Studio Visit: Alex Couwenberg, The Language of Style
“ In the end I realize that whatever meaning that picture has is the accumulated meaning of ten thousand brushstrokes, each one being decided as it was painted.” ~Robert Motherwell
“Art is an experience, not an object.” ~Robert Motherwell
By Gary Brewer
Language creation is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is what guides artists to seek new ways to interpret experience and to express themselves. From the personal journey of the individual artist, to the collective journey of our species from our origins to the present; the need to create is an existential act.
Marks and patterns are a basic element in visual language. We build meaning through developing a coherent whole – a language of style. The meaning of a work can be a specific narrative that tells a story or it can be embedded in the process of creation, expressing a metaphoric struggle to find balance and harmony and in so doing, realize a unique form of beauty.
Alex Couwenberg uses the language of abstraction as a means to explore his inner need to create a balanced universe. The works are worlds unto themselves, compositions of the complex and pristine, contrasted with passages where the physicality of pigment as matter is explored and the process of creation reveals itself.
As we spoke, Alex said to me, “My life is a constant search for balance; to find it within myself, my family, my environment, and in my painting. To be in the here and now and conscious of what is happening. I balance my time between Los Angeles and the Big Island of Hawaii, where I’m able to immerse myself in the Polynesian culture and live in the beauty of the islands. I surf and make art everyday and find that the time spent in both the ocean and studio creates an experience where hours pass without having an awareness of actual time. The opportunity to be in the moment and connect with a natural process through thinking and decision making that ultimately affects the outcome and shape of an idea. Sometimes the form of that idea manifests itself in a painting or how I surf a wave. These are the moments that I constantly search for and are an important part to my process and aesthetic.”
Alex and I spoke about balance, beauty and design in his paintings, and how these elements express a positive power, a force that he is drawn to realize in his work and life. Beauty is a word that is often maligned in the art world. Relegated to merely a cultural construct, it has been turned into a negative term in the contemporary art world that often represents an absence of depth or intellectual seriousness. Alex remembers taking a class while getting his MFA from Claremont Graduate School in the mid-90’s. The conversation was about Abject Art and its relevance in history and contemporary art making. The term was rooted in the idea that the work explored themes that threaten our sense of beauty and cleanliness through the use of bodily functions as a subject matter. “I try to have an understanding and respect for just about all forms of art and expression, but realized that for me, personally that this was a defining moment. I felt compelled to make work that echoed the beauty in my world and not focus on the dark and pessimistic tones that seemed “in” at that time. I wanted to bring the ideas of balance and resolve in my work to the world as a positive force and not focus on highlighting the negative.”
There is a small painting in his studio, a perfectly composed, yet deeply complex abstraction. A chevron design in crisp orange lines on grey is placed just off center. Alex told me that it was the first move in the painting. The chevron has been partially obscured by abstract shapes reminiscent of an Eames design; the lobed forms have both transparent and opaque passages. The materiality of the paint is richly expressed in citron yellows, oranges, deep blood red, sky blue and avocado green. The palette is complex but balanced; the strong color chords create a rich interchange that gives this small painting a vibrant intensity. Alex tapes and uses thick mediums to give the paint more body. The complex network of linear design elements and the bold forms are built up in layers creating a low relief. The interplay of opacity and transparency adds another element to this richly musical composition. The soft, out of focus sprayed backgrounds of his paintings are highly calculated, allowing the process to create slight imperfections, a splatter here or drop there, ultimately adding a compelling contrast to his immaculate craft. The impact of the painting is a singular gestalt where all of the elements are masterfully held in stasis; harmony yields its soothing spell over this potent abstract painting.
His early influences are in part from the California Abstract Classicist’s: Karl Benjamin, John McLaughlin, Lorser Feitelson and Fredrick Hammersley. Karl Benjamin was a teacher and mentor of Alex’s while he attended Claremont Graduate School. He was inspired by this aesthetic, which in part expressed the search for a formal equilibrium that reflects the spirit and quality of life in Southern California.
Another influence is the patterns and designs in the tattoo art of Polynesian and Oceanic cultures. “ My first trip to Hawaii affected me deeply. When I saw the powerful design-work in the traditional Hawaiian tattoos I was blown away. I was drawn to the sea, the tropical flora and fauna and the food, which was similar to the Indonesian food that I grew up with. My father was born on the island of Java in Indonesia and after the war ended he moved to Holland, where he met my mother. They soon moved to the United States where they were married and I was born. Being in Hawaii was an awakening connecting me back to something that had been hidden, this connection to Oceanic cultures. I have designed all of the tattoos on my body and it is a way to bring these different parts of myself and my family history together.” Though the specific symbolism of the tattoo art of Polynesian culture is absent from Alex’s paintings, there is something in the bold design, the curves and forms that allude to that art.
Alex is drawn to challenge himself; to start with a design element and then improvise; he makes his first move and then looks to see what it suggests, then something is added. There is no master plan to follow, just a set of design motifs and a mastery of his materials that allows him to engage deeply with the process and discover a final composition where all of the elements are engaged with each other; the equilibrium of the internal relationship generating spatial tension and emotional calm.
The search for resolve in a painting is a very specific universe of meaning known only to painters. The results are seen and felt by the viewer, and in a masterful work, the balance becomes a subjective affect that creates a powerful unity in one’s mind. The experience of making is quite different. Alex talked about moments when one passage suddenly becomes disruptive to the painting’s unity; how he is pushed into a corner and by looking long and hard or in a scant glance, he finds within the internal logic of painting, a solution that resolves the piece. It is the alchemy of the invested object; the subjective quality that a painting contains as a result of an artist sweating through to the end to find a solution, that ultimately gives the work its emotional resonance and deepens its meaningfulness.
Painting is an expression of the known and the unknown. Craft gives us the skills to use the medium and create a visual language that fulfills certain requirements of design, but it is the deeper cadences of thought, the pattern of our synapses firing, and our imagination generating fresh variations, that opens up newly discovered worlds. Self, the quicksilver entity that flickers just behind our eyes, reveals itself in our works; it is through a side door that parts unknown are revealed to us by the choices we make, by the quality of the marks we make, and the forms that we choose. It is an occult science of discovery that realizes a living presence in the works that we make.
Alex Couwenberg weaves the influences of the California Abstract Classicist’s through the trade winds and warm waters of the tropics to manifest a deeply felt and original form of abstraction. They are resonant with the intensity of his search for balance that is, at its core, a spiritual search; to find harmony in the world and make it known to others through his paintings. It is a gift born from a deep need to quiet the world and lose oneself in a process of self-discovery and creation.
Alex Couwenberg will have a solo show, “Geometric Generation” opening September 14th at Kostuik Gallery, Vancouver, BC, Canada