Edgy, contemporary, poignant: For his current exhibition, Soldiers in Our Midst, artist Charles Swenson photographed toy soldiers then painted large portraits from the photos, calling to mind both classical portraiture and pop culture references to childhood. The resulting images are men who could be of any race or nationality, all serving their country, what ever place that might be. Given the current state of word affairs the show is very timely, though Swenson first began working on it over seven years ago. Along with paintings, he built two larger than life sculptures using various pieces of anything from Diet Coke cans to foam core, screen and wire to build out the form before finishing them with paper-mache, resin, gesso, and paint.
Though Swenson did not serve in the military -- his draft was deferred first because of school and then marriage and children -- a number of his family members have served in wars from World War II to the present (a cousin just mustered out of the Marines). He explains the foundation behind Soldiers in Our Midst:
I think everyone I know is touched by the wars our country engages in, if not directly, through family and friends. I'd like to think that this show is helping in some small way to shine a light on that and, maybe not start a dialog, because it's already out there, but keep a dialog going about the toll that is taken on those who serve, maybe get a dialog going between the art world and our vets. If we send them to fight, we should take care of them after. All of us.
A graduate of Los Angeles' legendary Chouinard Art Institute, Swenson's career is firmly grounded in Southern California. Upon graduation, he went to work in Charles Eames' design studio, a perfect landing place for Swenson, one he calls, "the best first job that could be imagined." As the lowest man on the work totem pole, he did everything from designing puppets to building a multi-plane camera. And he met some of Los Angeles most colorful characters. Swenson recalls those halcyon days with fondness and wonder:
Bucky Fuller, Elsa Lancaster, John Houseman and Elmer Bernstein were some of the people who came by to work or to chat. There was a Steinberg nude painted in a claw foot bathtub, a huge collection of antique toys, a gravity fed xylophone that played Bach, a library of thousands of 35mm slides, a complete shop, and I often lunched, got advice, chummed around with Debra Sussman. Not bad duty for a kid out of art school.
Swenson's experience at Eames designing puppets and constructing a multi-plane camera for the 17-screen computer controlled film served him well when he left to work in animation, eventually foudning what would become Murakami/Wolf/Swenson with legendary animator Jimmy Murakami. (Swenson is the man behind Peter Yarrow's Puff the Magic Dragon, Strawberry Shortcake and Dirty Duck). Along the way Swenson garnered an Oscar nomination, an Emmy, and numerous other awards before moving onto computer animation, all the while working on his own fine art at home.
I was told upon graduation that I would probably never get a job in art. And I've heard other young people worry about the same thing. Don't worry; it does no good. Worry does not affect the thing being worried about, it only affects the worrier. Forget worry. Just Be. And Do. And then see what comes. Being is who you are. You are a human being, not a human doing. Doing is what takes place while you are being. Be first, then do based on that. Neither is possible without the other. For me, it is the doing that makes the being worthwhile. Chop wood, carry water.
Charles Swenson "Soldiers in Our Midst" run through October 11, at Red Pipe Gallery, 978 Chung King Road, Wednesday through Saturday, 12pm-5pm
(424) 226-2485 and by appointment.