When late Hawaii curator James “Jay” Jensen first encountered the artwork of Dallas-based contemporary artist Erick Swenson at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, it appeared in the form of a young buck, splayed out and head down, rubbing its antlers against an oriental rug to remove the velvet.
Except the rug wasn’t fabric, it was hand-painted fiberglass. The lifelike deer was made of urethane resin and acrylic.
Fourteen years later, a show inspired by the striking sculpture arrives in Hawaii. At the Honolulu Museum of Art, “Abstruction: The Sculpture of Erick Swenson” is a survey exhibition presenting 11 works by Swenson created over a 17-year period. It includes “Present in the Past,” a hammerhead shark encrusted with geodes specially commissioned for the show by the museum.
Known for his hyperrealistic sculptures of contorted animals, Swenson is equal parts zoologist and inventor, often having to figure out and build the very tools needed to bring his visions to life.
While other artists might manipulate an actual dead carcass for convenience or shock value, Swenson goes the long way: in one instance, by taking the 200-plus bones of a real deer, casting each one in resin using individually created silicone molds, then reassembling the entire skeleton.
The result is “Ne Plus Ultra,” a seven-point buck whose flayed, decomposing corpse reveals an elaborate scrimshaw of coastlines and seaports etched onto the skull and bones. The work is named for a Latin phrase meaning “no more beyond,” often used as a warning along the edges of old maps.
In “Kleine Schwarmerei,” hundreds of sculpted snails swarm over a cast beer stein with a phrase engraved on one side: “Happily and merrily we go to the mines.” Beer traps are sometimes used to kill snails, but Swenson says that when he conceptualized this piece, he didn’t make that connection. Instead, he was thinking of humanity; forever climbing and rushing to reach the end, only to fall into a bottomless pit.
An untitled piece features a frail fawn being swept up and away by a heavy, billowing opera cape. The animal is distressed, possibly domesticated as indicated by the presence of a leather collar, with the cape being a force that is magical yet dangerous, evoking connotations of Little Red Riding Hood or Dracula.
Swenson’s process takes months, sometimes years. The passage of time plays a key role in his sculptures; similar to works of memento mori popular in the 16th century that depicted skulls, hourglasses and decaying fruit, Swenson’s creatures are often struggling in death. It is a reminder that life is fragile — and fleeting.
In the lifesize hammerhead created for the Honolulu Museum, Swenson was initially unaware of the significance of mano (sharks) in Hawaiian culture, some which are considered to be guardians of particular fishing grounds and the ancestors of fishermen and women.
Sharks, like the geodes covering this particular hammerhead, date back tens of millions of years, while humans have existed for only 200,000 years. Swenson references humankind’s relatively recent role in the world but reminds the viewer of our origins, arising from minerals and stardust. Amid the struggles of life, there is still beauty.
Info: Honolulu Museum of Art, 900 S Beretania St., Honolulu. The show continues through July 29 (closed Mondays). (808) 532-8700