The in-between

In his newest exhibition, ‘Sticks and Stones,’ Joel Swanson deconstructs the power of language

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A series of smeared newspaper headlines of celebrity deaths in Joel Swanson’s Sticks and Stones exhibit.
Joel Swanson

Here’s how it was supposed to go: In one of the tall, street-facing windows of the David B. Smith Gallery, a 6-foot-tall neon sign would greet passersby. Letters stacked vertically on top of one another would spell the word “nobody” in electrified gas, with the “no” blinking on and off.

Nobody. Body. No body. Body.

It’s as though the head of this neon creature relieves itself of its body every few seconds.

Or it will be like that once it’s installed.

Unfortunately, the best-laid plans of mice and men and all that; a problem at the neon sign shop kept the work from displaying at the opening night of Joel Swanson’s newest installation, Sticks and Stones. The collection explores the multifaceted power of language, from its role in political speech to its function in social conditioning.

Words are everything to Swanson. And while some will shudder at the memory, Swanson’s passion for linguistics started with diagramming sentences at private school in Michigan.

“For whatever reason they thought grammar was the most important thing ever,” Swanson says as we sit in the David B. Smith Gallery on Wazee Street in downtown Denver about a week before the opening of his newest collection. “So we would diagram sentences, we would repeat vocab words, when I got detention it would be, ‘Copy out vocabulary.’ So it was kind of ingrained within me this deep inclination toward language; I love it but I hate it, it was used to punish me, but… penmanship, cursive, all of these things that sort of relate to how we interface with language got started for me at that very young age.”

Sticks and Stones, which opened on Friday, Aug. 18, makes tangible the intangible, transforming words into physical manifestations, and in the process often dismantles the contemporary power structures words create.

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Joel Swanson

Swanson is a teacher in the ATLAS Institute at CU Boulder, leading classes in typography and computer programming and media theory, “these ancillary topics that definitely relate to my work,” Swanson says. “But I’m not teaching art because I’m still figuring out what art is and I think that would be hard for me to kind of package that in some way.”

It took Swanson a few swings and misses during his undergrad years to find his niche in the art world: he tried film and photography first, finally discovering digital arts in his senior year. C’est la undergrad vie.

While his arrival was late, the portfolio he put together landed him a place in the University of California at San Diego’s graduate digital arts program, where he met Barbara Kruger, known internationally for her distinctive image and text pieces. Kruger would eventually sit on Swanson’s thesis committee.

“We would have these wonderful conversations about pronouns and the different kind of tones that pronouns have,” he says. “They’re so… think about the way we learn language — it’s so binary, it’s so reductive.”

Swanson recently got the chance to explore these limitations with fellow CU Boulder teacher and artist Laura Shill in an auxiliary exhibition at the 57th Venice Biennale in Italy. Cortney Lane Stell of Black Cube, a nomadic contemporary art museum based in Denver, curated the installation called Personal Structures.

Joel Swanson’s piece in the Venice Bienniale.

Swanson’s contribution is a neon-light sculpture of the word “she,” the “s” flipped backwards and blinking on and off.

She. He. She. He.

“So it’s taking what is presented to us as this monolithic binary and saying there’s space in here, there’s complexity,” Swanson says.

He carries this concept into Sticks and Stones, where the viewer is subtly asked to consider how language shapes our perception of the world. In our day-to-day lives we’re most often offered dichotomies with which to deal: male and female, good and evil, day and night. Swanson’s work is more concerned with the space between, with the meaning, the possibilities, the creativity that is lost when we reduce things to either/or.

(Incidentally, the forward slash appears as a digital work named “Ambivalent Typographic Mark” in Sticks and Stones. The mark can signify connecting and conflicting relationships, or it can indicate the word “or.” It can sometimes be used, whether grammatically appropriately or not, to indicate the word “both.”)

Sometimes exploring that space in-between can lead to “breaking” language in his work.

“I think in a lot of my work, and the work that I appreciate in other people, when they can make me look at a word and break it from its representational power, that’s a really special and terrifying moment,” he says. “When my work is successful it does that. It starts to almost formalize language outside of meaning.”

Or it offers new meaning, which brings us back to the neon sign that never made it to the gallery’s front window for the opening reception of the exhibition. (As of Wednesday, Aug. 23, Swanson says he hopes to have the piece installed “later this week.”)

While the show addresses language as a political act, Swanson wanted to avoid “preaching to the choir” through blunt messages, no “huge, didactic billboards,” no overt proclamations of disdain.

Joel Swanson

Still, Swanson says he’s felt “deflated by the current political climate, the social climate, the injustices of the world of late,” and he didn’t want to ignore those feelings in himself or in the general population. The “nobody” sign was loosely inspired by a speech Trump made on the campaign trail in which he proclaimed, “Nobody respects women more than I do.”

“He kept building himself up this way: ‘Nobody understands ISIS the way I do.’ I found it interesting because ‘nobody,’ to me, can represent a denial of the body, and yet this is how he chose to build himself up.”

Many works in Sticks and Stones were created with older technology to survey the way new technology affects concepts in language. A series of a dozen 12-foot-tall prints use smeared newspaper headlines to not only explore cultural obsession, but also to mimic the “scrolling down” pattern of reading that social media has created. Two works use carbon copy paper to comment on the way “thoughts” and “prayers” are shared ad nauseam on social media after a tragedy. Strips from a DYMO LabelWriter physically manifest marginalized ways of speaking, namely stuttering, mumbling and lisping. A macro photo of a plastic drink lid questions the concepts of otherness and disposability.

In the center of the gallery’s main room sit two neon sculptures of quotation marks, separated by some 10 feet of space.

During the opening reception I tell Swanson that I like the space in-between.

“That’s the most important part,” he says.

On the Bill: Joel Swanson — Sticks and Stones. David B. Smith Gallery, 1543 Wazee St., Denver. Through Sept. 16.