Walter Swennen, To Mona Mills, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 67 × 63".

Walter Swennen, To Mona Mills, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 67 × 63".

Walter Swennen

La Triennale di Milano

Given his loosely painted figuration and freewheeling combinations of words with overlapping Pop imagery, Walter Swennen could easily be mistaken for a neo-expressionist. However, the thirty-six works in this small survey of the Brussels-based septuagenarian artist’s production underlined his continuing exploration of how to put a painting together. Along with canvases from the past four decades, it included one sculpture, a painted metal disk, and two large rolls of painted paper.

Swennen studied psychology, wrote poetry, and taught psychoanalysis before seriously picking up a paintbrush in 1980. He describes the problematics of painting as lying “not between image and word, but between image and word on the one hand and painting on the other.” One could also say that his work inhabits the space between picture and object. In any case, writing plays as essential a part in his visual language as images do. As a poet he was interested in concrete poetry and calligrams, and this attraction to word/image crossovers is carried into his paintings. For instance, moor was painted diagonally downward in Untitled (Room), 2011, but with an arrow pointing upward, suggesting the correct, though unconventional, direction of reading.

Several works were patterned with letters directing the eye around the canvas, leading the mind to find words or to make them up. Others seemed to offer arbitrary associations between words and pictures. Two early works, Untitled (Spook, Mist) and Alphabetum, both 1981, provided insights into Swennen’s development and thinking process. Each was painted on a single unrolled sheet of paper and pinned to the wall. They contain loosely rendered images in oil and lacquer next to single words; in the former, mist is written next to a windmill, while in the latter a funnel sits by the word rabbit. In the decades since, Swennen has added further images, including cowboys, arrows (in both senses: directional signs and weapons), animals, and buildings, to his iconography.

When Swennen was five years old, his Flemish-speaking family abruptly switched languages and began speaking exclusively in French. This experience may have contributed to his interest in shifting language away from meaning and into form. A good example of the resulting playful approach can be found in the painting To Mona Mills, 2015. It depicts a simplistic horse and its stick-figure rider on a rust-brown wash over a blue ground. Swennen has left a band of blue at the top, with a small windmill in the distance, and the inscribed name mona mills—the author of various 1980s how-to-paint manuals. This reference explains the phrases how to paint a hors, how to paint a horse, and variants scrawled onto the drippy brown surface. The work isn’t so much a picture as the schema of a picture: brown landscape with blue sky, figures in a field. But the paintings also verbally illustrates Swennen’s mischievous idea of constructing images by turning the play of spelling and languages into mark-making. Finally, “hors” means “except” in French; was he slyly asking how to paint an exception? The critic Quinn Latimer has described Swennen’s images as non sequiturs. But is there even a logical sequence from which to remove them? In any case, they are improbably assembled and hover at the edge of any rationality.

Sherman Sam