Arts Magazine Long Afternoon

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Take a leisurely walk through a long afternoon: Two local artists pay attention to castoffs and old treasures

“LONG AFTERNOON” is a new Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) show featuring new work by artist Celeste Nelms and Carolyn Swiszcz. In their exhibition of photographs and mixed media paintings, both pay homage to things well past their prime, objects created and treasured and later cast off or forgotten.

Celeste Nelms has usually figured into her own photographs. She designs and constructs sets or ambiguous landscapes and positions her camera to capture the scene—with just seven seconds to get into the picture herself.

For “Long Afternoon,” Nelms orchestrated a series of photographs that depict her in various natural settings, interacting with an object once valued by somebody else. In exploring the dynamic between humans and their materials realm, Nelms searches intuitively through thrift stores, discarded materials, and yard sales for items of interest or mystery. She seeks donations of once-cherished objects from other people, interviewing them and tape recording their particular recollections. Some of her photographs are set in “talking frames,” which, when activated, play audio snippets of these interviews.

There is a sort of alchemical energy to Nelm’s work—the chance landing of a butterfly on her face, or the artist jumping hurdles of plastic—flower grave markers in a field of tall grass in a breathtaking race against death. She allows the camera to catch what it will. Her posture, gestures, and expressions shift, radically morphing her identity from beautiful woman, to innocent child, to tired old man. Nelms says all people run the gamut of identities when they drop their self-conscious smiles. The mysterious and timeless sense of Nelm’s photographs is further enhanced by her signature sepia print tone and the variety of quirky frames.

Like Nelms, Swiszcz (pronounced “Swiz”) frees things from their neglect, giving us a chance to reconsider what she extracted from the street. Known for her paintings of homely architecture, Swiszcz breaks the spell of looking-right-at-something-and-not-seeing-it in collage paintings of run-down buildings, strip malls, and fast-food restaurants. Although not nostalgic, Swiszcz’ art breathes new life into ubiquitous street kitsch, through works awash with ironic humor. Swiszcz’ phone booths, ice machines, and logos that brand fast-food trash are served up in an affectionate smorgasbord of color and pattern.

Swiszcz is attracted to such things, she says, because she is a product of her hometown, New Bedford, Massachusetts. Once one of the richest cities in the country, New Bedford deteriorated with the decline of the whaling and textile industries. Swiszcz returned to New Bedford last year, intending to make an epic piece of art that would force her to re-examine the place she tried to ignore while she was growing up. Over a period of several months, Swiszcz painted the storefronts and miscellaneous architecture of New Bedford’s main street, Acushnet Avenue. Though truncated by highways built in the 1970s, the avenue survives as a busy, multi-ethnic conglomeration of commercial and residential buildings, ranging from early twentieth-century tenements to faux-Chinese ornamental arches.

“Long Afternoon” features a panoramic sequence of these works, including snapshot-sized paintings of a strip mall parking lot, with a splendid flock of seagulls descending upon trash from Dunkin Donuts. Swiszcz pays tribute to the place that “really gets to her.” In her paraphrase, “you can take the girl out of the hometown, but you cant take the hometown out of the girl.”

Cynde Randall is an artist and Program Associate for the MAEP.

Long Afternoon
May 22 through July 13, 2003
“Long Afternoon” is presented by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, which is made possible by generous support from Jerome Foundation. Celeste Nelms’s work is made possible, in part, by a residency at the Blacklock Nature Sanctuary, funded by a 2002 Aritsts Fellowship from Jerome Foundation, and a Career Opportunity Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Carolyn Swiszcz’ work is made possible, in part, by a fellowship from the Bush Foundation and support from ArtWorks at Dover Street in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Citation: Cynde Randall, “Take a leisurely walk through a long afternoon: Two local artists pay attention to castoffs and old treasures,” Arts 26, no.4 (May 2003): 20.