Momentary Brightness with Carolyn Swiszcz

Think of American Beauty’s famous plastic bag scene.

Or the morning you wake up feeling rested and recovered after a week of being sick.

Or that moment in your car when you look up to catch a streaky sunset in your rearview mirror.

These are the moments when you rub your eyes and think that you can’t possibly be seeing quite so brightly, clearly or keenly, and that the world can’t possibly be this strikingly beautiful, sharp, and moving.

1. LBJ.Web
Carolyn Swiszcz | Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library Austin, TX Acrylic, rubber stamp on canvas, 48 X 73, 2011. The red volumes in this library are rubber stamps.

Carolyn Swiszcz’s (NAP #101) paintings inhabit and populate this liminal and often fleeting space. In her acrylics, she captures pivotal moments when the mundane world becomes fiercely and momentarily bright, beautiful, biting, and brimming. - Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

2. Foodcourt.web
Carolyn Swiszcz | Food Court, Santa Fe, 2011 Acrylic, relief ink, rubber stamp on canvas, 48 X 73, 2011.
Artist Notes: This one has one of the rubber stamps pictured in the stamp image - can you see? - the brown border tiles along the ceiling.

Ellen Caldwell: Your works are really intriguing to me and their images deeply pierced my memory, hovering and lingering a bit longer than the memory of a painting often might.  You capture images of the everyday such as a food court or a library, but they feel momentous and important.  What led you to this series?

Carolyn Swiszcz: These are all places that I saw on recent travels. I work intuitively and tend to know in the moment when I'm seeing a possible painting. I am drawn to places that stir up an intense ambivalence for me. The Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin is a good example of that love/hate thing - Johnson's legacy includes both his "Great Society" and the bloodbath in Vietnam. No surprise that a complex guy has a complex library - it's a beautifully austere building chock full of expensive marble, but it also has a supremely corny animatronic LBJ. The visit left me angry, amused, scared, and humbled. It's my hope when taking on a place that loaded that these thoughts will just naturally seep into the finished work.

3. Whitney.Web
Carolyn Swiszcz, Whitney Lobby, Acrylic and relief ink on canvas, 2011, 36 X 48.
Artist Notes: The ovals on the ceiling were all tape stencils.

EC:  I think you really successfully transcribe, translate, and portray the essence of the grace you feel. In NAP #101, you discuss these locales as being "thin places" -- could you explore and explain this a bit more?

CS: There is that famous quote from Einstein - something like "there are two ways to live: as if nothing is a miracle or everything is a miracle." Not quite sure which camp I'm in - I flip back and forth depending on the moment - I hope the paintings kind of flip back and forth too. I have had some fairly magical things happen to me that I've tried to dismiss as fabrications or memory glitches. Lately I am trying to go ahead and embrace those things as miracles - if only because those moments of awareness spawn paintings. We tell stories to others and ourselves about our experiences - this is my way of recording those experiences. In making the work I'm increasingly seeing the real world with a “Swiszcz filter” and I'm finding more of those "this needs to be a painting" moments.

4. sculpturepark.web
Carolyn Swiszcz, Shidoni Sculpture Garden, Tesuque, NM Acrylic, relief ink on canvas, 2011, 36 X 73.
Artist Notes: Trees and mowed paths here done with tape stencils.

EC:  So then are you continuing on with this documentation of place/sites for the foreseeable future?

CS: The figures have been a relatively recent development and I'm satisfied with the more personal element they've brought to my work. Right now in addition to more paintings like these I'm doing drawings for an animation of sorts about working on an inventory crew in the 1990's.

EC: In terms of your process, you seem to have an unusual and interesting routine to completing your paintings, involving monotypes, masking tape, and rubber stamps.  Could you shed light on this?

CS: When I finished college I was primarily a printmaker and that's still how I approach my work - in terms of layers. I like doing a lot of prep work on a painting with various forms of masking - I use tape, paper, fluid medium - and then covering the mask and crossing my fingers for a good result when the mask gets removed. It's like lifting up the press blankets after pulling a print - I like the parts that can't be predicted or controlled. It's often the long way around to a simple result but I find it satisfying…Though sometimes it's a disaster. I am uninterested in the very painterly parts of paintings and if I can break things down - especially more organic subjects - to shapes created with rubber stamps, those areas become fun rather than tedious.

EC:  I loved hearing about her process, so I asked Swiszcz for some insight into it.  She documented part of a work in progress, “Feeding the Squirrels,” which we hope to feature in its completed entirety in “Process of a Painting.”

CS: I use tracing paper to plan my patterns. This is a pattern for a pine tree.

5. swiszcz.napblog13

CS: Pine tree pattern applied with masking tape to "Feeding the Squirrels," a work in progress. 36 x48. Mostly acrylic.

6. swiszcz.napblog17

CS: Detail of "Feeding the Squirrels" after tree pattern stencil was used.

7. swiszcz.napblog16

CS: Paper cut outs that were used to plan composition of "Feeding the Squirrels."

8. swiszcz.napblog15

CS: A collection of rubber stamps used in past paintings.

9. swiszcz.napblog14

CS: A wall of work in progress drawings, many made with stencils and/or mono print. These were created as backgrounds for a video I'm working on.

10. swiszcz.napblog12


Carolyn Swiszcz was born and raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She earned a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1994. 

In the late 90’s she spent three winters in Miami Beach (on a fellowship from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts) where she developed an interest in architecture. She makes paintings and drawings of buildings, often incorporating rudimentary printmaking techniques. Her work has been exhibited at Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Drawing Center, Highpoint Center for Printmaking, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Miyako Yoshinaga Art Prospects in New York, and Steven Zevitas Gallery in Boston. She lives in West St. Paul, MN, with her husband and daughter.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.


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