Ricky Swallow’s Salad days

An awareness of time and its passing is a powerful force in Ricky Swallow’s art. It is the subject that has preoccupied his practice since the late 1990s and surfaces repeatedly throughout his works. Salad days, 2005, recently acquired with funds provided by the Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, provides an intense and autobiographical focus on the nature of time, life and death. Developed by Swallow for the 2005 Venice Biennale where it was exhibited alongside its companion Killing time, 2003–04 (in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales), Salad days, like Killing time, marks a shift in direction away from the pop iconography of his earlier works towards a more introspective approach. Salad days is rooted in personal memory and the artist’s sense and experience of time.

Meticulously hand-carved from jelutong, a pale-coloured hardwood that in recent years has become Swallow’s preferred material, Salad days is a relief sculpture in the classical tondo format. A rabbit, duck, magpie and sparrow form the central ensemble, tethered together, hanging upside down. Beneath them rats, mice, lizards and a small fox’s skull add to the inventory of deceased creatures. Rendered with remarkable exactitude and attention to detail, the bodies of these animals appear oddly alert, as if in suspended animation or between life and death, strangely fixed forever in their final moment. Looking in from an outer edge, a swallow has stopped to survey the sombre scene. Witness to time’s passing, the bird (and artist’s namesake) encapsulates the work’s reflection on mortality, and self-consciously dwells on the artist’s past.

By merging art historical sources with imagery charged with nostalgia for a youth spent in coastal and country Australia, Swallow brings an autobiographical perspective to the art-historical conventions of the still life and vanitas. European game lifted from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century still-life paintings are transformed into animals commonly found in the Australian landscape. A hare borrowed from a Chardin painting reappears as a rabbit; a partridge from a still life by Jan Baptiste Weenix is reconfigured as a magpie. Conceived as a sculptural inventory of all the things Swallow can remember hunting during his youth, Salad days functions like a melancholic catalogue of memories, summoning events from the past.

For Swallow, the lengthy time required to produce a sculpture is as important as the material outcome. The carving process is a way of ‘honouring’ his subjects. Each finely registered detail represents a measure of time; every sculpture, an accumulation of moments passed. In Salad days (and the Killing time project it concludes), the process has become an act of atonement; each carved form — and each life lost — is, as Swallow has stated, ‘a debt paid in time’.

Salad days is a poignant sculpture that formally acknowledges the artist’s own history while simultaneously musing on the human condition. It marks an important development in Swallow’s work and is a valuable addition to the gallery’s collection of contemporary art.

Jane Devery, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art and Exhibitions, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2006).