Walter Swennen - 2017 - Elementary Escaping [EN, interview]
Conversation with Walter Swennen
Monday, 29 June 2017. Swennen has invited me to have a look at his most recent paintings, about to be shipped to the States for a show at Gladstone Gallery in September. I decide to go in with a camera. When I step into his studio, he starts to lay all the smaller paintings on the floor. I start filming them, one by one. To my surprise, fewer paintings rely upon a textural difference created with a painter’s knife (one of Swennen’s favourite tools). Again, I discover new textural interventions, sometimes obtained by pouring thick paint, sometimes by a comical, apparently clumsy use of a brush. Some textures are amazingly intricate, with an unreadable chronology. I know it’s no use talking about this, because Swennen will never admit having ‘done’ something, because this seems to imply that he is ‘planning’ his paintings. (It’s like trying to pinpoint a flea.) He always changes his stories. ‘If I tell people what happened, I get the impression that I am lying’, he says. One day he told me he never used white spirit. The next week I found a small note stuck to the door bell: ‘Back in ten minutes. Gone to buy some white spirit.’
I have another go at it anyway.
- How did you make these strange patches?
Walter Swennen: Well, as you know I didn’t decide anything. But having scraped away parts of the upper layer of paint, revealing the layer underneath, I started to ‘fill in’ the gaps.
- That’s what restorers of old paintings do these days: they fill the gaps with a kind of removable plaster and then imitate the oil paint with a thin layer of gouache… And what happened in this other painting?
Swennen: Accidently, I had obtained some streaks that looked quite expressive. To counter this, I repainted the streaks meticulously with a very small brush, as did this French painter…
- Hans Hartung.
Swennen: Yes, Hartung. They think his paintings are ‘gestural’, whereas they are the result of a meticulous application of paint.
- In this painting, the yellow droplets also suggest an expressive approach, until you notice that they suddenly stop… You must have wiped them away at the border of the painting.
Swennen: No, I haven’t. I used tape.
- Tape? In this painting? I don’t believe you.
Swennen: Spinoza writes people do not realise how much the body can achieve ‘without the direction of the Mind’. ‘The very structure of the Body itself’,
he continues, ‘far surpasses anything made by human skill’.
- That’s why, for him, all matter is soaked with godliness. A very bold image, of course, for it means that God has no precise address.
Swennen: Indeed, the world is made of God like a table is made of wood.
- Some people think a table can also exist without the wood, resting eternally in heaven, where it can be scrutinised and explained by intellectuals… This reminds me of a debate within Christianity that has been going on for centuries, namely the matter of the double nature of Christ.
Swennen: Tell me all about it.
- As we all know, Christ is at the same time God and man. To show us how we can cope with our mortality, the Christian God takes on the shape of a man, but all his life, Christ remains God.
Swennen: That’s a fact.
- Well, for centuries there have been violent debates about this double nature of Christ. Some factions sustained that he was purely human, others that he was solely God. It took several big conventions to decide the matter once and for all by declaring that Mary had been Theotokos: the One Who Gave Birth to God.
Swennen: The Council of Ephesus.
- And all this was necessary, because some people always want to ‘understand’ everything: they want to grasp the so-called true nature of Christ. Whilst the power of the image of Christ resides in its ‘unknowability’: he is both at the same time, man and God, just as a painting can be an image and an object at the same time.
Swennen: Hence Aristotle’s distinction between ‘being contrary’ and ‘being in contradiction’. Things can be contrary, whereas the words we use to describe them are in contradiction. I believe this contradiction springs from language, not from the things themselves.
- We make a distinction between ‘form’ and ‘content’ to be able to think about a work of art. But such an approach is only justified if we keep in mind that in reality form and content do not exist as separate entities.
Swennen: Freud, speaking of dreams, said that their form is part of their content.
- So now about these yellow droplets… I know you’ll never admit to anything. But let’s kneel down and look at this painting carefully. I don’t think you used tape. I think you wiped some droplets away…
(We both kneel down and look at the painting from a distance of three inches. Patrick Verelst, who has been listening to our conversation, loudly deplores the fact that he has no camera to register this act of devotion.)
Swennen: I think you’re right. I must have wiped them away. But if I did, I wasn’t aware of it. My mind must have been wandering off…
- You’re a cheat, Mr. Swennen.
Swennen: I know, my dear Watson.
- It’s Sancho, sir. Just call me Sancho.
Montagne de Miel, 1 July 2017
Postscript, Sunday 2 July 2017
After this conversation Patrick Verelst notices the painting Lulu (2017) has cracked.
‘Cracks are not really appreciated in New York’, he says.
‘The painting is inviting you to restore the cracks with a small brush’, I say. ‘Please do so immediately, so I can film you.’
To my surprise, Swennen takes a small brush and starts filling the cracks. I rush to my camera and start filming the crack that is being filled. When I film, I always look next to the camera, to see what I will be filming next. Suddenly I realise that most of the work is happening on the palette. To my dismay I see how the hand that was filling the crack, faster than the eye, takes a painter’s knife and mixes some paint. When I swerve the camera to this scene, my other eye sees how the same hand has taken hold of a piece of tissue to wipe some paint from the canvas. When I swerve the camera to the canvas to film this, my free eye sees how Swennen crushes a dot of paint with his right thumb and when I try to film this, I see how this same thumb follows a crack to stuff it with paint…
In the end, I succeeded in filming almost nothing… We understand that the mind cannot steer these matters, for the hand moves faster than its shadow, obeying habits and rhythms that must be beyond any form of reason.