A painting by the Swiss artist Stefan à Wengen (1964) could easily be a still from a film: a shot in which we become aware of impending disaster or of disaster that once struck this spot and has been frozen in time. The careful ‘exposure’ and composition of these paintings contribute to this impression and the large size of the canvases (about 2 x 2 metres or even bigger) also intensify the feeling. The effect is that we are literally drawn into the picture. There is no escape. If you stand in front of one of à Wengen’s paintings you experience it fully.
The artist usually works from photographs. He has a large archive of images from which he takes a photograph as a starting point. He quickly traces the outlines of this photograph on a small scale, leaving out superfluous details, and then transfers the image to a large canvas. Sometimes he draws it first and then paints with fine, meticulous brushstrokes.
In another picture we see a torn tent in a desolate, almost post-apocalyptic landscape. Beside the tent is one of the few trees featuring in the landscape. It is no more than a few thin branches with tufts of foliage at the top. Virtually the only colour in the painting comes from the tent – a pale fluorescent green. In front of the tent are two pairs of shoes. The cynical title of this painting, dating from 2007, is ‘Comfortably Numb’. What is à Wengen trying to say here? That we have actually already been living in the post-apocalyptic era for some time but are playing dumb about it?
In these pictures we also see a lot of temporary architecture in the shape of wooden huts in the jungle – abandoned, closed, ramshackle. Here a hut, which can stand for a place where you can hide and shelter from the weather and danger from outside, takes on a completely different meaning. These buildings remind us of Pol Pot’s Cambodia and thus conceal an allusion to the horrors that took place here. Often we see modernist sculptures in front of these ruins, apparently totally out of place. Smooth and polished, their curves are reminiscent of the work of artists such as Henry Moore and Jean Arp. It is up to us as the public to give free rein to our imaginations and to fantasise about and make associations with the possibilities offered by the space between these two completely different elements. Is the artist saying that one half of the world is occupied with aesthetic problems while the other half are slaughtering each other? Or is it as Julian Heynen suggests in his article, namely that in making sculptures like this Western culture was inspired by the visual imagery of non-Western cultures, and that these sculptures have been put back into the context of their place of origin?
It is clear that the artist wants to draw attention to things which are often hidden away in our busy, slick and often also glaring visual culture: silence, desolation, fear, loneliness, the impenetrable, and everything we suppress day after day. Stefan à Wengen’s paintings can be read as a metaphor for the twilight zone of our collective subconscious. They show us the frayed side of our world.Margriet Kruyver
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