Ricky Swallow and Lesley Vance
by Jonathan Griffin
Step out the door of Ricky Swallow and Lesley Vance’s new studio in Burbank, California, and you come face to face with the largest Ikea store in the United States. The blue and yellow behemoth was not there in October 2015, when the artists bought the former green screen manufacturing facility, but today, as they finish the renovation of the building and begin to unpack boxes of tools, materials and artworks, the store has been drawing crowds of shoppers since February.
The improbable location in some ways seems fortuitous. Swallow and Vance, who married in 2008, are equipping their building with a fully functioning kitchen and dining area, a library and two bathrooms. They intend it eventually to feel like a home away from home. Vance, a painter, prefers to cook her own lunch, but she tells me that workers at the studio often run out to Ikea to pick up cheap meatballs at lunchtime. Furthermore, Swallow’s cast bronze sculptures often depict cups, jugs, clocks, chairs and lamps, not to mention everyday materials such as cane and rope, or cardboard packaging – all of which is abundant at Ikea.
Swallow, however, has vowed never to set foot inside the megastore. It would be just too convenient, he says, to furnish the studio entirely in goods from Ikea. Sitting in Swallow and Vance’s Laurel Canyon home, in the Hollywood Hills, it is evident that the couple approach the design of their domestic environment with the same thoughtfulness and precision that they bring to their art. The house – which they bought as “a wreck” in 2009 and refurbished largely themselves – sits on a steep hillside on a twisty, dead-end street, and is surrounded on one side with continuous windows that open onto eucalyptus and oak trees, with hummingbirds darting around the garden and hawks wheeling high in the clear blue skies overhead. Inside, the modestly sized home is filled with the books, art and artifacts that the couple have collected together ever since they first moved in together.
They have been working side by side now for over a decade. They first met in 2002 when Vance, then a student at CalArts, invited Swallow to lecture about his work. She recognized one of his titles – ‘The Stars Don’t Shine Upon Us, We’re in the Way of their Light/Family Telescope’ – as a line from a song by the band Silver Jews. (“Lesley thought she had some kind of insight into me,” Swallow teases.) After he moved from Los Angeles to London, they kept in touch. In 2005 Vance undertook an artist’s residency at Giverny, the site of Claude Monet’s home and garden, and Swallow took the Eurostar to Paris to meet her. “It was a great start to our romance,” Vance says. She had a key to the garden, so the new lovers could let themselves in through a gate after the crowds of tourists had left in the evening.
2005 was a significant year for them both professionally too. Swallow was chosen to represent his native Australia at the Venice Biennale at the age of 30, the youngest artist ever to do so. In Los Angeles, Vance had her first solo exhibition at the then-fledging David Kordansky Gallery, where she became the first artist to be officially represented. (She still shows with Kordansky; Swallow joined her at the gallery in 2014.)
When Swallow moved from London to Los Angeles, in 2006, he and Vance moved in together straight away. Their first home in east-L.A.’s Highland Park was a live/work space, so they became used to working in close proximity. But even the closest partnership has its limits. For the past eight years they shared a studio in which their spaces were separated by a wall that did not reach the ceiling; they referred to it as “the tennis net,” over which they lobbed comments and questions back and forth. “Lesley used to have to walk through my studio to get to hers,” says Swallow. “It felt like too much co-habitation.”
When Vance and Swallow first sat down with an architect to discuss plans for their new Burbank space, Vance’s first question was how separate the two studios would feel. Each artist now has their own entrance door, and since their studios are separated by a corridor, one can neither see nor hear the other when they are at work. They even have separate ‘his and hers’ mess sinks for cleaning their tools.
“It took years to figure out how to be with each other in the studio,” Vance says. Around two years ago, she established the firm rule that Swallow could not comment on her work unless she asked him to. “I know where a painting’s going,” she explains, “but he doesn’t.” Earlier in her career, her painting process entailed the creation of a still life composition which she subsequently abstracted, leaving a sensation of spatial depth and atmospheric luminosity.
Vance is greatly influenced by 16th and 17th century Baroque painters such as Francisco de Zurbarán and Juan Sánchez Cotán, even though her abstract works may finally appear to have more in common with Cubism or Bauhaus painting, inflected with a graphic, contemporary sharpness. These days, the series of transformations that her paintings undergo is entirely intuitive, so improvised gestures and textures are reworked into pictures that seem to fold over and under themselves.
Additionally, she says, Swallow’s comments were usually encouraging; what did it mean, then, when occasionally he passed by and said nothing? Now, she says, she typically asks him what he thinks when she has a hunch that something in a painting is not working. Swallow says that if he ever opines that a certain section is wrong or unnecessary, she will quickly respond, “I knew it! I just needed to check!” “That happens a lot,” Vance concedes, laughing.
“Our practices are so different,” says Swallow. While Vance works in thin layers of oil paint that dry within a day or two, making numerous time-pressurized decisions along the way, Swallow’s sculptures are typically formed from cardboard, rope or wood, which he then casts as unique bronze surrogates, which he colours with patinas. He says that, because he makes his initial constructions quite quickly and intuitively, “if we’re talking about something of mine that’s not working, that just means that sculpture doesn’t need to be made.”
