Monday, December 16, 2013

Walter Swennen Retrospective At The Wiels, Brussels

Forget everything you might have read about Luc Tuymans or Michaël Borremans, the greatest living Belgian painter today is someone you've likely never heard of, Walter Swennen. I say.
Unlike the two painters mentioned above, he's actually fun and looking at his career retrospectively, innovative as well  rather than wallowing in the nostalgia of dated figurative painting, beholden to the market, making works only ignorant wealthy people would want hanging over the sofa, whatever they're boring. Because his work is so obviously humorous I guess it's the reason he might not be taken as seriously as his Belgian brethren, which is the fate awaiting any artist using humor in their work. If your work isn't depressing and purporting to deal with heavy subject matter, whether it's contemporary politics or the Holocaust, it's going to be passed over in favor of, oh, I don't know, gray figurative paintings of dead people or something. Or straightforward documentary videos of anything political, or propaganda posters or cardboard placards telling you how you should think, so it spares you the energy of having to do it for yourself. God, the art world is so boring and predictable sometimes.

Anyway, Swennen has two things going against him to be taken seriously as an artist in the pages of glossy international art magazines; one being that he's a painter and the other that his work is hilarious. Because we're contrarians here at FBC!, we've decided that he is in fact one of the two greatest living contemporary Belgian artists, the other being Ria Pacquée. There might be others, but I haven't been here long enough to list more. Oh yes, there is one! I like Hans Op De Beek's work very much.

Until a couple of months ago I had never heard about Swennen myself, and then friends mentioned there was an opening at the Wiels, would I care to come with them? Sure, why the hell not.
 In case you don't know, the Wiels is the most interesting non-profit art center in Brussels,  a Kunsthalle-style space housed in a former brewery (they still have huge copper vats on the ground floor) built in the best pre-war Brutalist Deco style ever - a Belgian specialty. They do proto-fascist Deco architecture here like you wouldn't believe! One day I'll post pictures of city halls and churches in Brussels and you will understand.
Anyway, the Wiels is the most interesting art place here because as of now THERE ISN'T A NATIONAL MODERN & CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM IN BRUSSELS WHATSOEVER, which means local collectors, the famed Belgian collectors of lore, have no real place to donate or sell their collections to, so they either open small foundations/vanity-museums, or they sell their collections to MoMA and here goes the best Belgian and non-Belgian art abroad.
It's a national tragedy if you ask me, but since Belgians pride themselves on bickering between French speakers and Dutch speakers (they also have German-speakers here but so far I haven't noticed any bickering from them) rather than develop a sense of national identity, all their best art shit goes abroad. I'm mentioning it here because I think Swennen's paintings should be snatched by US museums stats, as they're priced relatively low compared to whatever comes out of Brooklyn or LES art galleries these days.
In any other Western countries nowadays, they open modern and contemporary art museums as if there is no tomorrow, and here, they closed the only one they had. Which sucks for artists and audience alike, because there is a big audience here for contemporary culture, if you look at the music festivals, bookstores and art movie theaters. The absence of a contemporary/modern art museum is mind-bloggling, and non-collecting spaces can't fill that gap.

So to the Wiels I went, happy to meet up with my friends and get drunk with Belgian people (another thing they're really great at here), but a bit uneasy at witnessing how overwhelmingly white the Belgian art world is. Belgium has a really big immigrant population, but it hasn't translated yet into the population you see in attendance at openings and during exhibitions. I'm not even talking about featured artists - generally speaking, Europe is still 99,99% white and 95% male as far as featured artists go. At any Belgian art institution you might frequent, the likelihood you will see non-white people is restricted to talking to the the museum/security guards. This is true of other European countries, not just Belgium, but after living in Los Angeles for ten years, re-acclimating to such a racial and social make-up is a bit shocking.

To go back to the Wiels, it's a tall, narrow building and you have to take up an elevator to go see the show at upstair levels. Not knowing anything about Swennen I had no preconception about whatever I was going to see, and I was enchanted when I went up and discovered such great paintings. My first thought was, "if Kippenberger had been doing only paintings and been Belgian, he would have been Walter Swennen!". Like Kippenberger, Swennen creates paintings that at first glance may look like they've been haphazardly made, but that a careful inspection reveals to be  incredibly well thought out. If you look closely you can see underlying layers there to bring some effects to the surface, and a very balanced sense of composition. One note about the exhibition: it's non-chronological, a pet peeve of mine usually when it comes to retrospectives, but in this case it doesn't prevent anyone from enjoying the show. But you won't learn much about whether there are different series or projects within the body of work, and there's generally not much available about specific paintings, as well as a remarkable absence of art historical references that could make you understand how he doesn't come out of a vacuum.
Additionally the educational components at the Wiels are rather low-key, so if you opt not to take a tour  and can't afford the catalog, you're totally on your own to discover Swennen.  There are labels at the entrance of each rooms detailing the painting titles from left to right but nothing under each painting itself, which is why none of the images I'm posting have any legend. I found that part a bit confusing.

