Jim Swains latest show will likely be sold out by the end of its run. The Martin Batchelor Gallery is lined with 55 vigorously expressive paintings, identical in size and painted on flattened-out fruit boxes.
This corrugated cardboard comes die-cut with symmetrical holes and scalloped edges, over which Swain paints figures that look a bit like the late works of Picasso. Each is priced at $50.
Of course, it is better to sell all of the paintings at a low price than none at a high price. And there is more to his strategy than sales.
The show is an installation, he told me. It works as one piece of art. At the opening, the room was packed with people of all ages.
Everybody was discussing visual esthetics, he insisted, and they felt free to because of the low prices. Couples who couldnt afford a babysitter were actively discussing which painting they wanted to buy – and why.
Usually, at a gallery, people are creeping around like they were at a frigging funeral, whispering and drinking bad red wine. The prices are so over the top and the elitism is so stifling that everybody cant wait to leave.
Thats why I served beer instead of wine – and not in glasses! Have a bottle and look at this stuff, he continued.
If anybody talks in hushed tones like theyre at a bloody golf match, Im gonna get pissed off.
Swain considered other art openings he has attended.
Im not annoyed at the art – its the culture that has grown around it that annoys me.
He fumed about the trays of canapÃs, waiters wearing tuxedoes, somebody sitting at a grand piano playing mind-bogglingly boring elevator music. You couldnt get near the art for all the offensiveness they have built around it to justify the $5,000 price tag.
Swain feels that painting on cardboard boxes eliminates the idea that one of his paintings should be purchased as an investment.
It might last 50 or 100 years before it absolutely falls apart, he laughs. These are paintings to be enjoyed now, not purchased for the benefit of your grandchildren or the art historians.
Its art imitating death, he adds. These paintings are going to die. But then, every friend youve ever had is going to die. Thats the dilemma of human existence.
And that dilemma is Swains theme in this show. He quotes Leonard Cohen: Its about the inevitable catastrophic defeat we all face. Whenever you discuss the inevitable catastrophic defeat, do it with elegance and beauty.
I asked him how he aims to achieve this, and he reminded me of Picassos dictum: The painter and the viewer do not communicate.
The painter presents the painting and thats it, he stated. He is not responsible for what the viewer brings to it or how the viewer looks at it.
So, for his part, how does Swain the artist approach the project of painting?
I sketch it out, and then I begin the painting process. And, in the process, the painting speaks back to me: back and forth, back and forth, till finally it stops talking.
As he creates his images he avoids the conventional tools, those hackneyed tropes of the language of representation. His characters have club feet and shocked profiles.