Published: June 5, 2017 By
“S/HE” art installation at 2017 Venice Bienniale

Two bodies of work exhibited in an official satellite site of Venice Biennale 2017, the oldest and arguably most prestigious visual arts event in the world, share close ties to the University of Colorado Boulder.

Joel Swanson, an assistant professor with the ATLAS Institute, and Laura Shill, a technician for Interdisciplinary Media Art Practices in the Department of Art and Art History, both have installations in Personal Structures, a large-scale exhibition of the Venice Biennale, which runs through Nov. 26 at the Palazzo Bembo, located off the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy. Denver’s Black Cube, an experimental art museum that operates nomadically, is the primary sponsor for Personal Structures.

joel swanson

Laura Shill

Photo by Morgan Rachel Levy

“It’s such an honor,” says Swanson. “I returned to Boulder encouraged that my work is on par with the other work I saw at the Biennale.”

Swanson’s installation includes two, three-foot wide neon sculptures, “S/HE” and “T/HERE.” The neon letters are illuminated, but the inverted “S” in S/HE and the “T” in T/HERE flicker on and off, challenging the tendency to perceive the world through binaries, such as male and female, Swanson says.

Shill’s installation, “Trophy Wall (to disguise the void),” uses gold spandex draped over discarded soccer and basketballs, creating a luxurious tableaux in the darkened gallery that, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be a cheap imitation. At the same time, the shiny fabric resembles a theatre curtain from which human figures, simultaneously veiled and revealed, emerge.

Shill says this work is about “creating facades as monuments to greatness that are really about hiding insecurity, distracting ourselves from our fears, and trying to momentarily forget our own impermanence.” 

Black Cube regularly features pop-up exhibits, but Venice Biennale represents the nonprofit’s first nomadic installation outside Colorado. Black Cube partnered with Dutch nonprofit GAA Foundation for support. Colorado Creative Industries and CU Boulder’s Center for Humanities and the Arts also provided grant support to Swanson.

Swanson, who earned a BFA in digital art from CU Boulder, has appeared nationally and internationally at venues such as the Broad Museum in Lansing, Michigan; The Power Plant in Toronto; the North Miami Museum of Contemporary Art; and Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where he had a solo exhibition.

Later this summer, he opens another solo show, Sticks and Stones, at David B. Smith Gallery in Denver that focuses on political speech. And his commissioned work can be found throughout Denver, including a wall-sized installation at the Halcyon Hotel in Cherry Creek; a work in Twitter’s corporate office; and a collection of works for the soon-to-open Born Hotel in Denver, including 24 smaller pieces, four larger works and a substantial backlit, laser-cut aluminum wall to be mounted in the covered entrance outside the hotel.

Shill earned an MFA in interdisciplinary media arts practices from CU Boulder in 2012 and has exhibited her work nationally and internationally at the Yi Tong Bai Tong Gallery, Shang Hai, China; The Gallery Of Contemporary Art, Colorado Springs; Redline Gallery, Denver;  and Hyperlink Gallery, Chicago. Her work was also presented in Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art in a recent solo exhibition, Phantom Touch.

View both artists' work online at and To learn more about Venice Biennale, read The Denver Post article.