I've mentioned Kippenberger  because there is a distinctive element in Swennen's work that recalls a certain type of 1980s and 1990s painting, like this one above that could evoke Albert Oehlen, for example. And like these two painters, you could also trace back Swennen's use of humor and borrowing of comics and cartoons tropes to pioneer painter Sigmar Polke. And like Polke and Kippenberger, the use of what seems at first glance conspicuously goofily-made, carelessly painted images is just a device to get at the essence of painting as a medium. As such, the device also brings us back to Belgian master René Magritte, whose 1948 Période Vache was doing just that, as a way to aggressively punch the stomachs of the calcified Surrealist French intelligentsia that was still the master of the quaint little art universe the next country over, in Paris. Where the doxa of the then art-world was calling for properly made paintings harking back to pre-war domination, Magritte sent some absurd paintings meant to challenge the state quo. They did it so well that up until the early 1990s and an exhibition in Marseille, the Vache paintings weren't very well-known, so challenging they were to the accepted wisdom about the Belgian master and the massive merchandising his paintings unfortunately originated (umbrellas, mugs, cookie tins…)
Swennen takes over where Magritte stopped (he went back to his best-selling bowler hats and oversized apples and cloudy skies after that) but gets a step further by integrating whatever happens in painting in the next few decades (Guston is mentioned in the booklet, for example).

There were a couple of large vitrines and pinboards at the show featuring drawings, notes and xeroxes by the artist which I understand are there to show Swennen's thought process, with various puns in both Dutch and French (and sometimes English) but also series of words and quotations one senses the artist kept as material or source ideas for his paintings.
The Belglish* booklet (there's a catalog but I was too broke to get it) makes a big deal of what are quintessential Belgian linguistic issues: Swennen was born in a Flemish family but educated in French, which was relatively common in Belgium until recently and generally makes all the tensions between language speakers very complicated (you can be of any ethnic descent and have grown up in the other languages, and for people having parents on both side of the linguistic divide it's never clear-cut). Therefore one is told that the subtext of the show is to look at painting as "translation", which, uh, OK, maybe, but if one comes to Swennen as a total ignoramus like I am, it doesn't really show. Or, er, "translate".
 I felt that component of the booklet was what I call a "Belgo-Belgian" preoccupation, something that I'm sure makes sense to people who have lived in Belgium all their lives, but isn't obvious to a newcomer. For example, I don't speak Dutch but thanks to French, English and German I've been able to understand some of the puns or jokes displayed in the artworks. And I understand the puns are starting points as the conspicuous subject matter of some of the pictures but they don't seem at all necessary for their reception by a passive audience. For example, if these paintings were to be exhibited in Spain or in the United States or in China, the puns, jokes and wordplay wouldn't be understood by most anybody there, yet the paintings (and drawings and couple of sculptures) would still be interesting (I hope) for someone outside of Belgian culture. Because as I said, if the puns or language are the conspicuous starting point, the real subject matter for each work is painting itself as a medium. Or so it seems to me (I'm sure Clement Greenberg would have a heart attack reading this, but he's already dead anyway).

One of the works on paper in the long vitrine pictures above

This was in the long vitrine pictured above

Rather I feel that the reference to "translation" was meant as some sort of device rather than an ontological necessity to explain the reluctance of the discourse around painting that tends to seep in most European critical writing. You see, if painting is just some sort of "translation" of a thought or a concept rather than just a plain old medium, it becomes legit for conceptual/political art critic mavens  and not some sort of hedonistic commodity destined to hang inside nouveau riche mansions in Florida or Orange County. It's a translation so it's uneasy and awkward (and, uh, I guess it means something is lost along the way, too?). It's a bit sad, this  very European unease about painting, but it's another debate entirely. Or else I'll end up writing a 30,000 words post and I'd rather not do that. I am tired. I have been waiting for the plumber since 8 AM for like, the 5th time in a row. Like Santa, I think he doesn't exist.

One of my regrets about the exhibition, and it's an a posteriori regret, is that the booklet mentions that Swennen had a past career as a beat poet and also someone who took part in "happenings" in his youth, and later on was a conceptual artist, to only take up painting in the 1980s. I wish there were works to be seen about his previous career, or just documentation.  It's unclear if the absence is due to a curatorial choice (maybe from the artist himself) or if this previous work hasn't survived through the years.

Of course, when one thinks "Belgian person who used to be a poet and then became a visual artist late in life", Broodthaers comes to mind immediately but as this isn't mentioned anywhere in that specific conjunction in the booklet (he's mentioned for a very early work though but the parallel isn't made clear), maybe outside of  the use of humor the similarities stop here.  Here's a painting above that let us know what we should do with too much "this is only what I know of Belgian art so I'm going to use it over and over".

