Sweeney...Why We Miss Him

The construction of Denver International Airport has meant many things to many people. For most of us, DIA has meant an extra hour or two of travel just to get to and from the remote facility. To many who were more intimately involved, especially in the airport's financing and its doomed baggage system, it's likely to mean the taking of depositions. To artist Gary Sweeney, currently the subject of the small yet significant exhibit Harbor Division Series at Zip 37, it has meant much, much more.

Sweeney received one of the highly sought public-art commissions at the new airport, projects made possible by more than $7 million set aside through the city's "One Percent for Art" program. And though a great opportunity for Sweeney, it was fraught with risk because it represented an acid test of his skill as an artist. As it turned out, nearly everyone else connected with public art at the airport not only flunked that test but was tainted by it--none more so than the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, which will likely never live down the many failures of its airport-art subcommittee.

But unlike so many who wound up doing lackluster work at the airport, Sweeney used his commission not as a way to make some easy dough but as a springboard to create the greatest accomplishment of his career: "America...Why I Love Her," his by-now-familiar pair of double-panel bas-relief murals just off the main terminal. Each of the two facing panels of "America...Why I Love Her" pairs a routed and dyed wooden map of the United States with a blowup of a vacation snapshot from Sweeney's childhood. The two maps are dotted with cheaply framed black-and-white photographs of America's weird true-life landmarks and offbeat roadside attractions such as the world's largest rocking chair. And they're dynamic, with Sweeney periodically adding photos from the time the piece was completed.

In both the vastness of its artistic vision and the meticulousness of its craftsmanship, "America...Why I Love Her" is the apotheosis of concepts Sweeney launched in 1990, when he unveiled at the Pirate co-op his first foray into humor, the Vacation '64 series. When DIA opened in March 1995, Sweeney's murals were heaped with accolades. "America...Why I Love Her" was the rare combination of a critical and a popular hit. Photos of the work and profiles of Sweeney appeared throughout the local press, and the piece even showed up on television. Though no stranger to publicity--for the previous ten years, Sweeney had been an alternative-scene art star--the amount of attention "America" received was unprecedented for him.

But by one of those ironic twists of fate, Sweeney wasn't in town to enjoy the praise or to take advantage of his increasing local fame. The artist is a baggage handler for Continental Airlines, which, thanks to the less-than-benign actions of the City of Denver, was forced to close its hub and relocate all but a few of its Colorado employees. So at precisely the same time that Sweeney was at the apex of his popularity in Denver, he was busy settling into a new phase of his biography--he's now an artist from San Antonio, Texas. Though it's working out well for Sweeney, it's our loss.

Back in town temporarily with the Harbor Division Series show, Sweeney has made a big statement in the tiny front gallery at Zip 37, which is no small feat. The gallery is not only somewhat cramped, but the floor plan is an awkward one for art display--one entire wall is given over to windows and the opposite wall is pierced by a slightly off-center door. Sweeney, however, makes the gallery sing--and he does so using only two large works supplemented by five smaller ones.

As he has done since the Vacation '64 series, Sweeney employs impersonal, mechanical methods not ordinarily associated with the fine arts to illustrate highly personal topics. In the Harbor Division Series, the subject is his father, Mike Sweeney.

Mike Sweeney worked in the San Pedro Harbor division of the Los Angeles Police Department, serving the force as both a detective and a police photographer from 1943 until his retirement in 1965. Gary has taken his father's negatives from this period as the jumping-off point for the Harbor Division Series. But don't be misled: these are not the gruesome crime-scene photos viewers might expect from the files of a police photographer. Instead, son Gary has chosen a couple of context shots of the harbor itself, along with a group of posed ceremonial photographs taken during office parties at the San Pedro station house.

The photos of the police-station festivities are the basis for the five small works included in the show. These pieces, collectively titled the "Having Cake With the Harbor Division Series," are directly related to the "America...Why I Love Her" murals. In each of the five works, Sweeney has taken one of the photos, framed it in a cheap black molding, mounted it on a rectangle of plywood paneling, paired it with a novelty dinner plate, and assembled the various elements in a glass-and-wood shadow box trimmed out in black paint. The five are part of a larger group Sweeney intends to display as an installation--unfortunately for us, it will most likely be in Texas.

Sweeney's use of plywood paneling as a field comes from the paneled station-house walls pictured in the backgrounds of the photos. The souvenir plates also incorporate his father's photos. They were custom-produced for the artist by a chinamaker in Tennessee, but because the company would deal only with institutional buyers, Sweeney could not purchase the plates until he'd established the Harbor Division Historical Society. He now regularly receives mail for the fictional society at his home.

The five "Having Cake With the Harbor Division Series" pieces take their individual titles from the frosted inscriptions on the cakes that are the centerpieces of the photos. One, for example, is entitled "Good Luck Bob, Al and Dallas," another "Congratulations Mr. Harrion." The people standing around the cakes project a gritty, film-noir quality; they have the look, the haircuts and the sharkskin suits we associate with the seedy waterfront of mid-century Los Angeles. And that was exactly what Sweeney intended.

The two large works that essentially command the gallery, "The High Window" and "Special Guest Appearance," also stem from Mike Sweeney's police photos. But they're quite different as art objects: Each is a gigantic computerized ink-jet reproduction made by a billboard company in Ohio.

In "The High Window," Sweeney used a negative of one of his father's shots of a huge freighter in dock. Because it's a negative, the sky and water are black, the hull of the ship white. On the hull, Sweeney has appended blocks of white type on black bars. The text is an excerpt from Raymond Chandler's novel The High Window. More than any other writer, Chandler is associated with noir, and he set his crime dramas most often in Los Angeles--as likely as not in San Pedro itself.

Like the photos in the "Having Cake With the Harbor Division Series," the photo that serves as the basis for the other large piece, "Special Guest Appearance," is a posed ceremonial scene. The score or so of detectives connected with the Harbor Division stand formally on the deck of a good-sized police boat that is floating in mid-harbor. Sweeney has hand-tinted the photo, heightening its retro feel. Text across the bottom identifies the group as policemen. The guest appearance of the title refers to the floating "chalk" outline of a corpse Sweeney has placed in the water off the boat's stern. This is the show's only overt reference to crime--a conservative approach that makes sense, since Mike Sweeney obviously kept the seamy side of his job far away from son Gary, who was safely growing up in the L.A. suburbs at the time.

Because Sweeney moved away from Denver and is thus no longer the regular art-circuit fixture he used to be, the current Zip 37 exhibit shouldn't be missed. It's an opportunity for local viewers to see what everyone's favorite baggage handler has been carrying around since the completion of "America...Why I Love Her."

Gary Sweeney: Harbor Division Series, through May 26 at Zip 37, 3644 Navajo Street, 477-4525.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia