Walter Swennen: So Far So Good
Wiels Contemporary Art Centre
5 October - 26 January 2014
Review by Belinda Seppings
Walter Swennen is the artist of the anti-systematic. He is against every system, says the Wiels’ director, Dirk Snauwaert; a sentiment central to this retrospective of over 130 paintings and works on paper, which focuses on Swennen’s aversion to artistic categorisation and his continual experimentations that shaped a long and diverse career.
My first impression was one of bewilderment. Exposed to around 20 works of contrasting colours, shapes, words and images, I almost felt like I had stepped into a group show. It was difficult to concentrate on one piece or to know where to begin.
‘Allo Patti’ (2011) caught my attention; a faded pink canvas with variations of ‘hello’ sprawled, graffiti-like, seven times in black, blue and brown lettering. The words, which are written over one another, appear to be fading as the paint drips down the surface, giving the piece a spontaneous, ephemeral energy. Alongside ‘Allo Patti’ (2011) is ‘Grand Cercle’ (1999), which depicts several brightly coloured circles overlapping on a white canvas. The contrasts between word and image in these paintings, with their naïve colour palette and repetition, create a certain tension.
The exhibition’s non-chronological hang mimics Swennen’s freedom of expression. Ignoring the distinct chronology of Swennen’s career, the retrospective nonetheless reveals recognisable phases from the 1980s to the present day, highlighting the many influences that shaped the artist’s work.
Born in Brussels in 1946, Swennen grew up multi-lingual, inspiring his life as a poet in the 1960s. However, Swennen was barely noticed as a poet and his authority as an author was questioned, which perhaps explains the tense pairing of word and image here. In the 1980s Swennen produced ‘written’ paintings defined by text laid over the top of pictures. The exhibition displays many of these, focusing on Swennen’s transition from poet to painter in 1984.
Most of Swennen’s works are characterised by fragmentary subjects and naïve, caricatured forms influenced by the creative spirit of the 1960s and 1970s. He trained as a graphic designer and liked Free Jazz, an avant-garde movement concerned with breaking down the rhythmic structure of music. He was also close to the Belgian poet, artist and filmmaker, Marcel Broodthaers, who was known for ‘happenings’ - events that relied on movements, fragments, symbolism and storylines. Using the art of translation, Swennen used to trawl bilingual dictionaries for painting ideas, and often telephoned his children to ask them what to paint. Swennen’s subjects ‘could come from the public sphere, advertisements, comic books or a child’s hand,’ says Snauwaert.
As a result, Swennen’s subject matter often appears confused and transitory, as though depicting dreams or memories. This non-transparency is central to the retrospective as it highlights Swennen’s interest in psychology, in which the artist gained a master’s degree. Swennen experimented with language and perception, particularly in relation to Sigmund Freud’s psychological analysis, which encourages patients to talk in an uninhibited fashion to tap into dreams, impulses or anxieties - a practice that also relates to Jacque Lacan’s view of language as subjective perception. The understanding of language in Swennen’s career is vital because, although he stopped focusing on ‘written’ paintings, the subjective power of words remain an essential part of the works and our interaction with them.
For example, ‘Rabbit & Duck’ (2001) highlights Swennen’s transition from language towards direct images gleaned from the everyday. It combines two basic forms that suggest a duck and a rabbit - one in opaque red and the other in faded blue tones. We have to look hard to denote which is the duck and which is the rabbit because the forms are incredibly similar. As with ‘Éléphant, Chien, Camion’ (1981), the title confirms the subjects but there is a gap between our subjective expectations and Swennen’s subjective presentation of them.
The final rooms of the retrospective felt like a grand-finale showcasing a multitude of Swennen’s phases. ‘Elsjes Triptiek’ (1988) confronts Swennen’s struggle with representation and abstraction. During this phase of his career he painted over sections of figurative works to confuse and confront the formalist ethos that a painting should reflect its own process. Probably derived from the drawings of Elsje, his daughter, this piece portrays two-dimensional images of a pink castle in the upper centre, a green butterfly in the lower right of the canvas and a cartoon figure peeking through a lashing of yellow paint. Dominated by these abstract layers of paint in bright, primary colours, the three forms fight for recognition.
Similarly, works such as ‘The Fall’ (2012) reveal constructivist iconography reminiscent of Kazimir Malevich alongside melancholic pieces, such as ‘Bankrupt’ (1994) - a large black canvas seemingly empty except for a white caricature outline presenting his empty pockets. In the next room ‘Lost’ (2006) portrays Swennen’s fight with depression by depicting a man holding open the hole in his stomach alongside more paintings based on his daughter’s drawings.
Swennen’s aversion to the artistic system means that he has not adapted to self-promotion, which is perhaps one of the reasons he is not well known internationally. This retrospective seeks to present Swennen on an international stage and emphasise his diversity. Yet the juxtaposition of subjects, techniques and dates throughout the exhibition may have you struggling to understand the development of the artist’s career. Rather than cling to semblances of chronology, you must instead approach this show as an intuitive mélange of themes that represent Swennen’s outlook on art. Just as he avoided categorisation, the viewer must avoid the temptation to categorise him. Only then can the exhibition inform Swennen’s approach to painting.