Because the educational aspect of the show and the installation are so  bare-bones, one is left hanging with many questions. What did prompt Swennen to take up painting in the 1980s, did it have anything to do with the "Pictures" generation in NYC, or the resurgence of (truly atrocious) neo-expressionist painting in Germany? Because what he does is obviously totally removed from both, and closer to Kippenberger and Polke in intent if not in execution. Or has the decision to take up painting mostly to do with the local art scene at the time? Painting hasn't been so popular over the last decades in Europe outside of that early 1980s period, and so for Swennen to take it up in a country that was then mostly known for post-conceptual art is interesting.

When visiting the show one got a sense that Swennen really enjoys himself when working, sometimes giving tautological titles to paintings or rather, literally descriptive titles: you have a depiction of circles titled "circles", another rather abstract painting was called "red mass" I think, and so forth. There is also a joyous experimentation going on with unconventional supports or materials, with stretcher bars one guesses to be totally DIYed out of whatever was on hand,  paintings running around curved pieces of metal, or xeroxes of drawings remade over. You cannot guess from the crappy image I took above, but this painting has a really lovely enamel-like finish.

I've been told  people who don't like the work say they feel it isn't so great because "it's made so haphazardly like the guy doesn't give a fuck", but that is only an outward impression because as simple as that painting above is, its composition is perfect. It wouldn't be if there wasn't that small horizontal line on the frame and the other vertical one seemingly dripping out of the red rectangle, but these two details as well as the blue layers peeking from under the gray background reveal an attention to detail and perfect balance.

Elsewhere, Swennen makes fun of conventional ideas of paintings as objects, the ones that lie outside of the so-called art world, inside dentist waiting rooms, petty-bourgeois parlors, amateur societies' yearly exhibitions, second-hand stores, and far-right politicians' minds. A sinking ship mocks the convention of nautical paintings while coming with its mandatory brass  lamp over it, with its cord displayed prominently below - the lamp is a signifier of old-fashioned bourgeois decorating values, where it is meant to signal the viewer that whatever is displayed beneath is important stuff indeed.

In many occasions Swennen reuses old pasty curlicued frames and repaints over them, or uses chalkboard-like paint to create the illusion of a blackboard where we'd expect some teaching device but instead are confronted with a seemingly childish drawing of a ghost figure, palette in hand, leaving a medieval castle. I guess it's the childish aspect of many of the works that puts people off whereas yours truly finds it enchanting, but then one ponders if a child would think about depicting a dog (or a wolf?) throwing out something that looks like a bomb while a scribbled inscription on top reads "Hosana" (yes, there's an "n" missing). If you have a child like this, please donate me one of their paintings. Thanks.

Elsewhere, you find colored dots in suspension on a white background, which could read as a parody of Hirst's famed and totally perfect, painted-by-assistants dot paintings, or just something Swennen was trying his hand at. When wandering in the exhibition you find that there isn't a question of whether Swennen paints abstract or figurative paintings because he does both, and there isn't such a sharp definition as far as  both genres are concerned. Somewhere in the booklet it says something like "chance plays a major role in Swennen's practice" in the sense that he uses a lot of random ideas and visual data as starting points (explained as stuff that lays in piles in his studio, whether it's books, magazine images, old paintings found at thrift stores, etc.) or as "continuing devices" if I understand whatever is written in that &^%#*  Belglish booklet, that is, when he's stuck in the middle of painting something some random image might give him inspiration to go in another direction to finish the work.  My understanding of what they wrote and which I find hilarious is that, if he doesn't come across something  that will spur his imagination, the work is abandoned/finish as "an abstract painting". If this isn't what they meant in that booklet, blame their English translator, or whoever wrote the initial text, but in any case I find my explanation super poetic, so there you go.

This was my favorite painting in the show. It's *this close* to being a truly bad thrift store painting yet Swennen pulls it off as something really interesting, which I attribute to the thin  blue layer on top of the background, which contradicts the somewhat fatty inexpert brushstrokes of the fire.

And this was the bulletin-board and the vitrine in a corner of the exhibition, where some drawings are pinned with xeroxes mirroring other drawings and xeroxes. When you see these you understand that beneath the humor and the language jokes and the apparent uncaring concern for "what a proper serious art painting is supposed to look like" lays a very curious and experimental mind engaged in the business of making effing good work. It seems effortless and easy but its just very attractive. It's not telling you to sell the car, sell the house, sell the kids, but to engage with the painting on its own terms, which are not the ones we're told correspond to some conventions of "good" painting without falling into the trap of pretending to be "so bad it's good".
With this, I'm going to wish you some happy holidays, dear readers. FBC! will be back in the new year.

* The educational material at the Wiels is available in Dutch, French and English. The English booklet which I picked up with the intent of freely plagiarizing it if needed is in fact written in "Belglish", that is, Belgian English (not International Art English - it's better than that but still clumsy). It's understandable to English speakers if you apply yourself to it, but it's rather laborious and it looks like it's been written by a non-native English speaker. Or maybe the translator didn't manage to make it flow? In any case, it seems like different persons have written it, with some paragraphs truly informative and relatively well-written, and others totally mysterious. Some of the references mentioned in the booklet are totally unintelligible  if you're not Belgian, unfortunately.

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