Misunderstood Monsters | A new body of work by Stewart Swan

Posted by Kim Soep on

New body of work by Stewart Swan

The collection of mixed-media works on paper-The Last Thylacine, Yowie, Wolfie Watch Out- Gardez-vous and Ammit the Devourer- by Stewart Swan with their bold and eye-catching compositions resemble posters- not too dissimilar to the types of propaganda used to incite fear and hate at the beginning of the 20th-century. But instead of spreading misinformation and lies about his subjects, Stewart endeavours to set the record straight, reassessing the over-angular interpretation of these so-called monsters.

The Last Thylacine, unlike the other works from his series, is about a species of animal that actually existed prior to being hunted to extinction in the 1930s. And yet, the story of its fate is just as alluringly abstract as the folklore surrounding shapeshifting wolves and Egyptian goddesses. 

Little is known about the thylacine, since no formal study had been made before its extinction in 1936. It was commonly known by European settlers as the Tasmanian tiger for the stripes that ran down its spine, and in spite of its superficial resemblance to a large dog, the thylacine was a marsupial with no relation to canines. Blamed by farmers for killing sheep and other livestock, a witch hunt ensued with the government establishing bounties for every thylacine killed. Their already meagre numbers dwindled and efforts to conserve the species were too little, too late. The last thylacine to be killed in the wild was shot by a hunter in 1930, and the last captive thylacine died in Hobart Zoo in 1936. 

A photograph of two thylacines in the National Zoo in Washington, USA, c.1903 (courtesy Wikipedia).

It is our fear of the unknown that ties these four characters together. In the same manner that his portrait The Last Thylacine eulogises a creature unfairly demonised, Stewart Swan re-renders bogeymen, so long the subject of nightmares and horror stories, as more lovable tricksters or antiheroes than scary monsters. As such, he appeals to our better nature, urging us to put down our pitchforks and torches, to stop the fear and the hate, and to look at things differently.

His gestural mark-making and scribbled words are the result of year's studying Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose art also intended to change attitudes. And like Basquiat, who used debris- discarded canvases, cardboard and old apartment doors- to emphasise themes in his work, Stewart makes work on found objects and other salvaged surfaces. By painting and drawing on old parchment maps here, Stewart not only assimilates a bygone era but appropriates the nature of cartography itself- mapping and surveying data and passages from reference books to form these detailed profiles.

What we discover in Stewart's work, with his many lines of influence, is his unrestricted approach to making art. It affords depth and richness to his visual narratives that like any good anecdote or fairytale moves us and inspires us to wonder, to affect change even. Yes, his work explores more sinister stories but in the words of Martin Luther King "Only in darkness can you see the stars," Stewart, from the shadows, shows us the light.


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