Julianne Swartz

Essay by Tim Griffin for the Luminous Exhibition Catalog, Bellevue Art Museum, 2001


The importance of the visual world seems to erode. Objects are still there, all around us and before our eyes, but they are completely woven into an unseen fabric that binds everything: We hear catchphrase about networks and systems providing innumerable global links that render previous conceptions of near and far irrelevant, and we imagine a wireless age. Thin air itself now contains unseen spectra of wavelengths that are saturated with flows of information, which download into Palm Pilots and cell phones with the presence of modern day oracles. Power resides in what you can't see or touch. Computers lose cooling units, becoming even smaller, and distill into abstract cubes; designers now encase them in translucent shells-creating objects that apparently rest on the very border of the sensual.

Julianne Swartz peels away the envelope of the unseen. But instead of adopting sleek, designed forms that threaten to vanish or dematerialize, her sculptures offer the sparest compositional threads. Dark fiber optic cables run across the floor or dangle over open areas like partially constructed spider webs, susceptible to the slightest air currents crated by an audiences passage through a room. Lights might hang by elastic strings among the cables, shining into these conduits that reach delicately through space; their bright emanations emerge, amazingly, on the other end as intimate and elastic, oscillating, expanding and contracting, almost organic projections on empty walls. (With an eye to the industrial age, you might call this a Rube Goldberg contraption of nothingness, or a year- zero, millennial Eva Hesse.) Light, like information, becomes a material to direct, manipulate and guide. And, in fact, the quality of light is transformed during its passage, as the fiber optic wires' mirrored interiors produce a strangely intense and diffuse optical texture, a nether worlds visuality-all in order to bring the intangible to the edge of materiality.

As when milky calcium is injected into the bloodstream to make the circulatory passages visible in X-rays, so Swartz's sculptures inject light into sculpture in order to materialize the idea of transmission. "Transmission" is often passed off as an arid term. Technology is supposed to be dry territory. It's quite the opposite for Swartz.

She recalls her youth in Arizona, where an unabated sun baked open terrain. Life existed only where there was water; and water existed only where irrigation systems carried it from well-supplied areas to depleted ones. The visual signs of life depended on networks buried deep in the earth, hidden from light that fell with merciless abundance across everything-in other words, on connections that were impossible to view.With Pynchonesque lyricism, the tangible only offered evidence of the intangible; the unseen was inextricably embedded in the seen. And today she inverts the equation, burying (and pipelining) light to once again make it into a metaphor of life.

In fact, ask her about the Internet, and Swartz might playfully bring up the communications theoretician George Gilder, whose humanist approach to technology crystallizes in a passage from Life after Television. Gilder envisioned "a crystalline web of glass and light, a computer in every home attached to a global fiber network." And this network offered a new sense of the spiritual, or mediated, world filtering into our own. This is how you might also think of Swartz's Camera-Less-Video's, which she calls "interior projections": works that provide glimpses of a kind of light that seems buried within light, or an example of light's malleable substance and material weight, when it comes to its effect on the appearance of things. In these pieces, Swartz arrays small sections of plumbing pipe dangling on strings before a window; their shafts are roughly eye size and contain convex lenses. At first, the exterior scene--whether of apartments building rooftops or sea-level landscapes--will seem concrete and static, the very stuff of reality. But Swartz┬╣s camera-obscura-style reflections within each pipe section shimmer with unreality, and soon destabilize everything: Walking before the window, one catches split -second glimpses of its pocketed, slightly washed, upside-down images of the concrete world. The pipes are like hovering peepholes, creating delicate perforations in the field of vision; they seem to be portals from real to mediated worlds, where the open-air differences in qualities of light create an invisible wall that is simultaneously traversed. If Swartz takes transmission as her subject, then her greatest success occurs when she blurs the material and the immaterial--and makes viewers feel they are moving freely between these realms, seemingly without moving at all.