined, half-buried twin, trudging behind a larger, equally woolen thing that looks to be galloping away on golden-shod, super-elongated hooves (ah, the gorgeous details). Here's the one-two catch: Even the most decorated zoologist couldn't begin to categorize these animals. And the twin ferret things, winter coats and all, are wearing extra protection from the barren landscape: well-knitted, colorful ski sweaters that cover them midsection to nose, bank-robber eye-holes included.

Adjacent to this, another extraordinary scene unfolds. Two upright monkey-men sporting snappy fuzz-lined denim jumpsuits peer out from their own ice-encrusted cliff. The front one wears an ominously extended, matching denim backpack, its bottom flap secure in the careful grip of the second monkey following like a bride's train. Their eyes gleam with curious hope and fear; their skin glows with a translucent green cast. It's as though they're aliens exploring the gallery itself, nervously regarding the patrons that surround them. Again, the mind reels with the details--the perfect hand-stitching of their clothes, the tiny, meticulously crafted leather sandals (Tibetan-style) on their multi-appendaged feet. They seem so purposeful--you can only hope that they find what or whom they're looking for.

But "Edgar," the big, graceful, deer-like sculpture, sums it all up. With Edgar, you get the gist of Swenson's method (he has thoughtfully transmogrified standard-issue taxidermy models) as well as the visceral impact. The animal, looking like a cross between a sadly skinned deer and an angelic myth, stands atop a mound of unforgiving ice and snow, his eyes and nose running with chill-induced mucous, his little ivory teeth peeking out between rasping lips. He has a glorious mane of golden curls about his face and neck and along his fetlocks, but besides this, the rest of his skin is exposed--silky and subtly transparent with veins and arteries, rosy yellow with epidermal fat and cold. He is lost, and entirely alone, and likely--even in Swenson's world--destined to remain so. It's so jarring that it's superficially funny. Underneath, it's weirdly tragic.

Swenson is an El-Paso-turned-Denton artist, a longtime member of the Good/Bad Art Collective--and long overdue for a one-man show in these parts. His conceptual work--usually three-dimensional and always exquisitely crafted--has been a major player within the collective's shows all along. During the Angstrom opening, the artist was quick to mention his G/B-plus friends for providing crucial help in the preparation for this show--up to 40 people lent a hand, even if indirectly. Certainly the dozens of long, white snow tubes installed overhead, rolling and sprinkling by some intricate twine-and-pulley system, were many weeks and people in the making. But the concepts, the details, the imagination throughout are all Swenson, and despite all the help in the execution, the final product displays his trademark balance of innocence, ambition, and very dry wit.

A few years back, before moving on to sculpture, Swenson displayed a penchant for painting, which explains his skill in mapping out the skin conditions and color gradations of his creatures. But what makes this show so successful is the pure originality--the novelty--of it all. It combines every hard-to-conceive fine-art notion--high concept, accomplished painting, cultivated atmosphere--and tosses in a slippery dose of emotional zigzag: again, "creepy-sad" may be apt, but then you'd be leaving out the "funny" and the "ingratiating." No one in North Texas creates work like this, and you wonder if anyone on the planet thinks like Swenson. He reluctantly brought up the term "fantasy art" to describe it, though that was a while back, before his concepts got so full-blown and refined. Each of the three sculptures carries its own story, its own painful need to be understood, however impossible. These creatures may or may not inhabit the same tundra in Swenson's mind, though for all we know, they'll unite on a single peak soon enough. Granted, there's an intentional hyper-realness about the whole--Swenson has titled the show Obviously a Movie--that sporadically reminds us of its synthetic, staged quality. Still, in the end, we're just happy their fur and clothes and intuitive gazes serve as some protection against the clinical edges of the gallery. Strangers in a strange land.

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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