M HKA, Antwerp
16 September 2022 - 08 January 2023
Active for more than half a century as a visual artist, Walter Swennen is considered one of the figureheads of contemporary painting. He trained as an engraver, then began his career in performance art and poetry, strongly influenced by the Beat Generation. In 1980, he started making large-scale, mainly monochrome paintings and drawings in which language plays a vital role. More recently, he has become best known for his radical, experimental and associative approach to painting — an attitude that expresses his belief in the total autonomy of the artwork. His oeuvre shows figuration and abstraction, colour and black & white, language and iconography, image and underlying image, humour and irony, harmony and contradiction and is very diverse in terms of techniques, materials, motifs, style and scale. Swennen’s paintings are freely associative, exploring the relationship between symbols, language, legibility, meaning and pictorial treatment, and his practice can be considered as an ongoing exploration of the nature and problems of painting.
From 1984 to 2010, Swennen lived and worked in Antwerp. In 1994, M HKA organised a major solo show of his works, which was the first exhibition devoted to a painter since the museum was founded in 1987. The following year, his exhibition at Micheline Szwacjer gallery was marked by a pronounced political character which was visible both on the canvases and in the choice of supports. Swennen recuperated shabby materials from the largely underprivileged local residents, including a large migrant community who had previously lived in the area — a reminder that the Zuid district had been very desolate before the art world settled here.
In 2006, Swennen made the painting Zij die hier zijn zijn van hier (Those Who Are Here Are From Here) for the group exhibition MUTE, which was part of a series of events organised in Antwerp to protest against extremism and senseless violence in response to a racist killing in the city and the alarming increase of anti-immigrant sentiments.
> Walter Swennen, Zonder titel (Souvenir) [Untitled (Souvenir)], 1982. Leaflet, oil paint, paper, canvas, 231 x 150 cm.
> Walter Swennen, Zonder titel (Gods Voet) [Untitled (God's Foot)], 1985. Painting, oil paint on canvas, 200 x 160 cm.
> Walter Swennen, Zonder titel (Manivelle), 1986. Painting, 94.5 x 63.5 x 5 cm.
> Walter Swennen, Mesmeric Revelation, 1987-1988. Painting, oil, lacquer, canvas, 200 x 190 cm.
> Walter Swennen, Zij die van hier zijn zijn van hier, 2007. Painting, oil on canvas, 80 x 68 cm.
> Walter Swennen, Leeuw [Lion], 2007. Painting, oil, canvas, 170 x 150 cm.