How does one render the past visible in our unfolding days? Especially days so jammed with spectacle and alarm? Rob Swainston and Zorawar Sidhu assume the task Walter Benjamin set for the articulation of history — to “seize hold of the past as it flashes up at a moment of danger” — in Doomscrolling, a series of 18 monumental woodcuts from 2020 and 2021. Each is titled by a single date corresponding to an event in the annus horribilis leading up to the storming of the Capitol: the murder of George Floyd, Trump’s Bible photo-op, the Kyle Rittenhouse shootings, the fire-bombing of the police station in Minneapolis, and so on. More than singular events, however, the artists convey the fabric of truth and lies, righteousness and hatred, that textured it all in a montage of graffiti, red MAGA caps, stars and stripes, the smoke and fire of protests and riots, and the emblems and gear of Black Lives Matter and the COVID pandemic. Swainston (who is my teaching colleague at Purchase College) began his intellectual life in political science, Sidhu in art history, and their backgrounds inform what we see — a news feed that nonetheless hews to the genealogy of woodcut as a medium of fervor and resistance.
At the height of the first lockdown, Swainston rode his bike through empty New York City streets, photographing boarded-up storefronts. This sparked an idea to re-use the wood for prints once the city began to reopen. More than a hundred sheets of plywood, all but one 57 1/2 by 45 1/2 inches, were harvested from the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum, which donated most of the materials after removing the boards from their windows, to be hauled away in a truck by the artists. In fact, the price of plywood had shot up during the pandemic; Swainston and Sidhu could not have otherwise afforded a project of such scale, which demanded endless proofing and, in the end, five to six large plates per print, in an edition of five. (In woodcut, each color must be printed from a separate block).
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Swainston and Sidhu incorporated the damaged and wheat-pasted surfaces of the harvested plywood to achieve unexpected textures. They also re-created its graffiti, photographing and reversing words and slogans as they CNC-routed the blocks and then finished them with hand carving. Their matrices, roughly the reach of a human body, bore the DNA of human action, transparently layered in runs through the press. Thus, in “July 4,” giddy patriots wave their arms in front of a monument to Robert E. Lee and, behind that, Mt. Rushmore. And pressed within these multiple planes, embodying an impossible contiguity of time and space, is a welter of words and slogans, which serves at once to fracture the compositional integrity of the image and bridge its many layers.
Swainston and Sidhu have been collaborating with each other for four years, constantly experimenting, sometimes failing, in their efforts to adapt certain digital technologies to their preferred medium. With Doomscrolling they have succeeded in the meld — most strikingly in regard to color, as they digitally mapped ahead of time the effects of superimposed hues, yet ultimately relied on a more traditional process of repeatedly test-proofing, adjusting saturation within a limited palette of reds, yellows, and blues. (There is no black at all, i.e., no determinant key block.) The quality of color changes from one print to the next; in one, the blue might be that of a cloudless sky and in the next, the cold light of an IC unit; red, the blood of a martyr or the glimmering hues of a computer screen during the night watch of a doomscroller. Yellow migrates through as flames, sunflower petals, a Proud Boys mask. One peers closely at the deep greens of the lawn in Central Park, ringed with white circles in which families picnic within a safe distance of each other; yet that solid green becomes unstable, as a giant ventilator mask and tubes subtly materialize within it to menace the innocent. Also present in this particular print, “July 19,” is the famous anamorphic skull from Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” (1533), then as now a reminder of the fleeting nature of all life.
Such references abound — especially alluring for those steeped in the history of prints. What look like lines of smoke wafting through a number of scenes are the distinctive parallel hatch marks of the 17th-century French engraver Claude Mellan, blown up to act as a visual screen. A raised hand emerging from the crowd at a BLM demonstration (“May 27”) is that of a Käthe Kollwitz heroine; a riot cop’s horse (“June 1, 7:30 PM”) a quotation of one of Dürer’s four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Dürer’s Apocalypse offered particular inspiration, as well it should: the first great woodcut masterpiece of the Renaissance, created in the last decade of the 1400s, as the century was about to turn — to believers, ever a signpost that marks the end of the world.
Thus the Dürer-esque starburst pattern found in a number of the prints, like “August 25,” in which Kyle Rittenhouse, with a malevolent halo, crouches over the body of the slain skateboarder Anthony Huber. Again, the artists seized on a past motif but altered its meaning. Those, for example, who take comfort in the Arts and Crafts verities of William Morris, beware: his wallpaper appears, transformed, in an image of the St. Louis couple who menaced protesters, locked with their AR15 into a trellis of blooming, poisonous species. Art history and media, here imbricated in the medium of woodcut, entwine in a warning of present danger. Perhaps such a mixture offers a pathway out of the current screen-based obsession with death and mayhem and into a public engagement that is the rare but happy outcome of the best political art.
Zorawar Sidhu and Rob Swainston: Doomscrolling continues at Petzel gallery (35 East 67th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 12.