Tony Swain’s paintings announce themselves by way of titles that use the curiously reduced language of newspaper headlines. The ambiguity of this language has unlikely poetic potential (in the 1980s Peter Smithson wrote a text about design that listed the contents of his cupboards), and in this show there are similar devices of familiarity reframed as something new and strange. The works are made with newspaper, and parts are either obliterated or allowed to remain among the queasy layers of paint. This studious balancing act brings Swain’s activity and the original images into a kind of wobbly union. As newspaper images are necessarily informed by the text, they become odd non sequiturs when they meet the new sing-song names that Swain gives them: Bias Theory or Sower for More, for instance (all works 2006). He takes these dual elements as parameters for a self-constructed problem; the work manifests itself as a compendium of conundrums solved. Part of its appeal is in tempting the viewer to do some detective work with what remains of the original page, but from glimpsing a starting-point it is impossible to unravel the whole puzzle.
Newsprint, with its fragility and potential to fade and warp, is a tool for Swain. He has attained a familiarity with it as intimate as a watchmaker’s understanding of tiny mechanical movements. He brings a sense of passing time to the images, adding more than he takes away and fixing parts of the image to receive more attention. Again the amount of work has set parameters, as if he is representing a fixed number of days’ worth of news. This spread of days results in different outcomes; opportunities for new problems presented by new layouts.
Moving across the page, solving each compositional proposition as it happens, the works become maps of Swain’s decisions. In Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual (1978) the character Bartlebooth sets himself a similar challenge, putting aside ten years to learn to paint in order to begin recording ports around the world for 20 years. These are then sent back and made into jigsaws, which are subsequently dismantled and filed in boxes. This is as close to collage as Swain's work comes; the pieces are always a single image while having myriad moments buried in them as if they were a jigsaw assembled from mismatched parts. Perec describes how Bartlebooth will ‘set out to execute a (necessarily limited) programme right the way through, in all its irreducible, intact entirety’. That the jigsaw is a means of making
a narrative that all the time announces its construction is central to Perec’s writing, and the process of finding a similar means to an end is central to Swain’s endeavour.
There is a pervading melancholy in Swain’s work. These are frozen moments in a process that acknowledges that paper is a relic of petrified memory, full of rapturous gaps, forgetfulness and selectivity. He makes you struggle to reassemble the paintings, matching differences in colour with certain types of decisions, as if, for example, the closer to black the paint that obliterates an image is, the more certain it is. Usually this is merely to draw attention to an image part, barricading in a photograph with colour. You get a sense of some of Bartlebooth’s relics in works such as Sower for More, where the palette is all washed-out pink-browns bisected by fences with serrated tops like the borders of Bartlebooth’s jigsaws. Swain’s fragile works, with their frayed edges, seem to use this to avoid the decisiveness of a straight line. The attempt to make writing and painting seem indistinguishable is built into these stylistic devices. For all its cap-doffing quietness the work, when taken as a whole, ingratiates its way into your consciousness. Swain has ponderously inspected each detail of these sheets, walking the page like a landscape of psychedelically mutating features, capturing specimens for us to try and group into new species with new names.