Walter Swennen, Too many words, 2017, Ink and oil on canvas, 160.3 x 130.5 cm © Walter Swennen. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. (Photo: David Regen).
On ViewBarbara Gladstone
September 15 – October 28, 2017
Delights and Frustrations: that could have been the title of the Belgian painter Walter Swennen’s recent exhibition at the Gladstone Gallery. Among the eighteen paintings on show, the best were often the biggest—and always the clearest—surrounded on practically all sides by muddled trifles and misfires.
Swennen is a fickle artist—he has no signature style—but he is not an eclectic one. Since he took up painting in earnest in 1981, he has never veered from it, regardless of whether he is painting on wood, glass, or canvas. Yet he is deliberately inconsistent, formally, which makes for an uneven quality. One good picture in the show, Too many words (2017), has its title written clearly across a mostly red ground, with sections partially occluded by three large, yellow daubs. It’s a richly layered and conceptually elusive painting, but not obscure. The title says it all. Yet, too many of his paintings are at once muddled and bare, like DOORN (2017), where Swennen has scrawled those five letters illegibly and randomly across a white ground.
This faux-naiveté is everywhere in Swennen’s work and each picture is done as if he’s never made a painting before. That can make for frustrated viewing, especially considering the artist’s rich education. He was born in 1946 in Brussels. In 1967, he enrolled in a psychology program at Université Catholique de Louvain, where he attended lectures by Jacques Lacan and was especially drawn to the professor’s idea that one should speak freely without fear of speaking stupidly.
This is a useful principle in private therapy; in a public exhibition, it is not. There is too much searching in these works and not enough conviction, especially in pictures like Black Flag (2017), where a poorly painted black boat sails across an orange expanse, past a blue sun, or in SNEK (2017), where, for some reason, a Viking ship cruises toward a spider web. Like a child exploring his crayon box, Swennen seems to have made these paintings simply because he could, which is a fine motivation in the confines of one’s studio, but they aren’t successful enough for public view.
Walter Swennen, Demasiadas Palabras, 2017, Oil on canvas, 170.2 x 160.5 x 3 cm, © Walter Swennen. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels (Photo: David Regen).
The strongest paintings in the show, Too many words and Demasiadas Palabras (2017), were the most prominently displayed. Despite the weaker works in the show, they made the exhibition worthwhile. The pictures exemplify the most interesting aspect of Swennen’s work, which is his play with language. Before he was a painter, he was—like his friend Marcel Broodthaers—a poet. But the roots of his linguistic interests go even deeper. For the first years of his life, Swennen lived in a Flemish-speaking household until his parents abruptly decided to drop the language in favor of French. Before long, Swennen forgot much of his Flemish, which sparked the idea that words could be just as useless as they are useful.
Demasiadas Palabras is an especially handsome and successful picture. Against a grey ground that looks like polished concrete, Swennen has painted thirty variously colored letters, all clearly legible, none of which line up in any meaningful way. They pop brightly from the grey field as if some obvious communication should emerge. It never does. The result is a striking, smart, and vivid incoherence between the clarity of Swennen’s technique and lack of any linguistic meaning to the work.
Demasiadas Palabras is Spanish for “too many words,” which is the strongest theme in these new works. As an organizing principle, it could have been the basis for a strong, focused show of around eight of these pictures. (The title that was used, Bewtie, is the name of one painting in the show). But Swennen lacks focus, preferring instead to try everything and see what sticks: boats, words—there's even a painting of a camel and one of a man in a blue hat. The paintings that work are evidence of real formal agility and conceptual intelligence, which perhaps may never have emerged without Swennen’s Lacanian strategy. But a little editing can go a long way.