ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Walter Swennen - 2015 - At his Own Risk [EN, interview]
At His Own Risk
Some words on the occasion of a show
4 July 2015. Walter Swennen introduces me to the paintings he will be showing at Gladstone Gallery in September. Almost all Swennen’s works are corollaries based on the observation that generally speaking paintings seem to be rather flat objects. His paintings are light-footed, concrete thoughts, springing from a tenacious doing and made out of canvas, panel, paint, colour, different textures, colliding or disintegrating words, drawings or found drawings that contain errors.
Showing me a painting containing the silhouette of a pig (Blue Pig, 2015), Swennen tells me that the cleaning lady contemplated it and concluded her observation with the words: ‘I have always been very fond of plush toys’. Telling me this, Swennen frowns. I believe I know why. First his painting is reduced to an image, and then this image is interpreted as a reference to a substance. It sounds like a magic trick, where a painting disappears and is replaced by a white rabbit… Yesterday, Swennen told me about another incident. Finishing a comment on the texture of a painting, he tells a journalist that the image contained in the painting (as a part of its texture) reminds him of Krazy Kat. Later he reads that the painting is
‘inspired by’ this cartoon figure. ‘I went mad’, he told me. ‘People always think that what you can read in a painting was also at the source of it.’
Walter Swennen: I didn’t like the yellow background of the painting Two Egyptians (2015). It was too clean. Last night I put the painting on the floor and I poured red and blue paint and a lot of water on it. I let it dry for some time and then I cleaned the yellow background, but not the borders and the figures. That was the law I had to respect. As a result, I obtained these strange red spots (one with the shape of a mouth) and dirty borders that seem to be painted before the yellow background instead of afterwards.
Do you like this music? It’s the pianist Lennie Tristano. He has an incredible touch. He seems to hit all the keys with an equal force. His piano music is among the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. It’s assertive…
(We listen to the music, devoid of sentimentality or lyricism.)
Swennen: You wrote several times that my parents deciding to speak another language when I was five, leaving me in bewilderment at home and at school, must have influenced my work. I believe this switch of one mother tongue into another made me understand that the world didn’t make any sense, so that I didn’t have to worry about sense or meaning. Hence my still being preoccupied with it. (Laughs.) Octave Mannoni wrote about Mallarmé that he certainly was a poet, even if he had nothing to say. It followed that the poetic content was to be found somewhere else than in what he had to say. For this reason Mallarmé’s poetry has always been an experiment with language instead of an expression of life. According to Mannoni, literary criticism is haunted by ‘an inveterate desire to understand’ which makes us look for a meaning that would be hidden behind the words. But the real treasure is hidden behind the so-called meaning, it is constituted solely of pure effects of language. The same goes for painting. As for me, I think I manipulate things to transform the nonsensical into an enigma… It’s a rip-off… I remember the sculptor Bernd Lohaus telling me that artistic success is due fifty percent to genius and fifty percent to swindle. (Laughs.) What do you think of the painting Feed the Fish (2015)?
- Supposing someone wanted to make a fake painting by Swennen: they could never have made this one… We recognise it as one of your paintings, but we could never have predicted it. Only you could have switched the word ‘animals’ for ‘fish’. I also love the treatment of the letters. It reminds me of letters seemingly covered with snow you painted twentyfive years ago. Still, it’s different.
Swennen: I created these white outlines by adding acrylic paint, having it dry for a few minutes and then wipe it off again. The longer I let it dry, the more paint adheres to the canvas. Since the paint dries more quickly on the borders, I obtain these unexpected outlines… Since I discovered the qualities of the new acrylic paints, not so long ago, I use it more and more. It allows me to work faster, of course, but also to use paint as if I were making aquarelles. I love to mix acrylic paint with water, to add one thin layer after another and to see the result immediately. If the outcome doesn’t satisfy me, I can wipe out the last layer. Thus the painting Ghost Dance (2015) was made adding one layer after the other until the ghost was on the verge of disappearing.
- The painting of the bottle of French wine (Nan’s Still Life, 2015) shows a use of existing drawings which is typical of your work: the word français is awkwardly cut into two parts, because the draughtsman was thinking instead of observing.
Swennen: The image is based on a still life made by my late wife Nan. One day she decided she wanted to find out about drawing and she attended evening classes once or twice…
- In one painting you added a shadow to the drawing, playing with the absence of depth.
Swennen: As you know, I continue to study the writings of philosophers, especially when they write about art. Until this day, I haven’t found more than one or two philosophers who seem to come close. From time to time, to console myself, I reopen a book by Etienne Gilson. At least the Thomists are clear. (Laughs.) For instance: ‘The image owes its being to a thing other than itself, whereas a painting owes its being to itself.’ Luckily, painting will continue to disturb things. And my favourite book about painting remains the compendium by Jacques Blockx, ‘to be used by painters and lovers of paintings’.
Do you remember my paintings with coloured circles? I had this set of rules I had to follow. First of all there were seven colours and three brushes of similar sizes. Seven numbered coins, referring to the colours, were thrown on the canvas. A circle of a certain colour had to cover the spot where the corresponding coin had fallen. The painting had to be made while the paint was still wet. The circles were made using three disks of different sizes and with little feet to prevent the paint from creeping under the disk. When I decided how to position a new circle, I had to take care not to create a ‘Gestalt’: a figure or an illusion of depth. The painting had to remain flat. The depth of the painting could only spring from the colours and the delightful collisions between the circles.
I thought of these paintings while working on To Mona Mills (2015) last week. First I put the canvas on the floor and here and there I added tiny amounts of blue acrylic paint. Then I added water and started hitting and stroking the canvas with this cleaning instrument. (He demonstrates the action.) The aim was to prevent the water from dripping from the canvas and to dissolve the paint in the water. Oil paint dissolves quickly into a medium. Acrylic paint dissolves slowly. Trying to control the water and having the paint dissolve, I created a really chaotic surface, something which is actually impossible if you try to do it consciously. Actually I didn’t create it, it appeared. Gladly my cleaning device was not really suited for the job… I cannot go on painting like that, however, or they’ll start calling me a cosmic painter. (Laughs.)
- I like the painting because it contains the basic colours of a traditional landscape: red and blue, whereas the red soil is painted on top of the blue, which remains visible.
Swennen: The red paint was added to a slightly tilted canvas. I let the paint flow, but then I stopped it. I try to prevent drippings to avoid an illusion of expression.
- And the painting h’m (2015)?
Swennen: It was finished by adding a fragment of a concrete poem by Bob Cobbing. The poem adds a sceptical note. (He makes a sceptical h’m-sound.) The painting was given to me by a friend. I only added the thin white layer and the thick ‘grey’ surface, which has borders like cotton wool. The ‘grey’ was a mixture that was still hanging around. You know how it goes: looking for a precise colour, adding this colour and then that one, you always prepare much more paint than you really need. That’s how I had several blue periods.
- For Ice Crown (2015) you made a blue puddle on the canvas.
Swennen: Yes, I let it dry and the next morning I wiped away the paint that hadn’t dried yet. The crown is shiny because I added some varnish… This ghost was painted with lead white. First I painted it on a silhouette, cut out of plastic foil, and than I pressed the foil on the canvas. The effect is unforeseeable, but everything was under control! (Laughs.)
Montagne de Miel, 26 September 2015