Artist Gary Sweeney, a California transplant with an unshakable beach-bum ease and glow, is one of San Antonio’s ambassadors to the outside world. His “Nostalgia, Texas” series of billboards abuts the parking garage at San Antonio International Airport, where it beckons visitors and locals with glowing imagery redolent of the visual pleasures of midcentury advertising (think Mad Men, if they did sketch comedy). But the text lassos your brain in a completely different direction than the pictures: A dapper, 1950s couple confer with a uniformed gas-station attendant from the comfort of their stylish coupe under signs marked “Boerne” and “Gruene,” with the caption “Hill Country, Texas: We have dozens of towns you can’t pronounce.” A beatific image of HemisFair Park appears complete with merrymakers and a Ferris wheel, while the (correct vintage typeface) text proclaims, “HemisFair ’68, San Antonio, Texas: You’re Way Too Late!”
Nostalgia and its uses, its seductions and its pitfalls, course through Gary Sweeney’s current one-man show at Sala Diaz, and act as a circulatory system fueling his energetic, ever-expanding body of work. Humor is the cerebellum, a toolbox of switcheroos that juxtaposes word and image with a pleasurable (or, sometimes, unsettling) shock; his works often balance the gentle and the sharp, a teeter-totter of … but I’m biting Sweeney’s style, here.
Witness the title of the show, Maybe If Your Metaphors Weren’t So Obvious. Classic Sweeney: He acknowledges his own use of metaphor, which is a literary device as much as a visual one — in his economical wordplay and tweaking of vernacular axioms, Sweeney’s work recalls that of postmodern fiction stylists such as Pynchon (see sidebar) and DeLillo as much as the visual conceits of other “conceptual” artists — and also devises a joke-like conditional set-up which he then playfully declines to finish. “If your metaphors weren’t so obvious” … then, what? The punchline comes in the form of one of a series of wooden panels, upon which a Boy Scout protects a little girl from an aggressive dog. It sets your mind in motion, this panel, because while rich with associations, it doesn’t really close the circuit as neatly as a knock-knock joke does, but prompts reflection on the nature of metaphor itself, and maybe even the limits of language. What is a Boy Scout protecting a girl from a dog a metaphor for? This evocative ambiguity, his refusal to sew it all up for you, illustrates Sweeney’s carefully calibrated tension and interplay of language and picture, their refraction and interdependence.
And vulnerability. There’s always a chance that in connecting the dots of image and word, some meaning will be lost, or worse, oversold. The artist risks coming off as obtuse and unintelligible, or worse, a hack. Or being too clever, or too earnest. Sweeney has manifested this risk in the front rooms of Sala Diaz by either painting or printing his series of metaphoric one-liners on wooden “cards,” which he then assembled into two “houses” that, he readily admits, may well collapse at any time. He’d never built a house of cards before, and did a Google image search to figure out how. The effect is arresting, funny, and elegant, and like Sweeney himself, surprisingly deep. •