Learn Joel Swanson's Language at the Museum of Outdoor Arts

The wonderful solo Joel Swanson: Polysemic is approaching its final weeks at the Museum of Outdoor Arts. Despite the institution’s name, most of the works are actually indoors, but one, a billboard titled “Respectfully,” is sited outside. The billboard is a digital print on which the word “Respectfully” has been spelled out, followed by a comma. The word, of course, is a closing salutation for people writing letters, but Swanson has liberated it from that context and therefore highlighted its meaning.

And so it goes in the exhibit proper, where Swanson strips things to their basics, especially when they relate to language. The show begins with three striking installations merged into one. On the right, black pseudo-minimalist panels are hung slightly out from the white walls. On the left, similarly conceived panels, done in white, are mounted flush against blackish walls. In the middle, small, dark-colored objects have been lined up on a series of ready-made tables finished in a shiny white.

I call the wall panels “pseudo-minimalist” because despite the minimalist moves — geometric shapes done in monochromes — they are actually representational. The black panels represent cardboard boxes that have been deconstructed into flat shapes, complete with the complex cuts of the tabs needed to build the boxes. These are associated with language only because of the names of the products that were once inside of them.

More directly connected to language are the white panels, the shapes of which have been determined by deconstructed envelopes that once held correspondence. Those tiny plastic objects on the tables are digital prints of fully rotated symbols from Zapf Dingbats, a series of marks and elements created in the 1970s that Swanson sees as the ancestors of emoticons. There is one signifying a cross, another the Star of David, a checkmark, a club, and so on. By spinning these and transforming them into tiny sculptures, Swanson has developed an entirely new vocabulary of symbols.

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There’s a lot more to see in this exhibit, but I’ll just note a few pieces, like the neon circle “I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I”; the title is spelled out with only one “I,” so it starts and ends on the same word. (The MOA is acquiring this piece.) There is also a set of works based on palindromes, which are words spelled the same forward and backward; these include the “untitled” wallpaper covered with “no/on,” and “Radar,” a hanging piece in acrylic sheets and cables with the “d” suspended at the center.

Swanson is concerned with meaning, but he also values beauty, and for me, that’s what makes him one of the area’s premier conceptualists. Polysemic runs through February 27 at the Museum of Outdoor Arts, 1000 Englewood Parkway in Englewood. Call 303-806-0444 or go to moaonline.org for more information.

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