Plains Art Museum

Fargo, ND



Signs and Wonders: Urban Landscapes of Carolyn Swiszcz

July 19 ­ September 26, 2001


"Signs and Wonders: Urban Landscapes by Carolyn Swiszcz" will be in the Fred Donath, Jr. Memorial Gallery of the Plains Art Museum from July 19 through September 16, 2001. The first solo museum exhibition of Minneapolis-based Swiszcz helps launch a new look in the Museum. She presents the everyday in an oddly distanced vocabulary through a compilation of print, painting and drawing techniques which are as complex and rich as the media she explores. The exhibition title refers to the multifaceted symbolic meanings contained in elements of the everyday world. (left: Carolyn Swiszcz, "Big Top Bingo", 2001, 40 x 48 inches, acrylic, pencil, copyright Carolyn Swiszcz)

A 1994 B.F.A. graduate from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Swiszcz was an early recipient of the Jerome Fellowship and recently held the prestigious Fellowship in the Visual Arts, a residency program of the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts administered by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This fellowship afforded Swiszcz the privilege of a studio space in Miami for four months of each of the three years of the grant.

As a result of this time in Miami, the artist was able to concentrate on creating her characteristic urbanscapes. Comparable to the mid-nineteenth century American landscape artists who relished the minute details of the natural world around them, Swiszcz fashions scenes of the details of the world around her. She begins the process of creating her works by taking extended walking trips around her urban environment, echoing another nineteenth century concept: the flaneur.

In this exhibition, the artist will be combining scenes of Minneapolis and Miami with a new body of work based on her time spent in Fargo. In sum, she captures the essence of those parts of the town not featured on visitor bureau marketing brochures. She explores, instead, those elements of each city that give it its character. But it's a character only reserved for the local residents who pass these elements on a daily basis yet, ironically, are most often unaware of this very character.

According to Executive Director of the Museum, Todd D. Smith, who curated this exhibition, "Carolyn's work explores the nuances of the urban space, but often it is the space that has been neglected or looked over in favor of the shiny and the new." As the Museum launches its new look in July, Carolyn's work forms a nice complement to the work of Janet Biggs. Both artists, Smith continued, "ask viewers to contemplate their role in the understanding of their physical presence in the world around them and put an increasing onus on the viewer to interact with their environment through non-traditional means." (left: Carolyn Swiszcz, "Used-a-bit Sales", 2001, 15 x 19 inches, lithograph, mixed media, copyright Carolyn Swiszcz)


Essay for Exhibition Brochure, by Todd D. Smith, Executive Director, Plains Art Museum:

"This is the not the time and ours is not the environment for heroic communication through pure architecture." Learning from Las Vegas

"The iconography and mixed media of roadside commercial architecture will point the way, if we will look." Learning from Las Vegas

In her new body of work, Carolyn Swiszcz has undertaken an unenviable task. She has set her sites on creating interesting and engaging works based on the cityscape of Fargo. I say unenviable because almost to the day that Swiszcz began work on her images of Fargo, the Fuji Film Corporation completed a survey and found Fargo to be the least photogenic metropolitan area in America. Swiszcz was less than deterred. In fact, her art more than that of other artists seemed preternaturally suited to the look this survey directly in the eye. In her staring down of the survey, she does not, however, attempt to prove the survey wrong; rather, she is interested in finding out why.

Swiszcz creates scenes out of those places that time has forgotten; however, these chosen places are not imbued with a classic well-worn aesthetic, picturesqueness nor quaintness, Additionally, they are not so well-worn that they have lost their usefulness. These places stand as liminal in that they operate in the collective consciousness somewhere between the distant (i.e. idealized) past and the present. A slippery place to be, for sure.

Swiszcz's exhibition at the Plains Art Museum eerily coincides with an exhibition of work by architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This husband and wife pair revolutionized architectural theory debates in the 1970s and 1980s with their pivotal book Learning from Las Vegas. Part of the outcome of their critical musings was an understanding of the relationship between signs and buildings and those buildings which serve as their own signs. Take for instance, the hot dog stand that is shaped like a hot dog, thereby rendering the passerby unmistakably convinced of the building's purpose.

