HONOLULU — Erick Swenson is technically a sculptor. But in order to create his eclectic, hyperrealistic sculptures of woodland animals trapped in bizarre scenes, he must also play the role of inventor, wildlife biologist, and in many ways, taxidermist. Swenson’s creatures may not have literally been alive but their physical presence has a real, jarring, and surprisingly disarming effect.
A new survey exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson, presents 11 works created by the artist over the last 17 years. The latest is “Present in the Past” (2018), a life-size hammerhead shark inlaid with crystal geodes and specially commissioned by the museum for the show. For Swenson, the piece serves as a reminder of humankind’s brief role in the world, compared to the tens of millions of years that sharks have existed on Earth. But like the geodes encrusting the hammerhead, we too have arisen from minerals, stardust, and the same building blocks of the universe.
The late Hawaii curator James “Jay” Jensen saw Swenson’s work at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, where the artist debuted a lifelike sculpture of a young deer rubbing the velvet off its antlers against a fine oriental rug. At the time, the Whitney Biennial described Swenson’s work as having “the sense of a natural history museum diorama gone awry.” Nearly a decade later, Jensen would begin planning the Honolulu exhibition with Swenson.
But unlike a natural museum display that uses fabric or real fur, Swenson employs fiberglass, urethane resin, and hand-painted acrylic. In “Ne Plus Ultra” (2010), the artist cast 200-plus bones of a deer in resin, assembled the skeleton using anatomical books and photographs as reference, and rebuilt the artificial musculature. Flayed, natural-looking “skin” on this decomposing seven-point buck reveals an intricate series of etchings carved onto the skull and bones. This scrimshaw depicts ships and maps, heritage and past experiences that literally run bone deep. “Ne Plus Ultra” is a Latin phrase meaning “the highest point achievable” or “nothing more beyond,” often found along the edges of old maps as a warning to travelers.
Other perplexing creatures of unknown origin appear in the exhibition, like the biologically ambiguous “Ebie” (2002), a foreign yet familiar simian resembling possibly either the missing link between the great apes and humankind from our evolutionary past, or some futuristic lifeform yet to emerge. In “Scuttle” (2012), a giant snail bulges from its shell to the point of bursting through the calcium; meanwhile, hundreds of small snails surge over a cast beer stein in “Kleine Schwarmerei” (2014). Beer traps are sometimes employed in gardens to kill snails, which go to drink the beer — then fall in and drown. The journey is definitely preferable to the destination; despite the difficulty and seeming futility of the snails’ climb in “Kleine Schwarmerei,” there is still beauty in the present moment.
There is also beauty in how Swenson replicates textures that appear to glisten, rot, or warp. Viewers must overcome their initial shock or repulsion to the visceral subject matter in order to go in for a closer look and experience the fine details of the work. What artists Ron Mueck and Duane Hanson have achieved with hyperrealistic sculptures of people in repose or in decay, Swenson accomplishes for the animal kingdom. His process takes months, often years.
In an untitled piece from 2000, an anxious fawn is being swept off the ground by a billowing opera cape. Is the deer someone’s pet, as the presence of a leather collar implies? Is the cape a whimsical element, similar to that of Little Red Riding Hood — or a sinister force, more akin to Dracula? A recurring motif of fawns and deer appear in Swenson’s work; four of the 11 pieces in this exhibition feature these animals, while other antlered forest animals, such as gazelles or mooses, remain unexplored.
Perhaps it’s because deer, like snails, seem particularly delicate and vulnerable. We are too; in “I Am What I Isn’t” (2017), the brain cavity of a bisected human skull contains a white and amber geode. Neither the head nor the minerals are real, but seeing something human amongst the creatures has an abrupt effect. It’s unknown if the crystals were always here or if they emerged after death. And did they cause this “person’s” demise or is the presence of the geode a symbol of exceptional power? Swenson’s work reminds the viewer that life is fragile. But amidst the struggle, there is beauty to be found.
Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson continues at the Honolulu Museum of Art (900 S Beretania Street, Honolulu, Hawaii) through July 29.