(To view and purchase artworks from this series, including pricing details, scroll to the end of this online exhibition page).
Sylvia Schwenk’s pandemic-era project—an ensemble of paintings on paper titled “your thoughts become your world”—begins with multiplicity. As soon as you have seen just a few, you cannot help but notice relationships between them, even as each one remains distinct. And as you see more of them, you know that there must be even more to see, as more relationships and more distinctions come into play. And yet the unfolding of these resemblances and singularities never seems random or infinite. To get our bearings amidst this evolving multiplicity—spanning more than 280 paintings so far—it may be useful to distinguish between three levels of composition.
1. The project as a whole encompasses four series of paintings that Schwenk calls “seasons.” Every painting in a season uses the same palette of three colors (although some use only one or two of them). The colors, applied in either watercolor or acrylic paint, manifest varying qualities of solidity, contrast, and coherence. Across all of these permutations, the palette acquires both formal versatility and expressive range.
2. The works of each season are presented in small sets (between two and five paintings) that Schwenk calls “weeks”. Arranging the paintings by week allows them to form discrete units that might resemble sequences, diagrams, or constellations. Every week puts together paintings that seem to go together, or not; either way, it becomes clear that none of them should be seen in isolation and that they all have something in common.
3. Throughout the project Schwenk develops a tight repertoire of abstract shapes or configurations. The shapes are immediately easy to grasp, and it is tempting to give them names as if they are trying to be representations of something. And yet what looks like a figure in one place becomes a background somewhere else; pictorial conventions lose their privilege. By subtle degrees, weightiness drifts and settles, nearness comes and goes. Even the monochrome fields are shaped by inner contours. But as you see more iterations of each shape in the various colors, sometimes flipped over or turned around, their precise specificities reassert themselves: they are their own kinds of things.
Using these apparently simple variables, Schwenk generates an enormous array of possibilities in composition and presentation. But the effort to summarize the project this way—extracting a logic of series, sets, and shapes where every trait would fall into place—makes the work sound more fixed and final that it is.
There is certainly an order and a logic at work here, but what it puts in motion feels more like a game or an experiment, something a little mysterious.
The paintings do not simply relate to each other, they are thinking about each other, and it is your task to let it happen.
A game? An experiment? A mystery? These words register something crucial about Schwenk’s project: it calls for engagement and exploration, thinking and rethinking. You never really know if a game has rules until you play it, you can only make trustworthy discoveries by carrying out experiments, and to solve a mystery, you have to move beyond what you already know. Putting these lessons together, Schwenk’s project opens up a fundamental learning process. That is why it operates within an irreducibly moral dimension, in the sense proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche:
We immediately construct each new image that we see with the help of all the experiences that we have had, depending on the degree of our honesty and justice. There is no other kind of experience than moral experience, not even in the realm of sense perception. (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft #114)
As you move from one painting to the next, comparing and contrasting, you have to remember what you have seen and anticipate what might come next. If you are honest, you will not jump to the conclusion that everything looks alike, or that all the differences are trivial. Likewise, giving the work your careful attention is a matter of justice: only then will you see that the paintings do not simply relate to each other, they are thinking about each other, and it is your task to let it happen. To be more precise, the paintings think about each other (and everything between them) according to a principle of “equality” that is expressed in sensuous and abstract terms at once. They ask each other about their own potentialities, they examine their disparities from every angle, they render all relations of force reversible, and they patiently resist any closure of their horizons. They do not illustrate this sense of equality, they enact it.
All of which is to say: looking at these images with “honesty and justice” is a matter of learning a particular way of thinking, and nothing less than your sense of the world is at stake. Now it becomes clear why Schwenk composes these abstractions with such controlled rigor: by making this learning process available to anyone willing to look, she hopes to demonstrate how easy it is to change oneself and the world at the same time. The title of the project needs to be read in both directions at once, because all the action is happening around the word “becomes.” For philosophers, “becoming” is not only a concept of change; it defines existence itself as change. “You must change your life” says Rainer Maria Rilke; “you must change the world,” says Karl Marx, and both may be right. But in between them there are many paths, some of them leading toward and some leading away from whatever counts as “you.” In the thick of this traffic, the customary stable reference points (such as “self,” “society,” and “environment”) have been suspended, and it is necessary to orient ourselves according to a more dynamic set of coordinates. What does that look like? What does that feel like? Schwenk’s project shows us one way to answer these questions. That is not to say that the project does not also address the great questions of the day—the daily threats to our existence, racial and sexual oppression, global ecological crisis—on the contrary, it insists that such questions can be approached through the effort of learning how to recognize and anticipate the irreducible multiplicity of relationships that are right there in front of us, staring us in the face. It is up to you to take a look.
Sylvia Schwenk was born in Mannheim, grew up in Australia and now lives in Berlin. She is a multidisciplinary artist who uncovers relationships between the body and the everyday.
For Schwenk, art is about possibilities. Her works have a sense of play and accessibility that engenders a different way of looking at things. Schwenk shows us worlds we want to live in. She also presents the everyday with new perspectives for us to experience and consider. Sometimes Schwenk creates works of socially engaged performance art with tens or hundreds of people that emphasize collaboration, fun, dialogue and audience activation. She works closely with communities to explore local issues, creating artworks that are both context-responsive and universal in their presentation. Other times she captures moments, spaces or actions with paintings, films, drawings, sculptures or by writing a book. Whatever the medium, themes of community and communication run through her works, which unite art and social considerations.
Schwenk’s art addresses the need for equality and compassion in our social lives. Her projects translate her abiding concerns into artworks where viewers are invited to experience, in both emotional and conceptual ways, what it means to seek real change in themselves and in their communities. Her works encourage a dynamic awareness of what it means to pursue mutual recognition and ongoing transformation. Schwenk’s artistic practice is marked by care, generosity, and resolve. Her work offers pleasures and intrigues of its own, even while it opens up a common ground where we can envision new possibilities.
Schwenk performs and exhibits in art galleries, film festivals and communal spaces internationally.
In the last 10 years she has created more than 30 works of socially engaged and community projects. Over 2,000 people have participated in these works using their bodies to realise the art, in everyday situations and spaces including public areas, prisons, naval bases, cathedrals, football grand finals, public transport, model airplane fields and art institutions.
Some of her commissions of socially engaged performance art include the Royal Australian Navy, Kunstwerkstatt an der Turmstraße, Stadt Monheim am Rhein, Kultursekretariat NRW Gütersloh, the INTERREG – Grenzregionen gestalten Europa Europäischer Fonds für Regionale Entwicklung der Europäischen Union, Art Fairs (Sydney and Melbourne), and Art Month. Selected solo exhibitions include Artereal Gallery, Sydney, oqbo project space, Berlin, dianne tanzer gallery + projects, Melbourne, Dynamo Expo, Enschede, and Perron 1, Delden, NL. Selected group exhibitions include Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney, Rutgers University, New Jersey, and Lincoln Arts Project, Massachusetts.
Her art is in many public collections including Museum für Sepulkralkultur, in Kassel, DE, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in Sydney, Gold Coast City Art Gallery AU, as well as Stanford University in California in the USA.
Schwenk’s artist residencies include Kunstwerkstatt an der Turmstraße, Stadt Monheim am Rhein, the Künstlerdorf Schöppingen, DE, aadk Blanca, ES, the Academy of the Arts, University of Tasmania, Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney, HMAS Penguin, Sydney, AU, and albb Saigon, VT.
Schwenk received a PhD from Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, and studied at KISD in Cologne, and the Universität der Kunst in Berlin.
View all of the artworks in this online exhibition below. Please click on artwork to view in full screen mode.
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