On Friday of last week, internationally famous street artist Caledonia Curry, better known as Swoon, and Oakland-based installation artist Monica Canilao hoisted a crown-like sculpture up toward the high ceilings of Chandran Gallery in San Francisco (459 Geary St.). Streams of lace and cloth draped down from the rounded framework, making it look more like an elaborate skirt or a dolled-up specter. In preparation for their joint show, Witch-Wife, opening on Friday, the two artists had entirely transformed the sprawling, white-wall gallery into an eclectic den, with heaps of fabric and paints strewn about the floor.
When you enter the gallery, Canilao's whimsical assemblages of found objects adorn the right wall, and Swoon's large, wheat paste portraits cover the left, then the two tracts intersect in the ground floor gallery (a high-ceilinged space that you descend into through an open staircase). There, the two have collaborated on an immersive installation with three core pieces — hanging sculptures that resemble feminine spirits consisting of printed figures by Swoon and textile adornments by Canilao. The artists have been referring to the sculptures as "witches" throughout the installation process, and each one is named after a female ancestor of one of the artists.
To talk with me, the two sat down on a bed of cushions and silky, patterned textiles piled on the floor. It was almost unclear whether the nest was part of the show, or if it was actually for resting. Conceptually, the boundary between the show and the artists' personal lives is exceptionally porous as well — almost to the point where it seemed like a chore for them to describe the exhibit in non-emotional terms.
Primarily, they explained, Witch-Wife is about exploring intuition and the mystical consciousness that fuels dreams and creativity. As an example, Swoon pointed to instances in which her dreams have predicted the events of the following day — experiences that jolt her out of her rational day-to-day life. "It's one of those things where you get this peek into this other way of knowing. It's a small event, but it makes me question my sense of time, and my sense of space, and the way we understand the world," she said. "I think that the act of making art is kind of always trying to tap that."
While researching Witch-Wife, Swoon asked her great aunt if she had ever had a dream that predicted something. She replied that she always dreams of her great grandmother right before someone dies. After learning more about their female ancestors, the artists realized that, like objects, intuitive practices have long familial lineages, but are often not discussed because they are thought of as "witchy." In the show, the two artists reaffirm this witchy intelligence through their creative practice, by listening to their intuition, their dreams, and each other.
Swoon and Canilao's investigation into the creative process is underscored by the alchemical connection between them. The pair met about ten years ago in New York City when Canilao handed Swoon a patch onto which she had printed a bird. Swoon was immediately taken with her work. Two years later, in 2008, they had their first joint show at The Luggage Store gallery in San Francisco.
In general, Canilao is fascinated by evolving lineages. In her solo work, she primarily builds wall-hanging assemblages that resemble ornate altars with items from her vast personal library of collected objects — which includes everything from flecks of wallpaper found in abandoned houses to vintage jewelry boxes. The things she collects all hold a specific significance for her, depending on how she found or received them, or where she was at the time — literally and emotionally. But she also considers them heavy with their own history, which she works to transform into a new story through her art.
A few of her pieces in the show are assemblages made from disintegrating vintage pin-up posters that were given to her by a man whose estate she was helping to organize. Through ornamentation and collage, she aimed to reclaim them as empowered, rather than objectified, figures. Another is an ode to a friend who overdosed on heroin: At the top of a hanging assemblage, a black crow's head juts out of the wall, carrying a dried poppy stamen in its mouth.
Swoon's expressive, printed portraits on slightly off-white paper complement Canilao's assemblages with a sense of antiquity. Some feature family members, while others feature people she met while working in other countries — a young girl from Haiti, a group of boys in Palestine. In one sun-shaped piece, a mother tenderly nurses a baby as pink ferns furl around her and bold, leafy patterns flow beneath.
When speaking about the upcoming exhibition, the pair continually interrupted each other's answers, as if mutually interpreting their practices in real time — performing the concept of the show as they attempted to explain it. While both artists' work pays homage to significant figures and moments that have influenced them throughout their lives, Witch-Wife as a whole celebrates the collaborative magnetism that is still evolving between them.
"People in general leave imprints on objects and things and people, and it ripples throughout everybody they're related to, including your friendships," said Canilao. "We've definitely both influenced each other's work."