Window on Broad: ‘Black Market Inhaler’ (allegory for enterprise)

by Bailey Sheehan

The Window on Broad is a project space ran by the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, the main gallery of the University of the Arts. From May 1st to June 4th, the window will be hosting a series of works by Ian Swanson— the project is entitled ‘black market inhaler’ (allegory for enterprise).

The exhibition consists of three panels and a black inhaler, which seems to have short-circuited given the splayed black soot. The two peripheral panels include semi-circular symbols of a moon, a cave or mine, and a “bewildered” face, which in its depiction is tonally similar to the emerging field placed behind it. The central image is the most illustrative of the three, foregrounded by a canary shoved against a stark yellow field, “as if a metaphor for alarm.”[1]

An  allegory for enterprise  must intend to go beyond the metaphorical and be applied to an object or action to which it is actually applicable. The allegorical is different from a metaphor insofar as it employs both metaphor and metonymy. Artist Charles Gaines explains, “this permits allegorical narratives to employ literal references, not only poetic, and to point to a reality.”[2]

A metaphor, as Gaines would say, is not formed through the consideration of meaning. A metonymy “is the relationship or coming together of two signs based upon contiguity, that is, social agreement, and not a similarity between them.”[3] So a canary, meant to serve as a symbol for imminent danger, is metonymic in its reference of the use of canaries in early mining practices as an indicator of danger from CO2 and other fatal gasses. The two are contiguous and thereby are formed through a consideration of meaning. To then say, as Ian Swanson does (in an interview with Coeval) that the canary is emblematic of our time, is in this instance a metaphor, because the artist’s reference to a miner’s use of a canary, and the emblematic notion of our time[4], are in no way contiguous and are linked solely by the ignorance of meaning.

So, Swanson is employing both metaphor and metonymy in order to craft some sort of allegorical statement. Gaine’s essay means to distinguish between metaphor and metonymy, as well as explain his own suspicion of the metaphor, which has its noblest expression in works of art and can be used as an instrument of repression.

 While observing and reading up on the work of Swanson, I see some sort of easy exchange between metaphor and metonymy. I would question whether that seamless interchange between both the ignorance of meaning and the consideration of meaning, is the necessary thing to do while crafting an allegorical statement— or the easiest. The canary as a metaphor of our time, the canary as a symbol of Detroit (where Swanson is from), the canary as a metonym for imminent danger.

The window exhibition is most effective when Swanson directs my attention toward a moment of true allegory. A true intimation of mortality. I witness this kind of moment when Swanson enacts a consideration of meaning— not a leap of fiction, ie. the symbology of a bird to which I am supposed to believe represents something much more, but rather a true consideration of the world and a sense of its transitoriness. The allegorical is present within the work of Ian Swanson through the amazingly meticulous and almost unfollowable metonymic redistribution of symbols from his past experiences to now. It is now both his and our responsibility to ensure the work is not metaphorized into some grand statement on ‘the market,’ or ‘Detroit’[5], because conceptual weightlifting as such only seems to bring us further and further away from that which we are actually working to uproot.

allegory for enterprise employs both symbol and metaphor. In Benjamin’s theory of allegory— allegory arises from an apprehension of the world as no longer permanent, as passing out of being: a sense of its transitoriness, an intimation of mortality, or a conviction, as in Dickinson, that “this world is not conclusion.”[6]



[1] Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery. ‘Black Market Inhaler’ (allegory for enterprise). Web.
[2] Gaines, Charles. “Reconsidering Metaphor/Metonymy: Art and the Suppression of Thought.” Web.
[3] ibid.
[4] Swanson, Ian, and Lara Konrad. “Ian Swanson.” Coeval Magazine. N.p., 18 May 2017. Web. “The concept feels emblematic of our time.”
[5] I am quoting ‘the market,’ and ‘Detroit’ as two examples lifted from an interview Swanson gave to Lara Konrad published by Coeval Magazine. The work is not necessarily about either of these examples— they are moreso simply a relevant topic given what the the aforementioned artist seems to be interested in.
[6] Cowan, Bainard. “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory.” Editorial. Web.


Bailey Sheehan is an artist and writer in Philadelphia, an editor at Title Magazine and a former editor to the Post-Office Arts Journal.