In the early days of the Modern Institute, the gallery was often accused of favouring a certain aesthetic or style. It wasn’t true - sure, some of the Institute’s fellows had in common a liking for tropes borrowed from Modernist design - but the real ties between represented artists were, and are, less clear, centering on a shared tendency towards a rather rigorous, distinctly serious mode of practice, with elements, be they art-historical references or specific techniques, examined and revised, methodically turned over and held up to the light.
Spencer Sweeney doesn’t fit that Modern Institute mould. For one thing, it’s nigh on impossible to get a handle on his practice, which takes in your usual art stuff, like painting and sculpture, but has also seen the artist dabble in rock ‘n’ roll, with his band Actress, release dance music under the punning alias Housing Projects and run a Manhattan nightclub called, wonderfully, Santa’s Party House, attempting to tie the whole lot together under the self-publicising, self-conscious persona of a self-proclaimed enfant terrible. (He’s not the first to do this, of course: the spirit of the late Martin Kippenberger, and his hugely influential scattershot approach to artistic reinvention, haunts Sweeney’s modus operandi.)
And then there’s the art stuff gathered in the Modern Institute’s main gallery space, a set of untitled paintings and a single sculpture that have a basis as broad as Sweeney’s polymath approach to art-making. They’re a riot, to boot. A matched pair hanging on the rear wall are thick with paint, strips of masking tape and plastic costume jewels, with snatches of barely-legible text further obscured by great swathes of colour, both Day-Glo and dismal. And, just when you think Sweeney is attacking his canvases with unfettered abandon, finicky little details swim into focus; a paint dribble resolves into a pair of reaching hands, the sticker from an organic apple is carefully affixed to a surface, great care is taken to delineate one letter in a roughly-sketched word. Elsewhere, a deftly-rendered figurative work is obliterated by fields of flat black, leaving only a glimpse of stockinged feet, and geometric colour blocks on a monochrome ground are ruined by gestural scribbles in queasy deep purple.
All these faked palimpsests suggest an ongoing, unending and anarchic bid to invoke the graffiti-drenched walls of some unsavoury pre-Guilliani New York alleyway - Sweeney wouldn’t mind terribly if a city centre scally snuck into the gallery and added his own tag to one of these canvases, I imagine - and a one-man attempt to match the invention of multiple authors working in unplanned, unthinking collaboration, covering and recovering surfaces with temporary art for its own sake.
In the midst of all this frenetic activity sits a relatively pristine sculptural work, a vast ornate white teacup bearing crudely rendered traces of lipstick on its hexagonal rim. Rising from the surface of the black solid that fills it is a perfect pyramid, also jet black. Unlike the paintings, it seems complete. Painted lipstick aside, Sweeney has, for once, resisted the urge to muddy the waters, presenting a complete, finished object that rests rather smugly, looking down, it seems, on the surrounding chaos.
What is this incongruous piece doing here? The answer lies next door in the gallery’s second space, home to a set of twenty-five drawings, all made during Sweeney’s three-day visit to Glasgow. The seemingly solid object next door is as ephemeral as these dashed-off doodles, hastily sketched out and passed on to a fabricator to be made flesh, it’s genesis glimpsed in the first drawing here. In other words, the apparently monumental sculpture is monumentally trivial, one image among many, lifted from a drawn diary of personal preoccupations, passing fancies and impotent symbols. The sketch for the teacup sculpture is set alongside a cartooned head, half Elvis, half Easter Island statue, and a glob of something that might be an intestine. This sets the tone, with the following drawings depicting a tree and a teapot observed by a pipe-smoking detective, some vaguely pornographic scenes in which transvestites prostrate themselves, a teen idol sucks her fingers and a grouping of leonine chaps bearing swords loiter in a homoerotic huddle, a smattering of Egyptian iconography (the Eye of Ra, a grumpy sphinx, some pyramids) and, for variety, a few glib abstracts.
The overall impression is of Sweeney dropping pages from the Big Book of Popular Culture into a shredder until he has a room full of scraps, then stripping off and gamboling happily through the resulting mess to find out what sticks, and where. This enthusiasm is infectious. Any effort to pin down Sweeney, to work out what he’s up to, are rebuffed by the work on show, but it doesn’t matter: he’s having fun, and the best thing to do is drop your critical guard and join in.
This review was first published in The Herald on January 24th, 2008.