Walter Swennen is known for his radical, experiential and associative approach to painting, which is perhaps best summarised as a belief in the total autonomy of the artwork. For Swennen, a painting does not need to be ‘emotive’ or ‘understood’: the primary goal of painting is, quite simply, painting. Everything – form, colour, subject – comes from the outside. A poet before he became a painter, it is no coincidence that language plays a vital role in his practice. In the early 1980s, Swennen stopped writing poetry and switched to painting as his primary means of expression. Although his oeuvre varies greatly in scale, style and materials, it can be construed as an on-going exploration into the nature and problems of painting (its potential and limitations), the fundamental question of what to paint (subject matter), and how (technique). Often working on supports made from found objects, such as sheets of old plastic or salvaged wood, Swennen allows his chosen imagery to float loosely atop a background made up of more allusive elements, such as blocks of colour, dripped paint or unusual textures. The images he deploys are often derived from popular culture, advertising and magazines, or take the shape of everyday objects such as wine bottles or bicycles. The way that he handles motifs – he takes them as he finds them, high or low, and manipulates them at will – is akin to a kind of visual poetry that harks back to his early career as a writer. Freely associative, and above all humorous, Swennen’s paintings explore the relationship between symbols, legibility, meaning and pictorial treatment.
Walter Swennen (b. 1946, Brussels) lives and works in Brussels. A major retrospective will be held at Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2021, traveling to Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and Kunst Museum Winterthur. Solo exhibitions include La pittura farà da sé, La Triennale di Milano, Milan (2018); Ein perfektes Alibi, Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf (2015); So Far So Good, WIELS, Brussels (2013-14); Continuer, Culturgest Lisbon (2013); Garibaldi Slept Here, Kunstverein Freiburg (2012) and How To Paint A Horse, Cultuurcentrum Strombeek and De Garage, Mechelen (2008).
text by Hans Theys, published by Xavier Hufkens, 2016, 240 pages, English
text by Hans Theys, published by Zonder titel, 2016, 302 pages, French, Dutch
text by Bart Verschaffel, published by Xavier Hufkens, 2015, 288 pages, English
edited by Raphaël Pirenne and Dirk Snauwaert, published by (SIC) and WIELS, 2013, 256 pages, English, French and Dutch
text by Jan Florizoone, published by La Lettre Volée, 2004, 240 pages, English, French and Dutch