Henry Swanson is the current artist-in-residence at The Goss-Michael Foundation. His upcoming exhibition, Mad Festive, begins July 15th and runs through August 10th. We caught up with Swanson at the gallery to talk about his life, process, and influences.
PATRON: WHAT’S YOUR LIFE STORY? TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR FAMILY.
HENRY SWANSON: I was born in Dallas. The doctor waited until halftime to deliver me. He was in the lounge watching the game and admitted it to my parents. My first real notable drawing was Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. The teacher put it on the board and that was the first time I felt weird about art.
My father is a lawyer and mother is going to school for Art History. My father is one of the scariest people to debate with. He loves art, art history, and theory. He has, weirdly, been one of my better art “teachers” in challenging any point of view I bring him by offering a potentially better point of view. A lot of my work is usually in relation to my dad’s history and comedy knowledge. He’s a huge Mel Brooks fan. I saw Airplane at way too young of an age for it to be okay. I just saw Blazing Saddles last week, and at twenty-three I was too young to see that.
P: HOW WAS YOUR TIME AT RISD?
HS: At RISD I had some really good teachers, and then I had some teachers that I couldn’t believe were teachers. It’s like what artist Ben Shahn says (paraphrasing here): There are two kinds of teachers. Ones who aren’t good enough to be artists and spend a lot of time with their students and the ones who are very serious artists and they tend not to listen to their students. I think I started becoming a bigger fan of art school and teachers once I realized that the teacher’s time wasn’t just for me to just sit around with and that I had to come to class with debatable ideas that I was ready to pitch. At the very end of art school, I started getting excited about needing to have prepared ideas.
P: WHO WERE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE PROFESSORS?
HS: My favorite professors were always English Professors. People who would just say ‘This is terrible work’ and hand it back to you, so you’d have to be ready. I did all of my English classes at Brown because if you went to school at RISD you could take your electives at Brown. I intentionally signed up for English there with people who were 1000 times smarter than me. It was terrifying how smart those kids are. Even with all of those Ivy League brains though, they would still ask art students to weigh in on discussions. They thought you were this white Bengal tiger of knowledge when really you’re like, ‘I’m here to listen to you guys talk.’ I learned so much about being articulate with my ideas, not from art school but listening to really smart people talk.
P: IT SOUNDS LIKE THERE IS A STRUGGLE BETWEEN ARTISTIC PRECEDENT AND A PLAYFUL REBELLION WITHIN YOUR WORK?
HS: I struggle to want to make something that can be taken seriously and sit in the same room with my artistic superiors with the same level of respect. You want to be taken seriously but you don’t want to be a monster to people. I don’t want there to be any reason for anyone to walk up to a piece I’ve made and say that ‘This guy really (messed) up. This is a totally unacceptable piece and I don’t like it.’ I want them to feel like they can like it if they want, or completely disapprove.
P: IT SEEMS LIKE YOU COME ACROSS THINGS THAT YOU DISLIKE AND THEN IMPLEMENT THEM INTO YOUR WORK
HS: Sometimes I’ll make something that is a response to something I hate and it’s a release. Like these two boxes that are propped up into an “A” shape, I made those because I was having a stressful moment with a current painting. Ironically, a lot from this show started because I had a problem with industrial materials becoming a chic thing. I initially bought the tarps as a joke and then I said ‘How can I make this something that I’d make at all.’ A lot of the tropes that interest me most, and that you’ll see in my work are from people that I dislike. And that’s truer now than it has in past years because lately the function of my work is to try to get a grip on why things are things people like. There are certain things that I’ll make that I don’t even think ought to be made, and I’d be just as fine if they vanished forever. It’s not as much as maintaining an aesthetic as much as it is learning something.
P: DO YOU THINK THERE IS ANYTHING YOU CAN ACTUALLY DISLIKE?
