Jan Svenungsson

Sandqvist, Gertrud. "In the neighbourhood of Jan Svenungsson ",

in: Rum Mellan Rum, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1992

"He wanted to believe! He tried hard to believe that there was a completely different way, that one day these embittered and impotent intellectuals who feared and hated irony and true insight would see the shadows grow immensely tall, monstruously tall, stretching across land and water to finally reach the land of philosophers where the knot-men run, climb and jump to their heart's desire, while pirates plunder their humble dwellings." (Jan Svenungsson, Konstföreställningar, 1987)

There is a rift that runs through the five year span of Jan Svenungsson's work. On the one hand the "knot-man" builds up with time an extensive store of pictures and objects, in which each new element is introduced with a certain care. On the other hand the sceptical and potentially insightful painter does his best to disturb the order in the knot-man's constructions. Instead of denying this rift Svenungsson makes it the meaning-carrier of his work. This means, amongst other things, that interpretations are irrelevant, for abysses hardly lend themselves to description, although they might be experienced. Here Svenungsson connects onto the French surrealist's view on the possibilities of art, and thereby across the romantics ultimately to Edmund Burke. Once at the sublime, however, the knot-man raises his objections.

Works by Svenungsson from his time at the National College of Fine Arts display a slightly eclectic late-romantic manner of painting with acute sensitiveness to tonal values. When he makes his debut as an artist at Galleri Engström in 1988, nevertheless, he shows found photographs in such heavy black frames that the works turn into hybrids between picture and object. Be they Strömparterren in Stockholm, Brandenburger Tor, or something that looks like a bomber plane, these photographs have the credibility of the documentary photograph, a credibility associated with reality's time and place rather than with the author. In that way Svenungsson escapes the authenticity-problem which has burdened painting ever since Mannerism.

Also the frames, hewn as they are after the shape of the motif, have something secure and tangibly real about them. At the same time it's the very frames that are made to carry Svenungsson's artistic identity, that become his trademark for a certain time. And the photographs are so emotionally charged that the anonymity of the real author enables Svenungsson to insert them all the more ruthlessly into his own artistic project. Here it's not a question of appropriation but of incorporation.

In 1988 furthermore there appears for the first time a series of years which Svenungsson later has used and alluded to. This series begins with 1904 and runs in decades to 1984. As "Trofé" (Trophy) it's engraved on a copper plate, slightly corroded. Svenungsson has had a ready-made fabricated, not in the spirit of Duchamp, but rather like Breton hunting for fascinating trouvailles in the flea markets of Paris.

Unsurprising in the context identity-anonymity is the addition in 1989 of the series "Le Témoin" (The Witness). The photograph in the heavy frame shows the artist himself this time. In six variants the facial traits are covered by a dark blur of varying size. About this time there was a similar picture to be seen in the tabloids where the dark blur covered the face of the then suspected Palme-murderer Christer Petterson. The guilt-victim dilemma hinted at by the series of pictures may be a side effect. At the same time it's interesting to note that the blur in four of the six "witness" works leave the ears and the hairline free, thereby indicating exactly those parts of the head that the police use to identify people.

The dark covering blur reappears the same year in a series of photographs, "Untitled". The blackness virtually conceals the motifs at the same time as it indicates the scene of an incident and insists on the existence of the picture. Here Svenungsson is close to the commonplace of late modernism. Even the frame is rectangular. Perhaps this series could be perceived as a variant on the ready-made series of years. Perhaps the blackened picture could be perceived as an assault.

From 1988 there's a long series of smokestacks which all have the characteristic black frame carved around the obvious Freudian shape. Svenungsson uses a smokestack formation with a landscape at the Aurora exhibition in Helsinki in 1989. The smokestack objects point like cannons in a combined attack on the small, lyrical, late-romantic landscape painting, also a "ready-made" painted by Svenungsson. But in the battle between such evident representatives of male and female, the violence is tempered by the different printing qualities of the smokestack photographs. In some cases they are securely solid, in others on the verge of disintegrating, losing themselves in a graininess as fleeting as dust.

At Credac in Paris the same year it's the ascetically white, irregularly shaped room itself that replaces the painting and thereby encloses the smokestacks, which seem to not yet have been given their final positions.

In 1990 Svenungsson makes a series of arrangements where the smokestacks are part of a context connected with the gaze and with an injury, a wound. A photo-object shows a child's face where the right half is erased, white, blind. Another photo-object, "Eye", lets the round pupil go white, like a blind spot. References to the camera are clear enough to need be taken any further. Not surprisingly, at an exhibition at Anders Tornberg Gallery in 1991, the smokestacks are grouped together as "Sår" (Wound), "Del" (Part), "Fält" (Field). The titles indicate a discourse which deals with the relation between subject, perspective -- perception, and the object. Thus the witness picture has become "Mask", showing the artist's face composed of photographs taken at different exposures. Likewise, the landscape painting "Fall" is composed of several incongruous parts which are held together for the eye by a kind of red tint which can lead one's thoughts to old, failed colour photographs, or the magenta red layer in four-colour printing. The "knot-man" seeks to get around the credibility problem and thus the "presence" of the work through complicated manipulations of the concepts "painting", "photography", "found", and "fabricated". Anyhow, the longing for an innocence can be shown in the vertiginous perspective of the photo-object "Damm" (Pool). It's an enlarged detail from the dreamy post-card "Stockholm, Strömparterren", which Svenungsson used in 1988 -- a widespread picture found by Svenungsson.

Svenungsson's own paraphrases of the postcard appear in 1991-1992 as a series of copper plates engraved with the names of towns that Svenungsson has visited: Paris, Berlin, Basel, Ferrara... as well as in the collaboration with Ola Billgren, which began with Billgren's contributory work for the Stockholm telephone directory for 1992. The magenta-coloured photographs of Stockholm possess the quality of the disinterested postcard, dreamy like the flaneur.

"And the cities that I took for having no order turned out, in hindsight, to make up something ressembling a pattern, offering not only experiences of beauty." (Jan Svenungsson, siksi 2.88)

Gertrud Sandqvist
(Translation: Kimmo Mutka)