7 - 30 September 2023

The title I must walk toward Oregon comes from Walking, a lecture by Henry David Thoreau. Amongst other things the lecture extols the virtues of a slow and sustained movement through the natural environment. I have read that one possible subtext to Walking was an advocacy for the abolition of slavery. Thoreau’s description and use of the term wilderness in Walking refers to an absolute freedom. The lecture and its possible hidden meaning are about the movement of people both physically and mentally. I loved the metaphor of moving westward toward Oregon and its allusions to progress, migration and the undiscovered. As an artist, I am excited and constantly frustrated by my own desire to keep moving forward, each artwork and exhibition being a small motion toward an unknowable destination.

For two years I have worked in my studio on what has now become I must walk toward Oregon. These two years produced six paintings. At the beginning of this time I made a list of everything I was interested in and some things I was ignorant of, a list of ideas for paintings, of books I valued or meant to read, a list of places or instances I had recorded, a list of artists to borrow from and things in my own work which could be remade anew. I stuck this list onto an old board and, by adding to it, turned it into a painting.

I have often told myself that I can put anything into my paintings... but when I do just that I erase what I have done or paint over it. I can put anything I want into my paintings apart from all the things I won’t let myself. I thought it would be worthwhile to make a painting of a wall to address this habit of self censorship. I had been thinking of a painting of a brick wall by Martin Kippenberger and of the backdrops to many Leon Golub paintings. I could put anything I wanted onto the wall and later, decide what to keep. It would be possible to simply keep working like this. I wondered what would remain by the end.


Many years ago I made a kind of costume for myself by painting coloured diamonds onto black leggings and a T-shirt. I photographed myself as if I were waltzing and then cut the photos to collage an image of me dancing with myself. I know, at the time, I thought it could be like the ballroom scene from The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. In the years since this I have failed a few times to turn all this into a painting.


I like the idea of painting flat on the ground, on my hands and knees and with my fingers. I could make a large painting this way, something roughly the same size as me. This way I would have to crawl on top of it and around it as it slowly came about under my fingertips. I never really know what I’m doing when I start painting so I like the image it creates in my head of a kind of desperate act, like somebody searching the ground for something tiny in the dark. I made this painting and I guess it could be an image of America but I always persuaded myself not to make it explicitly so.


I wanted to make a magic eye painting. I can never get those magic eye images to work for me so I think there is something hiding in them which I cannot see. I wanted to make a map of where I live from memory by painting lines while thinking of walking short distances. I wanted to see what it would look like. I wanted to make a painting of everything, a painting that was full instead of empty or singular. Would that be possible? I made all of these paintings collectively as one and it is called Idumea. The painting is named after a hymn from The Sacred Harp tunebook.

Sacred harp singing is an old type of choral music from America in which you can easily detect the multiple voices contributing to the song. It is often dissonant, like beautiful shouting.


A long time ago I made a painting which included Snow White, a dwarf and a small child wearing a Donald Duck costume. I was never happy with it. I worked over it, turning it into a pattern from a doormat I had photographed. The pattern was a series of interlocking curved shapes that made me think of territories on a map. There were the same number of shapes as letters in the alphabet so I Included the letters after I was finished. I wasn’t happy. There were little scraps of canvas on one or two of the shapes so I started adding more and overtime I had completely covered the surface. By this stage the painting was essentially a blank canvas being covered in hundreds of tiny swatches of dirty raw canvas. On one desperate evening of work I painted eight coloured shapes over its surface corresponding to different American states. And late in the night I realised that for the first time I was surprised by the painting. I was unsure about what I had done but I was finally interested.


Tribuna is a new publication which documents Swords’s major exhibition at the The Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts last year and features texts by Sara Baume and Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith. This publication will be launched at I must walk toward Oregon, Swords’s latest exhibition at Kevin Kavanagh Dublin from Sept. 7 - Sept 30.