Splashing wheat paste in all directions, international street artist Swoon took only minutes to complete what in another era may have been considered an act of vandalism, not art. But she came to New Haven by invitation—and left her mark.
Swoon applied her new piece—an image of her Red Hook (New York) studio neighbor and occasional assistant “Katherine G”—to an exterior wall at Westville’s Kehler Liddell Gallery. Monday night, the installation was celebrated by board members of Site Projects Inc. who looked on as Swoon and her two assistants Olivia Katz and Josh Maupin, aka ‘LilKool,’ wrapped up their third installation in the Elm City.
As DaSilva Gallery co-owner and Site Projects board member Gabriel DaSilva watched Swoon put up “Katherine G,” he noted the impact of having the artist’s work in the city: “It says that we are a first-world city. It’s great to bring world renowned artists to New Haven. This is a small piece, but it brings a richness—we feel very blessed.”
Now in its tenth year, Site Projects is a local not-for-profit that commissions internationally recognized artists to create both temporary and permanent art in the city’s public spaces. The organization’s website also hosts original educational resources and expert commentary on the public art projects it promotes.
This year, Site Projects received a grant from Connecticut Humanities (CTH) enabling the fall series theme “Catalyze + Celebrate: Commissions + Conversations,” which explores the relationship between art and public space. Site Projects co-founder and Executive Director Laura Weir Clarke said that the group “wanted to celebrate [its] first decade with a community-wide conversation about what public art is and can be.”
As part of this conversation, Site Projects is focusing on street art—graffiti, murals and installations—the ubiquitous art form that has become an international focal point of public art. Clarke noted that this form of expression “is often intended to provoke the community to act or think about social and/or political issues. It celebrates freedom, sometimes civil disobedience, the freedom to be an artist with very crude or unrefined materials done over short time periods.”
Originally commissioned by Site Projects for one large installation on the enormous wall fronting a vacant lot at 1184 Chapel St. (Chapel Lofts building), Swoon left two additional gifts…
... including a portrait of Swoon’s neighbor “Nini” on the corner walls of Cafe 9 facing Crown Street.
Swoon, whose birth name is Caledonia Dance Curry, said she was inspired to create the piece after taking a photo of Nini as she was painting, resulting in an image that passersby will enjoy for as long as it lasts. The paper prints, exposed to the elements, are temporary even with added acrylic gel medium. During the process of gradual deterioration, viewers can experience and appreciate visual changes as they continue to inspire dialogue.
The variety of installation backgrounds, including painted surfaces, wood, brick, and concrete, yield a broad range of physical qualities that, when combined with the delicate printed cutouts, seem to have a dialogue of their own. Local color and surface textures become integral to the dynamism of the overall work. Her work is said to be informed, in part, by German Expressionists of the early twentieth century as well as Indonesian shadow puppetry.
At a recent meeting with Site Projects staff, Swoon explained her process of excising rolls of linoleum (“as large as I can find”) using old world printmaking techniques. By piecing together portions of the “plate” material, she is able to enlarge the scale of her bond paper prints that are then hand-rolled with large rollers before being separated, or pulled, from the carved lino-blocks.
Sometimes that process results in graphic, lace-like patterns hand cut in multiple layers to create webs of positive and negative shapes, and other times in hand-colored relief block print series. Either way, Swoon’s portraiture prompts discussion and drops jaws.
Unlike Swoon, who works with more traditional media, today’s street artists favor aerosol paint. With developing techniques and an expanding vocabulary of stylization, the old canard of graffiti or street art as lowbrow has fallen away, giving rise to a mainstream acceptance that extends beyond the street youth culture that popularized the genre.
Site Projects continues the conversation on Saturday with an Art in the Park event at Edgewood Park featuring numerous graffiti artists as they transform the skateboard park at Coogan Pavilion, along with panel discussions and workshops. Internationally acclaimed youth culture photographer, Janette Beckman, will present an exhibit of her photographs in collaboration with graffiti artists at the adjacent Manjares Cafe as Channel One’s Lou Cox guides activities at the Pavilion.
It would be enough to admire Swoon’s visual lyricism on its own merits, but learning about her humanitarian and social endeavors like the Konbit Shelter building project in post-earthquake Haiti and her justice-inspired art projects around the world, builds appreciation and gives insight to her imagery and her person. “She’s committed to the underdog,” noted Clarke.