All Classical Radio James Depreist

Heidi Schwegler’s ‘Existential Action Thriller’

The show at the North View Gallery at PCC Sylvania plays with notions of art and the everyday with some cockroaches thrown in for good measure.

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installation view of sculptures on low plinths
Installation view of Existential Action Thriller, 2024, PCC North View Gallery, Image Credit: Stephen Funk

Heidi Schwegler’s new show at PCC’s North View Gallery delivers on the paradox of its title: Existential Action Thriller (EAT). It is, by turns, thrilling, witty, and disturbing. Existentialism posits both a state of inertia and one of profound awe or dread. We are waiting for someone or something that will never come, but in that banal space, we encounter the void. Placing  this twentieth-century philosophy alongside a reference to an action thriller – the kind of mindless pop entertainment designed to distract us from our existential dread – Schwegler introduces the kinds of juxtapositions that permeate the work. 

While her practice has always been marked by mordant humor, a nod to Surrealism, and remarkable craftsmanship, the current body of work makes her art historical sources plain and allows the viewer not only to trace the artist’s intentions but to form their own web of interpretation. Schwegler’s fascination with the flotsam and jetsam of our world results in hybrid objects that speak both to everyday life as well as the habits and structures through which we view art.

installation view of gallery with sculpture objects on grid of low plinths
Installation view of Existential Action Thriller, 2024, PCC North View Gallery. Image Credit: Stephen Funk

The show consists of nineteen sculptures all completed in 2024. Materials include bronze, silver, aluminum, glass and found objects. Domestic objects – chairs, side tables, a rug, a mattress, pillows, a sink and a cereal box – are the most abundant but all are transformed by casting or other interventions that render them newly strange. Attention is also drawn to the institutional context of the gallery and the exclusion of artworks from the everyday. This is a show that questions how we prioritize objects.

Fifteen of the sculptures are arranged in a grid on low plywood plinths at the center of the gallery. As Schwegler notes, the grid arrangement speaks to the Brutalist architecture of PCC’s gallery but the plinths also disrupt our expectation of the gallery pedestal. They are much lower than traditional pedestals and thus require a different method of viewing. In some cases, visitors might have to bend or even crouch to view details of the sculptures. They isolate each sculpture as an object of investigation as much as one of aesthetic appreciation. As viewers, we engage with these objects in a more physical and intimate way, a connection further emphasized by the absence of plexiglass covers. 

vaguely anthropomorphic tree trunk with two "legs" on a low plinth
Heidi Schwegler, 100% chthonic, 2024, tamarisk tree trunk, rubber, wood, bronze. 52 x 21.5 x 12″

The geometric precision of the plinths also highlights the organic moments in the work. A stained rug, a sad little pillow, a dead cockroach, a cast of a ham hock are presented as kinds of evidence. This investigative approach is written into the sources of the project. Inspired by a shard of a discarded toilet found by the artist in the Mojave Desert in 2022, Schwegler engaged a forensic scientist, an archaeologist, a writer and a museum registrar to interpret the shard according to the guidelines of their disciplines. She then made work in response to their analyses. This new show continues that line of inquiry, considering the various ways we investigate and categorize objects.

Particular standouts among the works occupying these plinths  include 100% chthonic, a cross between a child’s rendering of a stick figure and a fragmentary classical torso in contrapposto. “Chthonic” refers to underworld gods of classical mythology but the “100%” of the title snaps the associations into the contemporary moment. The “figure” is composed of a found trunk of a tamarisk tree, an invasive species that bedevils desert dwellers with its thirst. A bronze cast of teeth is embedded in a crack at the top of the sculpture. This addition resonates with the rubber-coated protrusions that cover the surface and take on the appearance of teeth erupting from the “skin” of this figure. 

While funny (it includes a modest stick phallus), this work is also menacing, suggesting a voracious underworld god coming into the light. Conversely, the various props that allow the figure to remain upright  highlight its inability to move, to act. Thus, this underworld god becomes the existential action figure, both furious and hapless. I am reminded of Giacometti’s monumental, elongated figures, similarly robbed of their agency as in The Chariot (1950)

