Lost and Found: Karen Swenholt Unmakes Identity Politics
FOR A MOMENT, ONE CAN MISS whose arms are whose: one pair is gaunt from famine and hard work, the other thin from age and grief over two sons gone astray. The faces and nearly bald heads are mirrored, too—the aged and the youthful each leaning on the other for support in their moment of unlikely reconciliation. Skin and bones and hair and fabric are rendered in the rough, fibrous texture of the Aqua-Resin sculpting medium, left uniformly white and unglazed, further dissolving the difference between the two figures. Yet against the overall roughness of the modeling, the delicacy and care with which the faces are rendered is striking, especially as both men’s expressions suggest weariness and relief more than an all’s-well-that-ends-well joy.
Karen Swenholt’s life-sized sculpture The Return of theProdigal [see Plate 1] does not emphasize the contrast between the profligate degradation of the foolish son and the profligate mercy of the wise father, but focuses rather on the deeply compassionate identification of the father with his son. In Luke’s Gospel, the son is stripped of every outward sign of his past privilege, his very identity, bared to the scorn of his family and village. Yet the father scandalously bares himself to the judging community, too, hiking up his robes so that he might run to meet the son “while he was yet far off.”
In shaping an image of the father and prodigal son who seem to meld with each other physically, Swenholt draws out the connection between the parable and the greater Christian narrative in which God himself not only seeks out but becomes his broken and lost children in order to restore them to their rightful place at home. This subtle restatement of a familiar story encompasses many of the themes—intimacy, folly, brokenness, and compassion—that saturate Swenholt’s work, whether based on biblical or mythological texts or on the no less dramatic narratives of sin, loss, and restoration to be found in the daily news or among her neighbors.
Excerpted from Image Journal Issue 94; Essay by Mark Sprinkle