James MacSwain, Ex Lib­ris

The Coast - - ARTS - —Mollie Cronin

To Novem­ber 25 Her­mes Gallery, 5682 North Street

There is a chil­dren’s game called Ex­quis­ite Corpse, which is much less grue­some than the name sug­gests: A piece of pa­per is folded three times and play­ers take turns draw­ing the head, torso and legs of a fig­ure, to cre­ate a weird and funny Franken­stein’s mon­ster.

Though far more com­plex in their struc­ture, James MacSwain’s col­lages have a sim­i­lar ef­fect. With ref­er­ences pulled from books on an­cient Egypt, craft his­tory and chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, in Ex Lib­ris MacSwain com­poses strange worlds in his pa­per dioramas, col­laged por­traits and ac­cor­dion books.

Stand­ing up by the grace of the weight of their own sturdy pa­per, MacSwain weaves ma­gi­cians, devils and queens into cu­ri­ous worlds. It’s as though he has cracked open a book and peeled away the words from a com­pli­cated story, leav­ing us with the un­rav­elled, messy vis­ual soup be­neath them.

MacSwain is in­ter­ested in the book as an ob­ject and plays with the ma­te­ri­al­ity of pa­per and ink. Con­structed of pa­per and card, his works feel dense and richly coloured, some­where be­tween book and sculp­ture. The col­laged fig­ures in these scenes—cherub freefalling with div­ing air­planes, stained glass saints and nude ac­tors wear­ing gi­ant masks —call to mind how pre­cious we con­sider books, for we worry that these may have been cut from beau­ti­ful books, like teen stars from mag­a­zines.

While quotes from Lewis Car­roll writ­ten in vinyl on the gallery’s bench re­mind us of child­hood clas­sics, MacSwain’s por­traits are often of more adult fare: Com­posed of in­di­vid­ual printed pho­tos, they in­clude shots of friend’s crotches and half-naked drag queens sprawled across the gallery wall. But where they ven­ture into the bawdy, MacSwain’s works also hold onto a child­hood fas­ci­na­tion with books. Af­ter all, from games to books, the best artists al­ways re­mem­ber what it was like to be a child.


“The Ghost of a Flea, Homage to William Black,” pa­per, matt board, ac­etate and glue, 2006.

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