William Swetcharnik

Early Studies

Early in his career, William Swetcharnik chose not to focus exclusively on portraiture and began to diverge into still-life painting, a genre which continues to occupy him in various ways. Part of the appeal of still-life lay in the way it lent itself to multiple variations on a theme. This 1981 image of pomegranates, for example, was reworked sixteen years later as part of a complicated vanitas painting. In the longer term, a pattern emerges in which his still-life paintings evolve from individually simple compositions, toward complex compositions with numerous oblique narratives, and then back toward simpler works that combine into complex ensembles.

Building on earlier traditions, Swetcharnik's still-lifes began with straightforward domestic images such as fruit and other kitchen fare. These works were also very traditional in terms of technique: in fact, the artist has always made many of his paints and other materials by hand, using formulas typical of an artist’s studio three or four centuries ago.

Usually working with oils, he also uses pastel, egg tempera, and other traditional media. Although the rendering appears to be very realistic, many details and even entire settings are invented: the stone ledge in the pomegranate painting, the room with the cat in Afternoon Peaches, the embroidered border of the tablecloth next to the blue bowl.

As with earlier masters, Swetcharnik also began to invest his objects with symbolic properties. Often his allegorical agenda becomes apparent after sustained examination: as with paintings such as Sleeping Virgin, which shows a Chinese wedding garment draped over an idle sewing machine, a copy of Raphael’s Sacred and Profane Love in the background. The viewer is now given hints of hidden meaning, and is invited into a certain kind of epistemological dialog.

It is not always evident what kind of dialog is being introduced, because some of the works are unexpectedly playful. Some of the works of this period, for example, come out of a rather eccentric still-life tradition called trompe l’oeil (“trick the eye”) by the French. In her American Arts Quarterly article on Swetcharnik, art historian Karen Mulder observes that one of Swetcharnik's trompe l'oeil compositions, Fare to Maudlin, functions as an unusual sort of self-portrait.

As Mulder also observes about Swetcharnik's Sour Grapes composition, trompe l'oeil paintings trade on illusion, irony, and altered expectations. But there is another still-life sub-genre, usually referred to as vanitas (although vanitas also applies to many sub-genres of figure, interior, and landscape painting) that does so with a much more serious agenda. In the section on Shell and Stone, we see how Swetcharnik increasingly turns his attention to vanitas compositions.