As a scholar of contemporary visual culture, nothing excites me more than an artist aware of their place in (art) history. In much of his work, Gray Swartzel attends not merely to the most pertinent themes of our times, but also to traditional modes of representation—photographic, compositional, and critical components anchoring his oeuvre in historiography. Clear links to histories, both artistic and familial rise through Gray’s images: Yasumasa Morimura, Cindy Sherman, Peter Hugo, Nan Goldin, Man Ray; the bleeding harmony of his mother’s living room songs, music tainted by deep roots in the American South, restrictive femininity, and patriarchy.
Swartzel’s works function as expository devices, ones that make visible the invisible; allowing the spiritual, ephemeral nature of social constructs to surface before our eyes. For us, a somewhat lost generation (what most call the ‘Millennials’), the invisible threads of identity—gender, sexuality, the familial, placehood—construct our vision of the world. Three themes dominate the work of Gray Swartzel: connection, alienation and mortality.
His projects are bound by connections to the past, ties that suggest a tenable future through their ruminations of the present. Connection takes the form of the familial, of the bodily, in Swartzel’s work. Photographs of his mother wearing his grandfather’s uniform, shooting the artist dead with a pistol, and smoking an unfiltered cigarette meld the body and the family, through which a faint trace of alienation surfaces. The artist is not only creator, but also voyeur to the origins of his own existence, threads saturated with maternal admiration and gender parody. Through visually questioning the very nature of social structures, of the aforementioned identities so prescient to his generation, this work suggests the oscillation between acceptance and sequestration from the very forms of being Swartzel’s works isolate. Isolation, loneliness, and identity: this is the very stuff of humanity, of mortality. Death underlies the whole of Swartzel’s oeuvre. It is behind his mother’s eyes, wrapped around him like a blue fur, held in the hands of the women he has photographed. This body of work bares the bones of what makes us unequivocally human: the triviality of the very systems we so rely on, structures that are ultimately as fragile and fleeting as our own mortality.
– Rachel S. Fesperman, Ph.D. is an intersectional art historian focusing on gender, queer, and de/post-colonial studies