Through June 28, 2015
By Jacob Feige
Patterns emerge in contradictory ways in Linda Swanson’s installation Quantum Bloom, yet seen as a whole, the work is a singular, cohesive form. At the core of this installation are the non-conscious ways that patterns arise in nature, and the sometimes tense relationship that an artist’s intuition has with those patterns.
Swanson is skilled at simulating natural chaos, and she is also able to seed a genuine form of it. An irregular pool of salt has crystallized over an array of ceramic sculptures that, from a distance of a few feet, pass convincingly as the large hissing cockroaches popular in zoos. Only their complete stillness lets you know that they won’t crawl up your legs if you approach. The details in these porcelain roaches, glazed with beautiful metallic finishes in dark browns, grays, and blacks—each slightly different—are the reward for a close look. They are spread over the installation unevenly, seemingly attracted to various nodes where their numbers increase, convincing a scientific novice like me that the pattern is legitimate insect behavior rather than the intuitive composition-making of the artist, as I know it to be. Some roaches sit under the salt, appearing as ghosts in a deep, powdery freeze, while most sit in clusters of varying density, their glazes appearing to still be wet. Together, the salt and roaches give the sense of an ancient moment frozen in time, half fossilized, half coated in shiny amber.
This combination of orchestrated and natural chaos, strong in-and-of itself, forms a rich interplay with the orthodox patterns in the installation: a grid of thin wood and semi-transparent film, and the wooden floor of the gallery, visible through the layers of the work and jutting through it diagonally. The grid calls to mind the scientific regularity of an archaeological excavation, with scattered objects carefully cataloged one square at a time. It also puts the piece in clever dialogue with post-minimalists like Eva Hesse and Barry Le Va, whose compositional strategies often formed an interface between orthogonal and irregular elements, yielding an uncanny likeness to the places where natural and built worlds meet. In Swanson’s installation, forms referring to these distinct worlds are explicit and unambiguous: roaches and salt, natural; grid and floor, built. But the installation arises mainly from the intuitive decisions of the artist, of course, not from a mathematical formula. Formal decisions meant to mimic the functional chaos of insects are made convincingly as a matter of taste and artistry in this installation. This sort of simulation is a skill unto itself, seen in the ability of landscape painters to paint trees without unnatural rigidity, for example. The salt crystals serve as the one element of true chance—a nod to this bottom-up chaos that artists so often simulate.
The porcelain roaches and the floor of the gallery are the beginning and end points of this installation: the former a representation of natural irregularity, the latter a chance find of regular pattern for the artist. Each is a set of contradictions in deliberate action and chance, the inverse of one another. Variations in wood color, seen in half contrast through the installation, echo the subtle color deviations in the insect sculptures. White salt and white film divide the floor and roaches physically, keeping them at a perceptual distance despite their immediate proximity. With so much layering and pattern, it’s a wonder that the entire installation never protrudes more than an inch from the floor. Still, it’s not flat like a painting. If anything, Swanson’s installation is more like mosaic tile, with the connections between pieces contingent on a complex and sometimes contradictory logic, not quite the work of the human brain, not quite cockroach behavior.
Jacob Feige is an artist and Assistant Professor of Painting at Stockton University.