Joan Nelson and Paul Swenbeck


at Fleisher/Ollman


These well-paired exhibitions of works by New York-based Joan Nelson (b. 1958) and Philadelphia-based Paul Swenbeck (b. 1967) transported the viewer to very different otherworldly environments. Nelson’s 15 small boxes offer terrariumlike landscapes for careful examination, and Swenbeck’s eerie installations of ceramic deep-sea life-forms invite an exploration of his personal mythology, which takes from the primeval as well as the fantastic.

Nelson’s pieces, all completed in 2011, merge scenes reminiscent of paintings by the Hudson River School or German Romantics with traces of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. Each object’s wood frame wraps around stacked glass panels painted with oil and acrylic, producing layered landscapes that sandwich tiny items such as glass beads and plastic netting. Untitled (#55), approx. 9 by 8 by 3 inches, features intricately painted trees before a soft blue sky; intense yellow areas suggest a fire in the woods. The atmospheric layers are interrupted by a crystal comet shooting between the clouds, trees and rocks. Nelson’s technique of stratification gives the space a distinctive density. This is especially true of Untitled (#48), in which branches dangle in front of clotted red filaments on the right and a hazy turquoise sky at the top. The whole scene seems to be in an aqueous suspension. Illuminated from the back, Nelson’s microcosms exude gently glowing hues: warm oranges, bright pinks and ominous purples. But to discern the details, the viewer needs to get close and peer inside, bringing to mind Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés, housed at the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Swenbeck’s approximately 20 ceramic sculptures (all but one 2011) were divided into two installations. A large gallery was filled with clusters of richly textured forms confronting each other on a fictional sea floor, made up of contiguous low platforms covered in silvery spandex. One grouping—including two works from the “Crinoid” series and one from the “Porifera” (sponge) series—exemplified how the artist balances chromatic energy. (A crinoid is a type of marine animal that has existed since the Paleozoic period.) The largest element was a piercing cobalt blue crinoid that, at 38 by 17 by 8 inches, has a vase-shaped body with a long armlike tentacle reaching upward with an odd aggression. It was held in check by a sea sponge and a less threatening crinoid, both in yellow and orange. Throughout, the extended limbs and artificial colors suggested a cartoon esthetic, adding a playful curiosity to the potentially ominous organisms.

On the floor, walls and ceiling of an adjacent alcove, six additional sculptures created a denlike space with ritualistic undertones. Subtly shaped clay objects, which preserve the contours of the artist’s hand, hovered on the walls like anamorphic skulls. Cat and bird creatures, respectively titled Thinking with the Blood and The Sacrifice, hint at imminent danger. Terminal Buzz, a collaborative sound piece done with Aaron Igler that transforms animals’ echolocations, permeated the exhibition and became its relentless heartbeat. Swenbeck’s new works push his longtime interests in pro- ductive new directions, wedding marine biology and science fiction.

Photo: (left) Joan Nelson: Untitled (#55), 2011, oil and acrylic on glass with mixed mediums in wood box, 9 1/4 by 8 5/8 by 3 3/4 inches; at Fleisher/Ollman. (right) View of Paul Swenbeck’s exhibition, showing three untitled ceramic sculptures, 2011, from the “Crinoid” and “Porifera” series; at Fleisher/Ollman.