HS: I talked to someone really young recently who was complaining about getting into the art world and I told her ‘I’m going to let you in on something, getting out of art school, you think everything is easy, and then you become a real practicing artist, and it’s like being thrown into this ocean where you hate everything you make and you feel wildly inferior. But then you have this moment where you wake up and realize that your opinion in hating things doesn’t matter. Once you recognize that, it’s amazing. If you like something you can learn more about it and if you hate it, you can hate it.’
P: YOU SAID IN AN INTERVIEW THAT YOU DON’T NECESSARILY CALL YOURSELF AN ARTIST BUT REFER TO YOURSELF A PAINTER. CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE MORE ABOUT YOUR ROLE AS CRAFTSMAN VS ARTIST?
HS: I think art for me it has always been about achieving this one-track goal. Learn how to draw this the right way, do this in the right way. There was always a right and wrong way to make something. Once I came to the point of getting over that silly conceptual hump of ‘Oh there is no right way,’ I was actually kind of heartbroken for a minute. I had spent all of this time learning the right way. Then I regained this footing once I found people who painted in different ways but were amazing draftsmen before that.
For me art has always been a magic trick, there’s nothing else like standing in front of a painting and thinking, “How did he do it.” My dad screamed out loud when he first saw Giovanni Strazza’s Veiled Virgin and shouted: “How the hell did he do that!” Twenty people in the museum turned to look at us and I had to play it cool and tell him that you can’t do that, but deep down I wanted to do the same. I was just as impressed. That’s what matters. Nothing pushed out of a machine could drive me away from that insanity of craftsmanship.
P: WHAT MAJOR INFLUENCES HAVE YOU HAD:
HS: Barkley L Hendricks was the first painter I encountered who was insanely talented but also painted in an era that was incredibly fascinating and it’s so well defined in his work. He had everything: craft, talent, and a mind-blowing color palette. He had all of the excitement of pop, but his work is not pop. Also, Philip Guston as a painter or satirist or maybe just a jerk. I would also say someone like Chuck Jones as well. Ad Reinhardt is one of my all time favorites too, Swanson then gestures to a tattoo of Reinhardt’s work on his inner bicep.
HOW DID PARIS INFLUENCE YOUR ART AND SPECIFICALLY THIS SHOW AT THE GOSS-MICHAEL FOUNDATION?
HS: I was in this garbage-filled neighborhood, described by any local I met as a dangerous place. It was not. I loved every minute of being in the 18TH arrondissement. If anything the garbage was the best part. The color palette of this area is great. You’d think after five weeks garbage would become garbage again, but it didn’t. I was still collecting garbage off the street before I left. I settled on the idea that there is something interesting about objects that are worthless, don’t mean anything, or matter on their own. Paris called out some of the things I’ve tried to avoid in craftsmanship, so maybe it made me less of a craftsman. Maybe I got worse. That’s it: I love Paris because I got worse at drawing. My style got a little looser, and I feel more connected to my work now.
P: HOW DO YOU LIKE DALLAS, WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF LIVING HERE, AND WHAT WOULD IT TAKE FOR YOU TO MOVE TO ANOTHER MARKET?
HS: I’ve always said I’d never move to New York unless someone offered me money to do so. The only reason I’d leave Dallas is if there was a show that I was in that I needed to be there for a few months. The nicer part of the world today is that you don’t have to live in a new place. So ideally I’d continue making art out of Dallas and only go to New York or Los Angeles if there was a specific need. The people and space in Dallas are beautiful. New York moves fast and to be entirely honest, I don’t like the people—they drive me nuts. There’s this look in people’s eyes when you meet them for the first time that’s like the imagery in a cartoon when the character’s head transitions into a steak and then back as if they’re just ready to say ‘Let’s work together’ or they want to tell you who they just met. That doesn’t happen in Dallas and I love that, it’s very peaceful.
Henry Swanson has a show in New York City this fall at Con Artist Gallery/Collective. He’ll live and work in New York through the end of the year.
P: LAST WORDS?
HS: Haters are gonna hate. Lovers are going to hate as well.