‘Sticks & Stones’: Art show explores the divisive language of today’s political discourse

ATLAS Assistant Professor Joel Swanson’s newest solo art exhibition Sticks & Stones is an exploration of the divisive language dominating contemporary political discourse. Rendering decontextualized words and phrases in photos, neon sculptures, mixed media works and animations, Swanson makes provocative and surprising art from language that is so often used to classify and marginalize.  

The show, which opens Friday, Aug.18, at Denver’s David B. Smith Gallery, runs through Sept. 16. One image features an impression of a found soda cup lid with various labeled buttons used to indicate what’s inside, such as “cola,” “diet” and “other.”  In Swanson’s image, the “other” button is indented.

“I’m interested in how we mark otherness in society,” Swanson said of his unnamed piece. “It’s just a soda lid, but it makes me think of the ways that otherness is constructed and how certain people and identities are marginalized.”

Swanson’s art has appeared at venues such as the Broad Museum in Lansing, The Power Plant in Toronto, the North Miami Museum of Contemporary Art and Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where he held a solo exhibition. His work is currently part of Personal Structures, an official satellite show of Italy’s world-renowned Venice Biennale 2017.

A busy year for Swanson, his next solo show Marginalia is an exploration of linguistic interfaces such as books, paper and computer screens. It opens Dec. 8 at the Dairy Center for the Arts in Boulder. And he will be showing Zapf Dingbats Revolved Around Their Y Axis as part of the CU Boulder faculty exhibition at the CU Art Museum, running Aug. 17 to Dec. 23.

Swanson’s commissioned work is found throughout Denver, including a wall-sized installation at the Halcyon Hotel in Cherry Creek; a work in Twitter’s corporate office; and a collection of works at the new Born Hotel in Denver, including various smaller works in guest rooms and suites, four larger works and a 30-foot, backlit, laser-cut aluminum wall at the entryway. All the Born Hotel’s artwork was commissioned from local artists and curated by Adam Lerner of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

At CU Boulder, Swanson teaches courses on digital art, typography and media theory through the ATLAS Institute. He received his Master of Fine Arts from the University of California San Diego, where his focus was computing and the arts. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in digital art from CU Boulder.

In all his work, Swanson explores the structures and technologies of language, and his work ranges from digital art and sculpture to interactive installations that playfully and powerfully merge words with meanings.

If you go

Who: Open to the public
What: Opening of Joel Swanson’s solo art exhibit, Sticks & Stones
When: Friday, Aug. 18, 6:30 to 9 p.m.
Where: David B. Smith Gallery, 1543 Wazee St., Denver  

Swanson will attend the opening, and an artist talk begins at 6:30.  The exhibit runs through Sept. 16.