When a sculptor finds a bunch of old wooden rods in a dark corner of her studio, what does she do? If she’s Liz Sweibel, she repaints them, attaches to them bundles of fabric and wire formed into all manner of curious geometries, and then calls up John Colan at HallSpace in Roxbury.
Sweibel’s exhibition, Re:union, running until March 27th, is dominated by those rod pieces, most of them growing preternaturally out of the floor like lanky, undersized flowers. Apparently they like being thus grouped together because, explains Sweibel in an interview with ArtsEditor intern Patricia Liersch, “They have a lot to say to each other.” But what do they talk about? One rather obvious theme is their past as mere bits of junk, before they were transformed by the magic of Colan’s spotlights. Another more interesting topic is that of femininity. “I had a certain time in my life when I was really examining that,” says Sweibel. That is why the “flower” part of each work consists of scraps of ribbons and nightgowns and her mother’s old dinner napkins. It is also why the rods are painted in pastel colors.
But doesn’t all that amount to an almost risibly superficial take on femininity? Isn’t art supposed to reveal the essence of things? Well, another theme Sweibel mentions is that of fragility and vulnerability; hence, the slant of the slender rods, the delicateness of the fabric forms, and the susceptibleness to aging. (The wire becomes rusty, the paint peels off, and so on.) Perhaps Sweibel is saying that this is the essence of womanhood? But before feminists start showing up at HallSpace armed with chainsaws, it should be noted that, ultimately, Sweibel regards her pieces as nothing more or less than “self-portraits.” Nor does she think too much about what she is doing: “I just be there and let the work tell me what to do.” All the intellectualization comes as an afterthought.
So how are we to judge Sweibel’s work, if not by its intellectual content? Certainly not by how it challenges our definition of art; Sweibel has no interest in following Marcel Duchamp down that particular lavatory. We are left, then, with good old-fashioned aesthetic criteria. Are her pieces beautiful?
Well, to my mind, Liz Sweibel’s flowers have precious little aesthetic value. Rather than enabling each part to transcend ordinariness, the juxtaposition of the straight, angular rods and the rounded fabric forms just grates on the eye. The shabby old rods still look like shabby old rods, and the flowers still look like bundles of old panties (for which they have been mistaken more than once, apparently).
The contents of Re:union are (through the theme of reconnecting with the past) a response to the artist’s junior high school reunion last summer. One can only hope that the latter event was more eventful than the former is. For all Sweibel’s pieces are—ahem—as stiff as posts. They merely stand around awkwardly, close-lipped, as if they had never liked each other in the first place.