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Review: Joel Swanson's Sticks & Stones Is Letter Perfect

Still from Joel Swanson’s “The End,” video projection.
Still from Joel Swanson’s “The End,” video projection.
Wes Magyar
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Joel Swanson is one of the region’s top conceptual artists. Not only is his work relentlessly intelligent, but it’s also relentlessly beautiful, as seen in Joel Swanson: Sticks & Stones at David B. Smith Gallery. Swanson’s longtime focus has been the meanings and physical properties of words, including familiar phrases and clichés.
For the paired “drawings” that make up “THOUGHTS” and “PRAYERS,” for example, sheets of paper have been covered with the words “thoughts” or “prayers” done with carbon-paper transfers; the resulting marks are barely there, reflecting the private nature of such things. Opposite these is an installation of sheets of paper based on the front pages of newspapers, each announcing the death of a famous person — bin Laden, Princess Diana, JFK. By elongating the text, Swanson makes the headlines nearly (but not quite) unreadable. “The End,” a video projection, also has a public aspect: Swanson has appropriated found images of the end titles of old movies,  which flash by at lightning speed.

"Headline Slit Scans Series," by Joel Swanson, found headlines, archival digital print.
"Headline Slit Scans Series," by Joel Swanson, found headlines, archival digital print.
Wes Magyar

Other pieces are more enigmatic. For the three-part “Marginalized Ways of Speaking,” Swanson created written expressions of lisping, mumbling and stuttering by covering sheets of paper with repeated lines of black vinyl label tape that spell out these ordinarily aural experiences. A few of the works seem to have personal content, which is unusual for an artist interested in conveying the universal. A pair of plastic swirls are 3D-printed renditions of the audio of his parents saying “sticks and stones,” providing the exhibit’s title piece. The striking photo-mural “Soda Lid” shows a familiar plastic drink lid from a convenience store; by zeroing in on the raised dimple labeled “other,” Swanson makes an existential statement.

"Soda Lid," by Joel Swanson, lightjet print.
"Soda Lid," by Joel Swanson, lightjet print.
Wes Magyar

Swanson has had a great run over the past ten years, with solos at some of the region’s most respected venues, but he really broke out with a solo in this year’s Venice Biennale. That show, along with one by Denver’s Laura Shill, is on display at the Palazzo Bembo; they’re both pop-up exhibits by Black Cube, Denver’s nomadic museum. The Venice connection makes Swanson’s display here all the more intriguing.

Sticks & Stones runs through September 16 at David B. Smith Gallery, 1543 A Wazee Street. Call 303-893-4234 or go to davidbsmithgallery.com for hours and information.

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