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Hank Swanson, Artist
An Interview with Henry Swanson by Jim Dolan
Henry Swanson Big Shirt author’s collection oil on canvas 30 x 52 inches
My first viewing of young artist Henry (Hank) Swanson’s work came last March when we were invited by his parents, along with many others, to an in-home gallery show and sale.
I’ll be honest, as I almost always am, that even though I knew Henry was attending Rhode Island School of Design (you have to have serious chops to get in), and was about to enter his senior year there, I did not have much hope for what I was about to see. What I expected was ‘art projects.’ Art projects are assignments faithfully carried out by eager young creatives seeking the approval of their academic overlords. I don’t use this term derisively, because everyone has to start somewhere, but objectively to describe the work of those still in search of their own language and imagery.
Henry took me completely by surprise. I found anything but art projects. What we saw were confident, highly accomplished, personal images radiating fun, youthful energy, and the joy of making images. But there was also spirit and depth, a mysterious quality which, even as I type, I am challenged to describe. I guess the word I look for to describe this quality would be pneuma. That is the Greek for ‘life, spirit, breath’, that chimerical something inhabiting a piece, causing it to live and set itself apart. Like obscenity, I know it when I see it, but I struggle to define it.
One image that really caught my eye, and wouldn’t let it go, and stayed in my mind’s eye after I went home was the one I call Big Shirt. Big Shirt is the enigmatic image of a slightly rumpled white men’s dress shirt on a wire hanger, suspended in a black field. But, the shirt is imbued with the life of whoever was wearing it, and the black field is not black, but rather ‘darkness's; the darkness of soul, the underworld, the unconscious, the dream. It is a dream of a shirt, a deeply meaningful shirt that plays a part in a story waiting to be told, or which has been told and partly forgotten. In fact, it is not a shirt at all, but rather, the cover image of a novel waiting to be written, and from which you could intuit everything you would want to know about why you’ll want to read, or write, this novel.
For all I know, Henry may have been doing nothing more than trying to faithfully capture the shirt, its textures and irregularities, but in doing so, the aura that hangs about much of his work is fully present. It suggests a mystery, and lets it hang.
Henry Swanson Lucian Freud 2013 oil on paper 15 x 18 inches
Speaking of auras, Henry has a seizure disorder. In the prodromal (immediately preceding) state, a person with a seizure disorder will see auras and occasionally experience a heightened state of perception. Naturally, when I asked him if he felt that the disorder played any part in his work, he said he didn’t really know or care. For my part, I’ll only mention it, and let it go at that, but will also say, with an artist of Henry’s burgeoning skill, every part of who he is, conscious and unconscious, will appear in the work.
Twenty-two year old Henry is as warm and engaging in person as he is on canvas. He stands about six feet or so, and has a cyclist’s athletic build. A thin crop of sandy hair covers his head, but he is most often wearing a beat-up ball cap, thrown to the back of his head like a center fielder coming off the field at the end of an inning. He has a fetching smile, and seems to have already grasped that in the art world of today, part of the artist’s job is to be accessible to viewers. He can speak at length about his work, and the art world at large.
Students who attend RISD are immersed not only in their studio work, but also in a rigorous liberal arts education. They are exposed to a wide variety of writing in literature, philosophy, art history and are tasked with not only creating, but also the ability to think and communicate about what they are creating.
Henry’s dad, David, is a partner in Big Law; his mom, Donna has been a legal secretary and an administrator, but is now Henry’s business manager. Both Hank and his younger sis, Haley graduated from Bishop Lynch High School.
They are athletic. Donna is an oarswoman, and is recent past president of Dallas United Crew. David is a cyclist who competed vigorously in the local racing scene until an inner ear balance disorder sidelined him to his trainer a while back. Hank too has raced on a bicycle and continues to do so.
The reason I mention this is that all of this physical energy is visible in Henry’s canvases. They pop with life.
It’s Alright, (I Have Black Friends) 2015 oil on canvas 91 x 61 inches
The above piece, done in early 2015 jumps with youth, energy, joy. Its composition shows confidence in the subject matter of young people enjoying life, friendship, good times. But it doesn’t stop with that. There is a not so subtle commentary on race relations in the title which plays with the ‘I’m no racist, I have black friends’ remark of the ‘non-racist’. But then, the group is sanctified under what appears to be a triple arch seen in Greek Orthodox and Coptic church architecture. In that sense, the image is iconic, or, more accurately, ‘ikonic.’
Each figure is clearly individualized, their friendship and ease with one another obvious. The artist is displaying a great deal of confidence in showing their relationships to one another, and their individual personalities. The genius of this image is not only the way the quartet is subtly sanctified in the gold rimmed arch, but also the way the artist’s impressionistic technique captures each person’s individuality. This image was recently featured in the New Texas Talent Exhibit at Craighead-Green Gallery in August 2015.
Henry Swanson Cereal Monogamist 2014 oil on canvas 78 x 60 inches
Cereal Monogamist is, to this writer, the essence of Swanson’s imagery. It is an image of one of his college roommates, straight on, and in profile. In many ways, it strikes me as Pop Art, a perfectly rendered image of the utterly commonplace, raised to the level of art by its execution and removal from everyday context. The artist has perfectly, but impressionistically captured this most casual of moments — the disheveled roommate in his boxers wondering into the room eating his breakfast — and made it timeless.
There is humor, affection for the subject, acute observation of personality. The guy is obviously not a fitness buff, but he is a good friend. He is comic, sly, aware he is a subject, but nonchalant. You can almost smell his body odor and know that he already has, or shortly will, toke a bong.
Hank at Work in Dallas by Donna Swanson.
Except this and self-portrait below, all photographs by J R Compton,
although I put a little pop into this one from 2010.
In my earliest conversations with Swanson, I learned that he was that kid in grade school ‘who could draw.' As early as 3rd and 4th grade, he was inspired by Chuck Jones, the Merry Melodies cartoonist. He listed Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes, as well. Cereal Monogamist ably demonstrates the cartoonist’s inherent sense of humor, and the subtle way that a few strokes can capture personality, mood and character.
Like his spiritual/artistic forefather, Jackson Pollack, Henry draws inspiration from the Golden Age of Jazz. He cites Ornette Coleman, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Miles Davis — all artists of the 50s and 60s and 70s, that period of jazz ascendancy that was a beacon to all artists of the era. He shares the willingness those artists had to go to that place where the process itself takes over, and the horn player, or the one holding the brush, is simply a passageway through which the art itself passes.
I look forward to the growth and deepening of this 22-year-old artist’s work, and its seasoning as he begins to grapple with ‘how to go forward’ when he graduates in June of this year.
A more recent Hank Swanson Self-Portrait
Other DallasArtsRevue stories by Jim Dolan
Professional Coach to Legal and Medical Professionals and
Jim Dolan's DallasArtsRevue Member page.
Jim's personal website.
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