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Elsewhere, signs of human interaction with these objects reflect the give and take between us and the things we own.  In For Jai, a circular rug purchased from Etsy recast in glass, reveals a stained surface that suggests spilled wine. Placed adjacent to the mattress, the two works catalog the ways we leave our mark and wear things out. Blush, a cast glass child’s pillow, also shows pink staining while Uncanny my fanny is a chair whose seat and back are cast from the artist’s buttocks and spine. Frequently as in this case, the interactions between people and objects do not seem benign for either party. In Feel like a sucker, a folded  cushion cast in glass bears the imprint of a rock that has violently crashed into it. In Mild Peril, a cat curled on a cushion is trapped beneath a fragment of a steel beam. More perilous domestic events are alluded to in Rolling in ashes and What is fire?

bronze cockroach on a wall ejecting a stream of water into a white pedestal sink
Heidi Schwegler, A ladies man. 2024, bronze, fountain, motor bucket, plumbing, 64 x 23 x 23″

Two large-scale sculptures occupy the gallery’s walls, framing the grid arrayed in the center. In A ladies man, a large bronze cockroach pees into a sink placed below. In this work, Schwegler nods to Manneken Pis, a seventeenth-century Belgian fountain depicting a little boy peeing into the basin below. She is also referencing Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis whose central character wakes to find himself transformed into a large insect.  The title alludes to the author’s reputation as a ladies’ man, but it also reflects the personality that this large insect projects. There is a sense of movement and consciousness in the sculpture, perhaps enlivened by the scale shift. 

Placing these two references together – a peeing boy and Kafka’s protagonist –  collapses historical, mildly vulgar kitsch with existentialism, ably demonstrating the artist’s intent to confuse our gatekeeping. Like Duchamp’s Fountain, this piece is absurd, but Schwegler has turned her concept into a functioning fountain, rather the reverse of Duchamp’s readymade which turned function on its head. 

The challenge posed by Duchamp to the valuation of the handmade versus the manufactured, the art object versus the functional object and where to locate the original and authentic, runs cheekily throughout the show. The sink is clearly a found object, but the cockroach has a more complex backstory. Schwegler found a dead cockroach under a table in her studio. She successfully cast it in silver and pleased with the result, sent it to Form XYZ, a fabricator in Portland who digitally scanned it, scaled up to twenty inches and 3D printed it in a wax embedded resin. That object was sent to Madd Casting in Colorado where it was cast in bronze. Where is the original in this sequence and where is the hand of the artist? 

detail of a small metal dead cockroach in a circular indentation
Once and awhile you find the way out (detail), 2024, resin, sterling, found table, 23.5 x 20 x 20″

The “original” silver cockroach stars in another sculpture, Once in awhile you find the way out, in which a found table was altered to include a small depression to cradle its little body. The cockroach has found the way out in the manner we all face but it is transformed, like a saint’s bone, into a relic. This is an alchemical reversal of Kafka’s transformation; what was abject has become beautiful. The humble mid-century side table becomes a modern reliquary. In works like this, Schwegler begs the question of what we value and why.

Across the room from A ladies man, the only other large-scale sculpture not displayed on a plinth, Before I am dead, is composed of  a small tufted white mattress leaning against the wall. A cluster of purple glass spheres are arranged on the lower corner of the mattress, makeup smeared beneath suggests they have stained the pristine surface of the mattress. The placement of the mattress recalls British artist Sarah Lucas’ Au Naturel (1994) in which punning objects stand in for a naked man and woman. But in Schwegler’s piece, the mattress is scaled for one and reads as carefully chosen and feminine. It lacks the worn-out, dorm-room quality of Lucas’ earlier piece and thus evokes a different kind of intimacy. And while the make up/ stain suggests the body’s mark on the bed, the choice of glass troubles an easy reading of the stains being blood or other bodily secretions. Again, the arrangement of familiar materials in unfamiliar combinations raises more questions than it answers.

mattress leaned up against a wall with cluster of purple spheres in the lower left corner, stains below the spheres
Heidi Schwegler, Before I am dead, 2024, mattress, glass, makeup, 44 x 64 x 54″

On a return visit, I had the gallery to myself and the combination of the sound of falling water and the ambient soundtrack composed by the artist, created an environment that was both soothing and unnerving.  If there’s a narrative to be pieced together from the fragmentary evidence presented in this show, I think it might be a horror story.

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The North View Gallery is on the Portland Community College Sylvania campus. It is open Monday through Friday 8am-4pm and Saturdays by appointment. Heidi Schwegler’s Existential Action Thriller will be at the gallery through May 16th.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Abby McGehee is an art historian and arts educator living in Portland, Oregon. She taught at the Oregon College of Art and Craft from 1997-2019. She is the author of articles on Late Gothic architecture as well as contemporary subjects in the Pacific Northwest.

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