Street art has experienced a crossover into fine art in recent decades, transforming its image as a form of criminal vandalism to one of public self-expression, able to access audiences outside the formal setting of museum and gallery. Detroit has, of late, been courting some of the artists who, having made their names on the street, been embraced by these very same institutions. Blockbuster branding artist Shepard Fairey came to visit in May of last year as the invited guest muralist for one of Dan Gilbert’s many downtown buildings—and found himself in some legal hot water for leaving some unsanctioned works around town—an ironic statement on the crucial nature of context if ever there was one. 

But it’s a new year, and Detroit has a new visiting artist—Caledonia “Callie” Curry, better known as Swoon, a Brooklyn-based mixed-media artist—who has been mounting her touching and deeply personal portraits all around town in public, private and institutional settings. 

Swoon2The Light After at Library Street Collective L: Installation view from "The Tunnel" portion of the show. R: Installation view from "The Meadow" portion of the show, also viewable through the window from the Belt art alleyway. The cornerstone of her visit is a solo show, The Light After, at the downtown Library Street Collective, whose stable of artists include other names from the streets, such as Pose, Revok, and Hense. Gallery partner Anthony Curis (also Vice President of the real estate development firm Curis Enterprises) points to the Swoon project as part of a new effort on the part of Library Street Collective to become more engaged with the art scene beyond its walls, and was instrumental in facilitating the connections that led to Swoon’s installation of a large-scale work, “Thalassa,” in the Great Hall at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The piece, which features a 20-foot central female figure named after the Greek goddess of the sea, radiates across the vaulted space of the Great Hall, her skirts spreading out in intricate banners of cut paper and detritus. The piece, like many of Swoon’s works, repurposes a portrait created and reiterated many times on the street or in other settings, and was originally conceived as an installation piece for the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2011—around the same time Swoon launched an ambitious Musical Architecture project to encourage the return of musicians to post-Katrina New Orleans. The installation will remain in the DIA through March 19, 2017.

SwooncropThe Light After at Library Street Collective, installation view from "The Tunnel" portion of the show.“I think I have found that a lot of my long-term projects are really about how creativity addresses crisis—from ecological disaster to social crisis,” said Swoon, in an interview in downtown Detroit, just adjacent to one of two public mural projects she mounted during her whirlwind visit to the city. “So that’s where I tend to lay down longer roots.” 

Besides New Orleans, Swoon has staged long-term projects in Haiti, Braddock, PA, and Philadelphia. “I think my long-term projects tend to be about bringing the balm and the problem-solving skill set of creativity to some of the more difficult times and places in our lives.”

Swoon often goes about accessing these universal themes of difficulty through extremely personal experience, and her work on The Light After deals with the loss of her mother in 2013 following a long illness with cancer. Leveraging LSC’s recently expanded architecture, Swoon’s installation fills two galleries and a connecting corridor in a visual manifestation of her own shared death experience connected to her mother’s passing. Populated by freestanding and wall-mounted portraits in her trademark detailed style, both in the painstaking rendering of the drawn figures and their elaborate adornment with cut paper and other decorative elements, Swoon creates an immersive experience which she characterizes as, “The Tunnel, The Barrier, and The Meadow”—incorporating her own vision, as well as extensive research on the shared death experiences of others. 

Mural3Swoon, during installation of her downtown mural“The show isn’t about Detroit,” said Swoon, “but the whole installation was really conceived for Library Street Collective. There are figures that show up in different places, but this portrait [in the downtown mural, located at the Ally Detroit Center at 500 Woodward Avenue]—and there’s one more, it’s the first time I’m showing them.”

The second mural in this series was facilitated by the DIA, and installed at Jefferson and Manistique, on a wall next to a carwash in the far eastside Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood. Regardless of context, Swoon’s work is always aesthetically astonishing—her street handle seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy, for it’s hard to avoid falling for her heartfelt portraits—but even with all her recent institutional success, there remains something fundamental and powerful about encountering her imagery out on the streets. 

“Thalassa” remains on display in the DIA’s Great Hall through March 19, 2017, and is free with museum admission, which is free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. The Light After is on display through November 26, 2016 at Library Street Collective.

You can see Swoon’s public murals at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Manistique, and downtown at the Alley Detroit Center. 

All photos courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp 

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