In the summer of 2020, when New York City was in quarantine, artist and printmaker Rob Swainston was riding his bike through the empty city streets taking photographs when he noticed all the plywood that had been erected over storefronts and had an idea, which he shared with his collaborator and fellow artist Zorawar Sidhu: why not collect the plywood, whose cost otherwise would be prohibitive, and use it to make large-scale woodcuts? The two men subsequently contacted several cultural institutions, including MoMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art, for permission to salvage the wood from their facades and ended up hauling 120 plywood sheets to their studio in Long Island City. The weathered and graffitied plywood, itself an artifact of the protests that arose following the murder of George Floyd, served as the blocks that the two artists carved with images culled from photographs and other digital media recording the extraordinary period of social upheaval that commenced on May 25, 2020, when Floyd was killed, and ended January 6, 2021, an era defined not only by the Trump presidency but also the pandemic.
In what would become known as the Doomscrolling series, the 18 completed works each consist of a montage of images alluding to a particular newsworthy event, which the artists titled with the date (and in some cases, exact time). However, in their attempt to document a historic moment, the artists also reference the history of art itself, resulting in a complex layering; they incorporate compositional elements and textures inspired by 16th and 17th century etchings and woodcuts as well as by specific works of Durer, Goya, Mantegna, Max Beckmann and others, lending a gravitas to the works. An exhibit of the series at the Manhattan gallery Petzel last winter garnered extensive media coverage, and now 11 of the works have made their way up to Kingston, in an exhibition at West Strand Gallery entitled “No Justice.” The show opened August 6 and runs through August 28.
Gallery co-directors Isabel Alvarez and Julio Nazario first learned about Sidhu’s and Swainston’s series last January while watching a Sunday morning TV news show covering the Petzel show and were intrigued. They contacted the two artists through the gallery and were thrilled when Sidhu and Swainston agreed to a show at West Strand. The work “is historic,” said Alvarez. “We’ve done exhibitions that have a social engagement focus before, and we were moved by these artists making beautiful prints on paper out of such a period of turmoil and sadness, as a way to do something connected to the community. It’s a notion we’re still absorbing.”
All of the pieces, with the exception of the smaller work exhibited on the back wall, measure 57-1/2 by 45-1/2 inches, a monumental scale that immerses the viewer in the tumultuous scenes of masked protestors, barricaded police, cars and buildings on fire, gun wielding vigilantes, and gun smoke; the Trump Administration is also represented, specifically by the ghostly image of Trump holding up a Bible behind a foreground comprised of the enormous helmeted heads and raised shields of police at Washington’s Lafayette Square (the piece is entitled June 1, 7:30 pm). The inclusion of words and vibrant colors, consisting mostly of reds, blues, and acid yellows, lend a pop appeal that relates to the attention-getting directness of print media and poster art in particular, which is grounded in social protest movements; indeed, wood block printing has populist roots as the oldest means of mass communication, a history that partly inspired the series, according to the artists.
But the eye-catching quality and immediacy of the montaged images, suggesting the obsessive screen-viewing practices of many of us, a frenetic sequencing that has shifted our comprehension of events, previously rooted in a fixation on the still image or the repetition of a single televised video, is more than surface deep in these works: many are organized around a compositional design that lends them a grandeur and epic quality related to the monumental history painting of the past. There is an ordering of space that lures the eye and guides it through the ensuing chaos, with discoveries along the way — for example, of subtle embedded images, such as the large fly in October 7 (a reference to the one that landed on Pence’s head during the vice presidential debate), whose wings partially obscure the former vice president’s face, undermining the authoritative pose of the large hand with raised finger that occupies the lower right hand corner. Then there’s the upended-15 lurking behind the matrix of William Morris-inspired flowers in June 28th, which depicts Patricia and MarkMcClosky, the gun-wielding couple in St. Louis who threatened George Floyd protesters from their front yard. The graphic depiction of the gun was inspired by a poster advertising the James Bond film From Russia to Love, while the psychedelic flowers climbing the trellis allude to the quasi-pastoral suburban setting that updates the Arts and Crafts ideal of home as a peaceful and aesthetically pleasing haven to the notion of the private gated community providing cover to a vigilante couple.
The welter of images is more subdued in August 25, which documents the fatal shootings by Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, at another protest following the shooting of a black man in more of a tableau format, with a clearly recognizable image of a man kneeling over a recumbent figure. Red rays radiating over a cloud of smoke behind the kneeling man’s head suggest comic-book graphics, although in fact the stylized motif was taken from a 1500 woodcut entitled The Lamentation by Albrecht Durer. An overlay of an image of a chain-link fence and the cast shadow or interlocking stones of the pavement further add to the surface patterning, dissolving the gravity suggested by the figures and lending a sense of dislocation to the scene. In May 26, 11 pm, an outlier in that the color scheme consists of cool greens and turquoise with bright orange accents, a covid patient lies in a hospital bed surrounded by medical staff and equipment. The pathos of the figure, which the viewer regards from above, is attributable in part to its source: the legs draped in sheets refer to Andrea Mantegna’s famous 1480 painting depicting the foreshortened figure of the dead Christ.
Sidhu, who was born in India in 1985 and has done projects re-creating art historical artifacts using contemporary technology and historical materials and techniques, said the Doomscrolling series began as a kind of sculpture when he and Swainston exhibited a large piece of carved and painted plywood over the storefront window at 601Artspace, a site installation on the lower East Side, in September 2020. The pair then brainstormed how to make prints from the plywood documenting the protests and made a drawing composite from photos Swainston had taken, which was superimposed on the plywood. They formulated a technique in which a CNC router was used to cut the drawings on multiple sheets of plywood, numbering from six to 10 for each completed print; each carved sheet was inked with a single color and printed onto a large piece of paper using the 48-inch-wide Charles Brand etching press in the studio. (The press is part of the Prints of Darkness print shop owned by Swainston, a master printer who has produced prints for many major artists. Born in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania in 1970, he has a background in political science as well as art and is an associate professor at SUNY-Purchase.)
One challenge is not just the large scale of the plywood but the wood’s distressed surface, a welcome feature in that it contributes to the complex texturing of the final printed image, said Sidhu. The artists collaborate in each part of the process: “Every step of the way we have a conversation about decisions that need to be made as we stand on opposite sides of the block,” said Sidhu. “There’s only so much to plan, and after printing it we make adjustments and might make another block.” Their process takes from both old and new: “The carving is a mix between [using the method of] hand and the computer numeric controller,” a tool mainly used for sign making, said Swainston. “We’re drawing in the style of woodcuts and mixing both processes because we don’t like the decisions the machine makes…We want things to work on multiple levels…and link our current struggles with the past.”
Since the completion of Doomscrolling, the two artists have continued collaborating on prints related to timely events, with several recent Supreme Court decisions, the elevating climate crisis, and the culture wars providing plenty of grist for the mill. “We’re changing color palettes and thinking about landscapes, the Anthropocene, and definitely looking at Ukraine,” said Sidhu.
The large pieces exhibited at West Strand have each been printed in editions of five and cost $6,500 unframed; the exception is the smaller piece, entitled No Justice, which is printed in an edition of 25 and costs $1,500 unframed. West Strand Gallery, located at 29 West Strand Street in Kingston’s waterfront Rondout district, is open Thursday through Saturday from noon to 6 pm and on Sunday from noon to 4:30 pm. It’s also open by appointment; call 845-853-8689 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.