When asked to provide a title for his show, Walter Swennen happened to notice a page in a book about Congolese painters. On it was the picture of a painting by the artist MOKE (1950-2001) from Kinshasa. It shows the singer of a Rumba band with the written refrain “Tambula malembe”, a song by the Congolese musician Vadio Mambenga (ca. 1940-1990), coming out of his mouth. In a footnote in the catalogue, he found the translation “allons-y doucement,” which Swennen associated with “Easy Does It,” a song by Lester Young from the Swing era. So, “let’s take it easy.”
Swennen creates his pictures much in the same way he finds titles: by working with associations and improvisation. Maître Moke, whose pictures he saw almost every day at a poet friend’s house in the 1970s, showed him what he calls the “universal beauty of corrugated tin rooves” in Kinshasa. For Swennen, painting is not based on a concept; instead, everything depends on encounters, on improvising at different speeds, on highly singular individualities that can only be found where they are. All of Walter Swennen’s work is marked by a search for what is unforeseeable and contradictory in painting. His works are experiments with – and investigations of – motifs, language, signs, techniques, picture supports, meaning, and expressiveness.
Originally a Beatnik poet and Happening-participant, Swennen turned to painting as his preferred means of expression in the early 1980s. “A painting is always an image of a painting,” he said a decade later. In his eyes, the goal of painting is painting itself. It is the translation of what we absorb from the world around us, which in Swennen’s case includes such varied sources as comics, literature, encyclopedias, children’s drawings, advertising, and Pop Art. His execution of painting is characterized by a love for forms of resistance, deviation, and relativization, which is why marginality, absurdity, and tragicomedy define his pictorial world. Swennen’s visual poetry explores the relationships between symbols, legibility, meaning, and painterly craftsmanship, which he understands as analogies for the rhetorical figures of irony, paradox, and antithesis.