Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town
01.07 – 31.10.2018
Seen from the entrance, the works in Ruby Swinney’s ‘Human Nature’, her first museum solo, appear to have been painted onto the very walls they are hung on. For Swinney’s medium is largely translucent – oil paint on tracing paper – the paintings fragile in their materiality, insubstantial in that vast space. They hang apart from one another, each a small window in a great expanse of strip-light white. There are few hard edges in her work; rather the paintings meet the end of their substrate with something like hesitation. Save a single painting in the exhibition’s final room, all her works are unframed, and held in place by white thumbtacks, which, once seen, are not easily overlooked. But from afar they go unnoticed, and only faint shadows beneath each painting betray the error of a first glance.
The exhibition’s five rooms are arranged around loose themes – Human Nature, The Province, The Cityscape, Water, Nature, The Garden – and each features an accompanying poem or quote stenciled on a wall in lieu of explanatory text. The works included in the exhibition were made between 2015 and 2018, and though they are left undated and are not arranged chronologically, the artist’s progress can by marked by her changing treatment of paint, from pale washes to bolder brushwork, and the increasing intricacy of her images.
Swinney’s paintings are largely monochromatic, painted in a single tone. Her colours are never pure but often subdued in her early works, and saturated in the later – emerald green, deep blue, wine red. Within their values, Swinney follows the laws of light and the impulse of darkness, both in contrast and in metaphor; the lightness of childhood afternoons paired with the darkness of a strange dream.
She does not draw with paint, but paints with color, later lifting each scene from a coloured plane. Which is to say, she draws with light. A quote from Rudolph Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, who has greatly influenced Swinney’s practice, comes to mind. “When we paint the spiritual content of the world,” he wrote, “we are not dealing with figures illuminated by a source of light, but with figures shining with their own.” I think of Swinney’s candle-like figures with their long, tapered heads, brilliant white like flames, reaching from their bodies into the air. They recur throughout her work; appearing in The Three Brothers, The Abduction, The Furies Dance, and others, as incandescent points of light.
A series of titles recur throughout the exhibition as thematic fugues; among them Fall, Echo and Trace. They belong to her earliest works; works from her 2015 graduate show at the Michaelis School of Fine Art– the entire exhibition purchased (even snapped up) by Zeitz shortly after it opened. They are uniformly small in scale and faint in tone, the after-images of scenes remembered. Collected under these titles are paintings of found images and family photographs. Old-fashioned airplanes, a diver in a deep green sea, a séance in a candlelit room, and a host of other figures, their faces obscured or overexposed, blank and expressionless. All these things, taken together, reveal something of the artist’s “keen vision and feeling for all ordinary life”– a line borrowed from George Eliot, written on a nearby wall.
Her more recent works, like Prosaic Ritual of Youth and Mystery of Faith, gather together curious figures and apparitions, with visions of the city and of nature, in detailed tableaus. They are reminiscent of altarpieces, with their multiple panels and strong verticality. Populated by animal and human figures, these paintings bring to mind Hieronymus Bosch’s surreal scenes, as they do Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the 1973 film The Wicker Man. Among seven such works, Red Garden is Swinney’s most ambitious, a ten-paneled painting on silk, hung in the final room of the exhibition Where some painted details cross the hairline gaps that separate the panels from one another, others do not – each individual panel at once a part of the larger diorama and a self-contained scene. Pathways lead off in different directions, and figures traverse three landscapes across two horizons. Water becomes sky becomes a train of fabric, and long-legged children play on a field that is also a lake. A figure at the painting’s apex tends to plants, his back turned towards the viewer as he bends to pull at weeds. He is the closest image of a god the artist offers, standing above yet apart from the scenes below him. But then only his faint halo suggests divinity, for he otherwise appears as a gardener absorbed in his toil, insensible to the figures within and beyond the painting.
Swinney’s work, I believe, is too easily dismissed; too easily passed off as whimsical, a word which has become less description than demerit. A line from Laura Riding Jackson’s The Tiger, a poem included in the exhibition, echoes familiar criticisms. “So white,” it reads, “so out of time, so story-like.” And perhaps it is all these things, but is also something else besides. For it seems imagination as form has lost favor in contemporary art, now overshadowed by the conceptual, the narrative, and the documentary. Indeed, Swinney’s paintings are an anomaly in a museum known for its blockbuster art, with its high-gloss finishes and large-scale everything.
But then, perhaps I am only intrigued by Swinney’s work because like her I was raised in the Steiner tradition. I too was brought up with the sympathetic magic of homeopathy, with maypole dances and harvest festivals, and with a spirit world that was unseen yet never out of reach. But I like to think her work is intriguing regardless, that it addresses an absence others also feel.
In the first room of the exhibition, a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley stands as conceptual keystone to the artist’s paintings:
It was the secret of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.
Imagination, Steiner believed, may be better called a spiritual seeing. William Blake considered it both divine grace – “the body of God” as he described it – and a profoundly human experience, inseparable from existence. Imagination then, is perhaps that liminal space where heaven and earth coincide. Swinney, as Shelley before her, traverses this space; inviting metaphor into her gardens, populating her paintings with imagined and remembered figures, with known and strange things. She appeals to us to set aside the critical, if only momentarily, to give up the rational, in favor of the fanciful, the mystical, the archetypal. She offers us not logic but magic, be it familiar or foreboding.