UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART
OCTOBER 3, 2015
Five stories with SWOON was a presentation of a multi-platform project by Caledonia Curry (the artist and activist also known as Swoon) at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Her recent work with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Open Source project engaged a handful of men who are currently or were recently incarcerated, as well as women living in a residential addiction treatment center. Participants worked with Curry, therapist and yoga instructor Jessica Radovich, and storytelling coach Heather Box of the Million Person Project in a month-long art therapy and personal storytelling course that took place inside Graterford State Correctional Institution (SCI), at the Interim House treatment center, and with Philadelphia Mural Arts Guild, a prison-to-community reentry program. The classes addressed the relationship between trauma, loss, and addiction. In addition to this community engagement, Curry has created several portraits of those who have participated in the project, which will be wheat-pasted in her signature style in public spaces throughout Philadelphia.
Curry is known for making large-scale portraits that are transferred to paper from woodcuts and installed on the façades of the urban landscape. Her subjects often emerge from piles of beautiful junk; lacy tessellations layer over tangles of sticks that display the random compositional grace we might observe in the rubble of a house swept away by a storm. This kinetic energy is also present in the linework of her subjects’ faces and bodies: wisps of hair fly free, earrings dangle, collar bones quiver. The portraits created for Philadelphia share this energy, though without the decorative moorings. Curry is often cited for capturing an essential quality or core being of her subjects. However, as Five Stories revealed, Curry’s work facilitates a more dynamic form of portraiture, one authored by both the artist and her subject. Five Stories with SWOON was not an artist’s talk per se, but a performance of radical self-portraiture.
One question that arises about social-practice art is where the art (public engagement) begins, and where the social practice (education, therapy, catharsis for participants) ends. This question assumes that art is separate from life, an assumption that has been debated for at least the past century. But whether one subscribes to the idea that art is life, that it is separated by a sacred veil, or that it is authored anew by each viewer, if we assume that social practice can now be legitimately discussed as art, the challenge of its transmission remains. If art has an audience (and in the digital age this audience extends well beyond even the viewers of the mechanical reproduction) then how does the work of social practice reach this audience? For those who did not participate in a month of art therapy and story-workshopping with Curry, Radovich, and Box, how is the project accessed? The two hours of Five Stories With SWOON provided an entrée.
Coached by Box, each participant, including Curry, Radovich, and Box herself, told a story of self, work, and transformation. Sonia Gonzalez, who is undergoing treatment at Interim House, referred to her healing practice as “radical acceptance.” Gonzalez described this as “a process of accepting exactly what happened […] accepting the unbearable, and then setting it down.” Gonzalez’s story demonstrated how the act of envisioning and being in the self is consciously performative. The backdrop of our portrait is what it is, and may be more or less fraught, but subjecthood is self-constructed. Tom (his last name was not revealed for legal reasons) is serving a life sentence in Graterford SCI and therefore could not attend the event. His story, read by a third party, described the internal liberation he achieved within the confines of incarceration. Each story was an enactment of agency, a self-portrait unfolding before the audience, irrefutable.
Last to speak was Curry herself. She recounted key scenes from growing up with drug- addicted and mentally ill parents, how she gained recognition as a street artist during art school and had her work collected by MoMA before she turned thirty. After her mother’s death, Curry began to unpack the history of abuse and untreated mental illness that had shaped her mother. In the process, her art practice also evolved. Curry employed her personal story to demonstrate how the self is constructed and how it can be reconstructed in a healthier way. This was the potent transmission of a vulnerable being, a self-portrait in process.
In a moment when socially engaged artworks have been criticized as watered-down versions of comprehensive public programs, Curry’s portraits for Philadelphia rewrite the script of the disadvantaged receiving help from the well-intentioned artist, presenting both parties as works of art, performing self-portraiture in real time. Those who attended Five Stories with SWOON had the opportunity to consider how their own self-authored portrait might also function in the world.