Erick Swenson’s Untitled, 2000 depicts a dramatic scene in which a seamlessly crafted, meticulously hand-painted figure resembling a dog or fawn is being swept upward from the ground by a billowing red and black cape hooked to its tail. The small, pale animal bares its teeth, adding tension to the moment, yet the story behind this strange event is undisclosed. Swenson’s scenes are the result of a hybrid of influences, including animation, movie stage sets, and natural history dioramas. The connection to dioramas is an intriguing one, because as is frequently the case with them, Swenson’s work is made to look remarkably realistic and is viewed in the round in a museum setting. Swenson mimics the naturalistic execution of dioramas, but he does so in order to create fantastic scenes.
Swenson’s main formal device—how he distributes the weight of his forms, which are created with rubber and polyurethane—is an important aspect of the surreal quality of his image. He has connected the cape and the animal to create a fluid and rudimentary S curve, a traditional compositional device used by artists to move the viewer’s eye though a work of art. The heaviness of the cape, as it moves up toward the ceiling, is visually much stronger than that of the frail figure beneath it, which looks like an oversized porcelain figurine. Yet the entire piece comes to rest on the animal’s small hoof, making its overall feeling and appearance precarious.
In Untitled the illusion of movement and physicality is seen in the cape, but the source of its power—whether it be the wind, a person, an apparition—is absent from the scene. Unlike a natural history diorama, there is no set storyline to explain the action taking place in the work. Instead, a number of dichotomies exist: the scene is in an art museum, rather than a natural history museum; the figure is fantastical and animal-like, but exhibits human qualities; the piece is frozen, but it conveys dramatic movement; it is made of plastic, but its textures and details look naturalistic.
Untitled leaves us to piece together a narrative based on a few visual clues that conjure up various associations. The three thin leather straps, for example, that are attached to the animal’s neck and hind legs accentuate its delicacy, but they could also be read as a designer accessory, dog collar, or symbol of bondage. The animal could be perceived as wild, but the straps might suggest domestication. The cape is another part of the piece that carries wide-ranging connotations. It is commonly associated with magic, but its implications extend to such opposite poles as Dracula and Little Red Riding Hood. In Swenson’s stripped down but impeccable illusionism, the story is unresolved, but strangely familiar.