The occasion of the reassessment of Venturi and Brown has spurred me to consider what connections there are between Swiszcz's project and that of the architects. Venturi and Brown came under harsh criticism for their style of architecture. Philip Johnson and Gordon Bunshaft called it "ugly and ordinary." The architects took this designation as a badge (not necessarily of honor, but then again not necessarily not) and set out to examine why the ugly and the ordinary was so appealing to them but also so pervasive within the American urban landscape.

For the architects, the decorated shed (the regular building with a large sign announcing its function) represents the ordinary, and the sculptural duck (the building shaped like its purpose, e.g. the hot dog stand) the heroic and original. For Swiszcz then, her aesthetic choice veers toward and eventually embraces the decorated shed. Consider her Big Top Bingo (2001) which features a modern Fargo landmark. Its landmark status however is not of the usual kind, but instead it proves the points made by Venturi and Brown, that ordinary architecture is more germane to the everyday experience than the heroic and original. The large civic buildings that announce "We are a monument" are anachronistic in our culture defined by vehicles and strip malls. The ordinariness of the Big Top Bingo building and its sign reveals that the building doesn't matter; it is the sign which bears all the meaning in this context.

Venturi and Brown first published their book in 1972 and it is that era, the era that includes the year of Carolyn Swiszcz's birth, that so fascinates the artist. It is also the period in American popular culture that has escaped, until only very recently, any sort of design revival. Its aesthetics are the most overlooked in contemporary culture. Yet Swiszcz revels in the commonplace quality that characterize that moment in American culture.

The bleakness that for many characterized that period is captured in the compositions and the hues of Swiszcz's work. This bleakness is further emphasized by the activities within the buildings themselves. In Used-a-Bit Sales (2001), the decorated shed requires two signs to announce its purpose, but it is the content of the signs that conveys the hopelessness and futility of a consumer culture enraptured by the new and the expensive. This work more than any other in her oeuvre depresses, and its power of depression derives from its truthfulness. There are very few who have not passed such a building and wondered whether or not they would one day become a shopper at the Used a Bit store and become part of all that such shopping connotes.

Her choice of location embraces the vernacular in all of its architectural uncertainty and lack of direction. Consider for a moment her Dixie South Dairy Queen (2001) from her Miami series and Diamond Dairy Queen (2001). Save the palm trees, the locations offer a lack specificity and in each case need two signs to announce their purpose. If the vernacular is difficult to understand in Swiszcz's world, then so too is the attempts at high modern design. As seen in Fargo Housing Authority, when Swiszcz does represent a building with hopes of classic modern design, the building is always a shallow "building" with modern elements and not a work of "modern architecture." The flatness of the composition only mirrors the façade-like surface of the building itself.

Swiszcz's works of Fargo do more, however, than take the Fuji Company's survey and turn it on its ear by lauding the ugly and the ordinary. These images demonstrate the decorative flatness of the urban scene and proffer the buildings themselves as facades and even signposts. The barrenness of these almost always deserted scenes finds strong parallel in the prosaic nature of the activities inside the buildings. While the images often appear colorful and even humorous, there is a strong element of pathos that cuts this humor very suddenly. Permeating these urban scenes and the other series of works featured in the exhibition, especially the series on forgotten childhood moments, is nostalgia. But once again this is a nostalgia born not of fond memories necessarily but just of memories period.


About Carolyn Swiszcz:

b. 1972, New Bedford, Massachusetts

Education: B.F.A., Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minneapolis, MN, 1994. Printmaking Concentration

Solo Exhibitions: Street Level, Ambrosino Gallery, Miami, March 2001; Dime Tours, NFA Space, Chicago, September 2000

Selected Group Exhibitions: Selections Winter 2001, The Drawing Center, New York, January 2000; National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts Fellowship Exhibition, Corcoran Museum Of Art, Washington, DC, June 2000; Quality Control, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN, April 2000; UltraNormal, Radiator Projects, Minneapolis, MN, September 1999; 5 Jerome Artists, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, MN, September 1998

Awards and Fellowships: Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Assistance Fellowship, 1998; Jerome Foundation Fellowship, 1997-1998; National Foundation For Advancement in the Arts, Fellowship for Advancement in the Arts, Miami, 1997-2000

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