By Allison A Van Spankeren
While not a figurative painter in the traditional sense, Swiss artist Jean-Marc Schwaller gives attention and emphasis to the tangible world, as his work often focuses on the abstraction of nature. Schwaller brilliantly transforms realistic subjects, such as water gardens and landscapes, into visceral compilations of light and color. Schwaller is a master at giving a sense of emotion, movement, and life to his often conceptual pieces.
Born in 1949, Schwaller grew up in the small town of Ponthaux, Switzerland. He attended College St-Michel in Fribourg, and later graduated from the University of Bern in Switzerland, with the intent to teach visual arts. Schwaller taught for ten years, before leaving to focus on his own work.
Truly a man of the world, Schwaller’s work has been exhibited across the globe. Schwaller has a passion for travel and often looked to other cultures and landscapes for inspiration. For instance, in 1998, he was a part of the exhibition for the centenary of the SPSAS “Beware of the Journey,” where he painted eight watercolors representing the Taklimakan Desert in China. In 2003, he exhibited two paintings from his series Lords of War at the First International Art Biennale in Beijing. Shortly after, he exhibited Landscape of Earth-Water Landscapes at the Museum of Singinois Tavel.
In addition to painting, Schwaller recently completed a sculpture based on the theme of divers in the port of Gletterens. Schwaller constructed glass walls, in which his rendering of five human bodies live. These bodies seem to have been frozen in a moment of intense movement: contorted and thrashing in a dance-like way, as if they were captured in the perfect storm.
Most recently, Schwaller has exhibited his work at the Armani Hotel in Dubai and at Emirate Palace in Abu Dhabi. Opening just this past June, Schwaller’s exhibit entitled “The Rhythm of Earth-Passage” is a collection of his monumental oil paintings, which were previously displayed in Broadway Gallery, New York. Like much of Schwaller’s work, the paintings in “The Rhythm of the Earth-Passage” translate the natural world into a medley of color and light. Schwaller draws inspiration for much of his work from the world around him, as he is particularly interested in landscapes, mountains, windows, interior vs. exterior, and the male and female body.
Schwaller also draws much inspiration and influence from the Color Field period of the 1950s and 1960s. In this period, artists shied away from the realistic representation of objects or subjects, and instead, abstracted their subjects with an emphasis on large, flat, solid planes of color. Schwaller takes these elements of the Color Field period and elevates, updates, and applies them to the level of his contemporary work. Schwaller is often likened to Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, two highly regarded masters of the Color Field period. Like Rothko, Schwaller still places much emphasis on color blocking, however Schwaller is a bit more playful, as he lets his colors interact and blend at some points.
We see this focus on the potential of color in the harmonic blending of pigment in Schwaller’s recent work. In his first piece here, each shade of blue seems to fade into another, easily transitioning from one hue to the next, truly conjuring the sensation of flowing water. In this rendering of a water garden, soft brushstrokes of yellow and orange pigment are fluidly interwoven within the deep blues and blacks of the piece. This medley of colors, leads your eye inwards, to a patch of negative space in the center of the canvas. The juxtaposition of this harsh white center, with the bursts of dark, almost violent, color emerging from it’s center, gives the piece a sense of intense emotion, truly evoking elements of the spectacle of nature.
In this second piece, another one of Schwaller’s large scale watercolors, he continues to show a remarkable concentration and emphasis on light and fluidity. Again, numerous hues of blue flawlessly run into each other, giving the piece of an active and gestural quality. While still displaying this fluidity, Schwaller makes strong use of lines in this piece. Large vertical areas of color run up the two sides of this painting, while simultaneously, light, smooth, horizontal lines run across the painting. Schwaller is able turn these lines and colors into something more, something that transmits emotion and relates Schwaller’s interpretation of a water garden.
In contrast to the last two of Schwaller’s pieces, here, Schwaller’s third canvas deviates from the strong blues, and utilizes on wider palette of colors. The brushstrokes of these earth tones transition from deep blues, moss greens, and blacks, to colors of copper, rust, and orange. The paint appears to be applied thickly to the canvas, creating texture, and giving the painting a sense of density. However, the painting never seems to be heavy or weighty, due to the translucent and luminous presence of light in the piece. The light and visceral component of this piece streams from the right hand corner of the piece and downward, with the smooth, soft use of the hazy light orange. The paint looks almost feather-like, as the airy orange fades slowly to lighter shades as the paint floats down the canvas, until this delicate color is interrupted by earth tones in a set of undulating horizontal lines.
While these three pieces, and much of Schwaller’s work, draw from the Color Field period, Schwaller gives texture, energy and excitement to the usual flat planes of color that are integral to Color Field work. The dynamic and dramatic nature of his pieces are produced by this feeling of movement. Schwaller creates with his brushstrokes. His is a fluid stroke, yet highly visible and dramatic, creating a unique sense of texture and vitality in these pieces, that actively and effectively conjure notions of the natural world. When Jean-Marc Schwaller paints a water garden, he is not just painting a water garden, he is painting the essence of a water garden, he is painting our interaction with a water garden, and how it feels, smells, tastes, and sounds, to stand amidst the softly rippling waters.