The two artists are also temperamentally different. “When Lesley goes to the studio,” he says, “she would be happy if someone just slid food under the door. She could stay in that room for twelve hours without leaving. Me, I get distracted more easily.” The painstaking and technical process of casting and patinating his sculptures at the foundry a few miles from the studio, he says, is a way of focusing his attention.
Swallow describes how observing Vance’s studio practice led him a few years ago to make an abrupt change in his work. He first gained recognition for his meticulously carved wooden sculptures, such as the piece he showed at the Venice Biennale, ‘Killing Time’ (2003-4), a life-sized dining table arrayed with fish and other sea creatures, all carved from jelutong and maple wood. When the couple bought their Laurel Canyon house in 2009, he gave up his studio for a few months in order to focus on the renovation. The laborious carving process had become burdensome and restrictive, and the break in his work allowed him to take a new direction. He regarded the painters he knew with envy. “I didn’t know that I wanted to make a different kind of work, but I knew I wanted to behave differently in the studio, and I wanted to be happier in the studio,” he says. “It’s like a tennis player who gets injured and then comes back even better,” adds Vance, sunnily. “It was like an injury break.”
It might be glib to say that Swallow carries his interest in material transformation over into the ambitious construction projects that he immerses himself in. Nevertheless, Swallow told me that he sees the new studio “as an extension of my sculpture practice at this point,” and he talks about it in sculptural terms. “It’s a very materially active space,” he says, pointing out the corrugated steel roofs, the plywood, the polished concrete floors and the exposed steel I-beams. “There’s no way the building’s not going to change what we make.”
The building – each studio three times the size of their previous spaces – also poses a challenge to the scale of both Swallow and Vance’s work. “There is such an expectancy in the art world to always scale up,” Swallow says. “I feel like I’ve consciously or unconsciously always resisted that. There has to be a good reason to make something bigger. Sculpture is not always something that you would put inside your house,” he continues, “but everything I make I hope has a domestic charge to it, to its materiality and its scale.” In the past, Vance too has generally kept her canvases to modest dimensions – rarely larger than around 40 x 60 cm. This year, both artists have exhibited in larger galleries than they are used to (Swallow’s first solo show at Maccarone, New York, and Vance at David Kordansky’s new gallery in L.A.) and have responded by scaling up their work.
The question of scale, for Vance, is about how one looks at a painting or an object. The larger it is, the more it pushes the viewer back; the smaller it is, the more it invites her in. She says that she and Swallow are both drawn to things “that you can hold in your hand, or sink your teeth into.” Nowhere is this more evident than in their home collection, which includes ceramics, weavings and design objects, including the bronze multiples of Austrian metalworker Carl Auböck. The couple own an extensive collection of ‘weed pots’ by the African-American ceramicist Doyle Lane, who worked in east Los Angeles until his death in 2002. These pots – most no bigger than a tangerine – are glazed in diverse experimental colours and textures, and are clustered like a beach of outlandish pebbles on the couple’s dressing table.
Swallow and Vance are also enthusiasts for the work of husband and wife ceramicists Magdalena Suarez Frimkess and Michael Frimkess, both now in their 80s, who live and work in Venice Beach. Michael throws the pots, while Magdalena glazes them with wild designs that borrow from pre-Columbian or Native American patterns, as well as contemporary advertising and cartoon strips. (Popeye and Olive Oyl are favourites.) Swallow and Vance have laid tiles made by Magdalena around the fireplace in their living room, just as the Frimkesses have in their own home.
“We like weirder, idiosyncratic work that feels very personal,” says Vance. Everything in their home seems to have a story attached to it, whether it is the group of ceramic cameras made by the Melbourne-based artist Alan Constable, who is legally blind, or the tiny twisted bundle of plastic and metal by the mysterious Outsider artist known as the Philadelphia Wireman. A marble-mounted, bronze sculpture bristling with wooden popsicle sticks was originally made in Playdough by their son Marsden when he was two and a half, and cast by his proud father. (Marsden is now three and a half; “his artistic skills have gone downhill since then,” notes Vance, drily.)
The couple’s approach to collecting took a significant turn a couple of years ago when they made the decision to acquire fewer, but more significant things. A cardboard, wood and wire construction by Richard Tuttle called ‘Tiger Tail’, from 1983, was, at the time, their most extravagant purchase. “It’s not only the most expensive thing in the house, it’s also the most ephemeral thing!” says Swallow of its fragile materiality. The piece is intended by Tuttle to be hung low – around chest-height – which appealed to the artists, both of whom are smaller than average in stature. (Although when I ask Vance how tall they are, she answers dismissively, “Normal!”)
“We both feel it’s impacted our work,” says Vance of the semi-abstract ‘Tiger Tail’, a spatial riddle that spirals like a piece of orange peel. “When you decide to buy a piece of art it’s so powerful to have that in your house, to see it every day.” Perhaps this is how the couple’s practices most profoundly intersect, through their shared absorption of the varied influences of their daily home life. It is inevitable, though they certainly never set out to present themselves as a double-act. (They admit they even thought twice about agreeing to this interview.) Swallow says, “One of the most refreshing things a collector could say to us is that he or she didn’t know we were married.” Vance smiles and nods. “That’s the best!”
First published in German translation: BLAU, October 2017