A Space of Pure Imagination: Swoon’s CICADA at Jeffrey Deitch

Published January 3, 2020 on Degree Critical.

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Swoon, Cicada, 2017-2019, animation still, approx. 17 minutes. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deitch Gallery. Photo by Genevieve Hanson.

Projected onto the gallery wall at Jeffrey Deitch, a stop-motion animated face opens up to become another face, which opens in turn to become blossoms and feathers that sprout spider legs, tentacles, and eyes. A cardboard dollhouse cracks open in the middle, revealing a nude, pregnant woman also of cardboard. Her legs are spread and vulva dilated and, surrounded by flowers, bushes, and other flora, she clutches her rounded belly. Another woman, flesh and blood this time, rocks her baby in her arms. Her face and body are painted, and her hair is adorned with flowers, both living and drawn. She sits in a room where hundreds of pieces of colored, patterned fabrics hang from the walls. The atmosphere’s teals, azures, and turquoises connote the undersea, with textures, wings and eyes hiding in the depths. In another scene from the film, flowing fabrics painted black and white float in the water with other cutouts of female figures.

The current exhibition at Deitch, a solo show of work by Caledonia Curry, who goes by the moniker Swoon, borrows its whole spirit and name from this video, her new mesmerizing and dreamlike stop-motion animation Cicada (approx. 17 minutes, 2017–2019). The film’s sound, created by Brian Bo, is ethereal and entrancing, also reminiscent of an ocean’s depths, murmurs of the wind, and songs of whales. Images drift and float, then transform into other images; drawings morph into actual human beings; objects open up, mutate, and grow arms and legs. They are born from one another. Cicada draws its central theme from the very same thing: birth and rebirth. 

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Swoon, Birth, 2018, ink drawing on mylar, 85 x 105 inches. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deitch Gallery. Photo by Genevieve Hanson.

Swoon first made her name in the late 1990s with her now-renowned, distinctive style of wheat paste portraits which she surreptitiously stuck up on buildings, walls, and other public surfaces around New York. Her unusual style of street art was exceptional, with layers of scrupulously drawn and cut paper pasted on the walls to create faces, figures, cities, and elements of nature. Spotting a Swoon work in Brooklyn or the Bowery quickly became a special experience. Since 2005, she’s continued producing her public space work all around the world while expanding her oeuvre to include immersive projects and large-scale installations. Her artistic practice has been one that confronts viewers on city walls, in otherworldly realms created both within museums, such as Submerged Motherlands (2014), and without, such as on handmade rafts floating down the Hudson River, like she did in Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea (2008). Now, Cicada further evolves this artistic practice, as Swoon moves into the realm of working with film and animation. It takes its inspiration from a more intimate, personal history than her previous work, and centers around concepts of rebirth, fertility, and transformation. 

With these new works, Swoon opens up a whole new dimension and meaning to her well-known portraits and approach to color, pattern, and use of space. She makes elements of her own story a part of her art, giving the viewer a more direct glimpse into her psyche. Swoon taught herself how to make stop-motion animation; and after decades of art that involved everyday encounters with the public, she found the process of making Cicada a very necessary “space of pure imagination.” Womanhood, family, and procreation all become part of her purely imaginative forms of the human body, unfolding creatures, and insects that grow spider legs, wings, feathers, and blossoms. 

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Swoon, Sophia and Serpent, 2019, fabric, wire, paper and paint, approx. 96 x 96 inches. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deitch Gallery. Photo by Genevieve Hanson.

The exhibition’s installations, large-scale drawings and incredibly detailed, masterful and kaleidoscopic paper sculptures all derive from the film itself, turning the gallery into a place where characters from a story magically come alive. The space is filled with eight large drawings from Cicada, including the pregnant woman in Birth (2018)
, a man with a mermaid tail in Mer (2018), and 3D prismatic paper works and painted objects. The video transcends its dark screening room, and seeps into the gallery space by way of hundreds of pieces of cut fabric, in different tones of blue, gray, and yellow, which cover the room’s entryway and walls. The life-size sculpture of a woman, which is one of the artworks from the animation, blooms from a corner spot as an installation titled Sophia and Serpent (2019). She somehow seems both two- and three-dimensional at the same time: her body is made up of different materials like cardboard and painted papers and fabric, tapes, and yarn. She holds in her wide arms her opened ribcage, showing inside her skin and bones, her viscera adorned with colorful patterns, lines, flowers, and serpents. She looks part-spider, and is mentioned in the gallery’s website as the “Tarantula Mother,” a central figure in Cicada that manifests memories and traumas of childhood. In Swoon’s case it’s a reference to her family history of addiction. The Tarantula Mother seems mythical and unreal, yet it’s one of the most “real” parts of the film, which grounds Cicada in its creator’s past. She is accompanied by another snakelike creature, or maybe she is giving birth to it. The wormlike being is made with patches of fabric sewn like a patchwork, gray and blue fabric, strings, and yarn. On the show’s opening night, live performers who also appear in the film—adorned and painted over by the artist herself, like living and breathing works of art—walked among the first-time viewers.

The emotional, absorbing quality of Swoon’s new work meets her skilled, delicate visual nature in Cicada, gathered around familiar, stimulating themes born out of subconscious meditation and unrestricted imagination. One enters through the gallery door like Alice through the looking glass, stepping out of one life to be embraced by another’s, enfolded in water, nature, and the ever-flourishing Mother Earth.

Swoon: CICADA is on view at Jeffrey Deitch, 76 Grand Street, New York, through February 1, 2020.