On a recent weekday afternoon on the Hobart and William Smith Colleges campus, students, faculty and staff gathered to help a visiting print artist install his work. They were on the lawn outside Houghton House where a pair of telephone poles had been sunk into the ground and a broad panel was being raised on a large boom lift.
The work is titled “Who Owns the Sky,” by artist Rob Swainston and is part of the group exhibition “Signs and Signifiers,” which officially opens tonight at...and around...the Davis Gallery. It’s curated by Hobart and William Smith Professor Nick Ruth, who approached many of the artists, like Swainston, at a conference of print artists.
“Nick was at a conference called the Southern Graphics Conference, which is a printmaking conference in Atlanta back in April. I was doing a presentation on some work of mine. It was a talk about technology and where technology and printmaking interface. At the end I showed some pieces I had made using scientific method to develop process for and this was one of the pieces. At the end, he came up to me and was like, ‘That’s amazing! This is going to fit in the show! I’m doing the show already! Can you do it?!!’ I was like, “Uh...I don’t know. Can I do this?’ But, he charmed me.”
Swainston’s work resembles a billboard and that’s intentional. The collected works in “Signs and Signifiers” are grouped around a theme of the way that printed signs intrude into our collective environment. It’s a theme that grew out of Professor Ruth’s own observations of the way that technology has become a part of our lived spaces.
“I would see these cell towers and satellite dishes. They struck me as science fiction bodies sort of suddenly appearing inside our otherwise totally normal landscape. Of course, our totally normal built environment is surreal already, but to introduce things like cell towers and satellite dishes, suddenly it seemed a little jarring to me. So, I started to make work that had those forms in them partly because I was just responding to what I was experiencing and also because those forms are kind of weird and compelling in and of themselves. Then I started to realize, yeah, this is about the human-made in relation to the rest of the built environment and the natural environment and even, metaphorically, in relation to our internal natural environment. And, this desire for control and communication and all this kind of stuff.”
Inviting other artists to collaborate in a group exhibition allows Ruth to explore these themes in ways that his own work does not.
“My work doesn’t typically engage with the immediate environment in which it hangs. It sits as a picture and is set off by a frame and so you can kind of ignore the space in which you’re viewing it to have that visual experience the piece offers. But, I like the idea of actually activating a space.”
Which certainly describes the way Rob Swainston’s work activated the space on the lawn outside of Houghton House.
“It’s not just that this piece exists in his imagination and he’s just going to come perform it without any concern for what the site is like. For instance, when he came in and he saw these, what we might call rustic, telephone poles, he said, ‘Huh. You know, that kind of looks pretty cool. Maybe we should run with that.’ So, we’re making decision as we go. Even though the piece has a certain identity already, that identity is going to change and respond to our particular site and that’s really exciting.”
Signs and Signifiers opens Friday, October 13th in Davis Gallery at Houghton House with a reception and gallery talk beginning at 6:00 p.m.