Swoon: Storied street artist’s look in the rearview mirror

Swoon installation at the Broklyn Museum, 2014. (Photo by Tod Seelie)

– By Thom Mariner

The Contemporary Arts Center is no stranger to street art, having hosted three previous exhibits: “Beautiful Losers” (2004), Shepard Fairey (2010) and French artist JR (2013-14). As a way of honoring this tradition, while expanding its range, the CAC is about to unveil a major survey of work by Swoon, the preeminent female street artist working today.

Caledonia Dance Curry (known as Swoon), born in 1977, began working in street art in her early 20s in and around her Brooklyn neighborhood. A student at the Pratt School of Design, she was concerned about what she saw as the irrelevance of her future work within the real world. She had begun working in support of social causes, and was searching for a way to make a lasting impact through her art. She found her path through the literal act of pasting objects to walls, thereby creating something more permanent and publicly visible than a painting that might end up in someone’s private residence.

Swoon creates life-like characters – based on friends, relatives – to which she refers as “vessels of empathy.” She describes them as “human-scale and close to the ground, so you have a one-on-one experience.”

Swoon (Photo by Chia Messina)

Explaining the CAC’s symbiotic relationship with street art, curator Steven Matijcio said, “Street art gets beyond the academics and some of the intimidation of contemporary art. People have an immediate, emotional, almost visceral response to it, sort of working with the grit and texture of the city.”

“We don’t want to be that ‘elite’ institution,” Matijcio continued. “We’re nestled into the fabric of Cincinnati here (gesturing to the busy streetscape beyond the CAC lobby windows), and we want to represent that. Street artists are a really poignant way of doing so.”

Swoon has made her mark through the process of community engagement. “She goes into community and finds people who want to make change. She then works with them to find ways to infuse art into their efforts. She adds another element of energy to what they are doing,” said Matijcio.

“Swoon is Callie, but Swoon is a much larger entity – a platform for collaboration.”

As her career progressed, Swoon has moved from strictly on the street to these community-based projects and other museum shows, precursors to this major survey at the CAC.

This upcoming show will be the first retrospective of her 18 years as a street artist. “Callie is coming up on her 40th birthday and said she wants to take stock of what’s happened in the past.”

The unique architecture of the Zaha Hadid-designed CAC is both a challenge and an opportunity. “You’re going to see that Callie is very much turning the architecture into a platform for her installations,” said Matijcio.

This will involve creating what he called “an immersive experience. Visitors will enter into Swoon’s headspace manifested as an installation. Literally, you will walk along a timeline as you enter the fourth floor, and she’s going to cover every surface with tiles, wallpaper, wheat paste, paint. You’ll find sculpture, installations, a viewing theater…” This timeline culminates with new installations that Swoon will create specifically for the CAC.

“This is our blockbuster, our big show of the year,” Matijcio added. “We’re not just competing against other art forms, we’re competing against Netflix, so we have to offer something that’s experiential, that you have to be here to appreciate.”

A 2014 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, entitled “Submerged Motherlands,” was deemed “nothing short of astonishing,” by Adam Lehrer, writing in Forbes.
“If you are new to Swoon,” said Matijcio, “this will be the most grand, most fitting, most enthusiastic, most compelling introduction you could ever hope for.”

“Swoon” opening night party: Sept. 22, 8 p.m. Exhibit runs through Feb. 25. contemporaryartscenter.org

THE WOMXN: a new group

Kate Farinacci, assistant director of development at the CAC, manages a new collective known as The Womxn, comprised of upper-level female donors. Membership requires a three-year, $1,000-per-year commitment, but comes with additional benefits and exclusive events.

The CAC has a long history of strong female leadership. The three original founders were women. The current museum was the first female-designed museum in North America (as well as Zaha Hadid’s first completed building).

The current director, Raphaela Platow, has been here for a decade.

The purpose of The Womxn is to support future female exhibitions, performances and installations at the CAC. Twelve of this season’s 21 exhibitions are by female artists. “In our current political environment,” said Farinacci, “we want to highlight women artists with strong voices.”

The Patricia Kisker Foundation provided an initial grant to establish the collective.


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