Kim Sweet and the Consolations of Post-Romantic Painting
USC Roski School of Art and Design, Los Angeles
Through May 13, 2023
Written by Grant Vetter
While the debut of Kim Sweet’s paintings at the USC Roski School of Art and Design marks the first time that the artist is having a solo exhibition in Los Angeles, she has been making challenging work about the human condition and our collective relationship to the landscape for many years. Power embodied in personages, distant horizons acting as a metaphor, and even the subtle interference of real-world objects pushed up against their representational doppelganger’s have always shared a place of prominence in her oeuvre. But in Sweet’s most recent suite of paintings, she strikes out for new territory by overlaying images of ecological desolation with the virtuality of etheric grids in order to talk about the inherent limitations of human consciousness.
We see a sense of sublime quietude in a work like “You Think You Know”, which reminds us of an expressionist landscape by Edward Munch as much as the tonalist imagery of George Inness or James McNeill Whistler. The difference however, is that these aren’t modern or romantic works because they tend to combine motifs from both era’s in order to give us a picture of the Post-Romantic condition. A term that has been theorized by the French philosopher Alain Badiou, Post-Romanticism has everything to do with confronting the limits of our own finitude, the failures of our own ambitions, and the inherent contradictions of reaching for the stars only to be brought low by the existential reality of living an all-too-earthly life.
In the history of myth, Icarus, Prometheus and Sisyphus could already be considered to be Post-Romantic allegories even though these stories were written by the ancients. In our age, Post-Romanticism describes the general ethos of films like Bladerunner, the Matrix and Tron, but it is only in the last of these three movies where the “digital frontier” of an apocalyptic-cyberpunk world is described as “The Grid”. Within the simulated world of Tron: Legacy it was The Grid that was supposed to be an experimental platform where every model of research could be carried out at unparalleled speeds, which could just as well be a metaphor for the ambitions of modernism and postmodernism alike. As for the idea of the “digital frontier”, we have always known that grids were used for mapping and that frontiersmen were engaged in the project of colonialism. These notions also have an implicit connection to Sweet’s use of forlorn cowboys, failed matadors and wandering women, the latter of which appear to be prisoners of a fate unknown, while the former look as if they might never make it home from the range or the stadium again.
This set of uneasy relationships is what is thematized in Sweet’s works like “The Promise,” which shows us the well-worn effects of an ice-sheet melting… but without any promise of coming back. Like the dreams of a bygone era, her imagery is a mix of melancholy and nostalgia that is both critical and clinical – a product of the observational gaze placed at the precipice of environmental collapse. The defining question behind Sweet’s most recent body of work is whether or not we are able to cognize the extent of our influence on the world around us in time to make the course corrections that are necessary in order to step back from the nine cardinal tipping points that signal the disruption of balance within our ecosystems – forever.1 In Sweet’s own terms, she has called it a “thinking-problem” that connects as much to a history of trauma and the earth as human conflict and hubris.
What we can be sure of in her exhibition entitled “The Small Things Inbetween” is that Sweet’s painting practice begs the question about whether or not we will ever be able to recognize the myriad of connections that exist between the scale and proportion of our actions, both individually and collectively, as well as their impact on the world we inhabit. In this regard, Sweet’s is a moral art that avoids being preachy. Rather, the imagery that she trades in constitutes something like an ethics of environmentalism or an engagement with the Anthropocene, but the experience of her works is more like the sweetness of a prayer for the dying. Afterall, the concerns that we have about the environment are really questions about the idea of time remaining – namely, how much time is really left on the clock for humanity after the age of manifest destiny, unlimited development and progress unbound.
1 Here I am referring to the ecological findings that were the centerpiece of Sir David Attenborough’s 2021 film Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet which identifies the nine cardinal tipping points of ecological disruption as being related to (1) atmospheric aerosol loading, (2) biochemical flows, land systems change, (4) Freshwater use, (ocean acidification, (5) climate change, (6) novel entities, (7) biosphere integrity, (8) ozone depletion.
Kim Sweet: The Small Things Inbetween
Opening Reception: May 5th 6 – 9:00pm At Mateo
Roski School of Art and Design.
University of Southern California
Roski Graduate Building
Los Angeles Arts District
1262 Palmetto Street, #515
Los Angeles, CA, 90013.
Show runs through May 13th
Hours: Sat and Sunday 12- 5 Wed, Thursday, Friday 12- 5