In the Next Dimension by Shana Nys Dambrot, 2016
Alex Couwenberg in the Next Dimension
Unless your work gives you trouble, it is no good. – Pablo Picasso
Alex Couwenberg is an imperfectionist in the house of precision, a humanist in the realm of instruments. His handmade hard-edge abstraction privileges the physicality of the artistic process and the scars left by the creativist gesture, within an aesthetic tradition that eschews both. This upsets some people. He’s okay with that.
His radial, vectorized color blocking and interpretive mathematics are tethered to Southern California art history in certain salient and well-analyzed ways. But in speaking to the contemporary zeitgeist, Couwenberg expresses himself by combining several kinds of styles and techniques in singular compositions that transcend those Mid-Century foundations to create edifices of today’s visual plurality. Confronting his works, one takes an automatic optical inventory of their variegated, topographical textures; you can feel yourself seeing, noticing that the act of sight is physical not just informational. This is intellectually rigorous work speaking a language of intuition – or perhaps it’s the other way around.
Couwenberg’s sunny, tertiary, largely earthbound palette also disengages from the Pop and Op Art traditions at the edges of his personal style. As his line work evokes painting studios rather than sites of commercial or industrial design, so too do his nuanced , ombred color profiles operate with an emotional eccentricity and expressively individual declaration – rich yolk, penumbrous blue, slate grey, freckle-free eggshell, salty olive, oxblood, ice, tangerine dream, crude-oil black, bandage-colored flesh, royal teal, copper, violet, sherbet, moss and mica.
This already compelling range of chromatic and linear tonalities, laid down in translucent layers like tissue-paper stained-glass in patchworks of recombinant color, simultaneously delineates shapes in organized compositions with the centers of gravity of still-lifes or classical tableaux. This has been true throughout his practice and especially between 2007-2015. But Couwenberg in the early months of 2016 has already made a marked breakthrough, offering a new dimension of engagement with the perspectival sight-lines of pictorial space, a methodology of architectural origami and machine-aged naturalism now happening across the planes of the painted multiverse. It’s as different as a map from a globe, as typography from Braille.
If dimensional space and modeled rendering help differentiate between a medieval vision and the Renaissance naturalisms, then perspective and momentum make the difference between retro and futuristic modernisms in the same way. Taking the core dynamic of the image from schematic to atmospheric, disrupting the instinct for reading right to left with refractive vector-based optical depth. There's no single vanishing point to get sucked into but rather a plane to linger over with different perspectives and focal points. One thinks about string theory and the invisible pockets of nested universes. One thinks about broken kaleidoscopes and the disorientation of an aerial landscape. One imagines drawing a street view, lining up the partly-lit windows in upper stories, vaguely aware of the existences of some occupants. One feels the air inside spaces that not only the eye but the body of the viewer might now occupy.
Disrupting the flatness of the pattern, hinting at digital imaging technology or the analog pixelation of lens flare, works like Maybe Tomorrow evoke Bernard Tschumi’s plan for Parc La Villette; Space Oddity looks like the aspirational, heroic exterior of Star Fleet Academy; Thruxton is every inch a city block at night, or the old Whitney Museum; Looking for a Kiss looks like the new Whitney; Provocateur has a pulse, it breathes with a perceptible rhythm; Stylus is geological and ancient, mythological and possibly a mirage. Couwenberg’s sensibility is radial, botanical, musical, percussive, and syncopated, with a patois of satellite imaging, pressurized marquetry, and the romantic labor of grave-rubbing . It’s a fractal kind of naturalism, emotional rather than ideological, yet formalist rather than spiritual. With the asymmetrical balance of Ikebana, the organic world is run through the filter of the intellect. Couwenberg’s work certainly gives him trouble, but perfection is not the goal. It’s something better than perfection, because it has a story.
--Shana Nys Dambrot
A New Era 2015 by James Daichendt
The “mid-century modern” era symbolized a significant advance in technology that represented a new future. Whether it was architecture, interior design, or consumer products, the movement manifested itself through simplified aesthetics that reacted against the ornamental work of past centuries. These sleek ideals embraced the future, and all of its possibilities were wrapped in packages that used newer materials and simplified shapes. Alex Couwenberg captures the essence of this period in his tight and highly finished paintings. Rather than creating a time warp, these ideas are reinvented by Couwenberg for a new age. Far from nostalgic, the artist devours his Southern California context and history to repurpose these elements though an approachable and refined hard-edge abstraction.
The assimilated culture, history, and people of Southern California have all played an important role in developing this language. A mix of organic and geometric lines and shapes, the seemingly opposite elements coexist in his work as they build layer upon layer to form a dense and luscious pattern that looks forward while simultaneously embracing the past. From pinstriping to formalism, peeling away Couwenberg’s interests and aesthetic decisions reveal these important characteristics.
The circular shapes and brown tones in works like Bootsy (2007) recall the organic response of American architects and designers to the angular aesthetics of the Bauhaus and International Design movements. Whether it was Charles and Ray Eames or Frank Lloyd Wright, their contributions were slightly warmer than those of their European counterparts. This variation of modern design was simple, open, and slightly more rounded. Bootsy functions the way a room divider softly frames harder angles. Couwenberg’s acrylic paint highlights the birch panel in all its glory through a series of circles that separate, reveal, and conceal our sight lines. The added depth uses the tools of abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann and his notion of plasticity, a condition that creates vitality and tension from the forward and backward movement of flat areas, color, and texture on the picture plane.
The linear forms and decorative aspects of Couwenberg’s work also draw similarities to the art of pinstriping, a detail practiced by kustom car kulture where the paint is used to accentuate the design and curves of the vehicle. Couwenberg uses his lines to border, accentuate, and highlight his abstract shapes. In Anke (2014), sunbursts of lines radiate from the artist’s geometric forms that cut into the canvas. As the lines extend further from the center, Couwenberg increases their width and they become heavier. This dynamic forces the viewer to oscillate between the power of the center and the border of the canvas, a road map that bursts outward with exuberance yet is still controlled and meticulous.
The lowbrow world of skate and surf culture is also not far away from Couwenberg’s slick works. As he is an avid surfer, the new materials and resin-coated surfaces used by artists in the 1960s and 1970s associated with “finish fetish” is a natural comparison. The finely veneered surfaces of works by artists Billy Al Bengston (b. 1934) and Craig Kauffman (1932 – 2010) were distinctly Southern Californian because the materials were often used in the production of surfboards and cars. Couwenberg’s obsession with his surface is a testament to this history, and his occasional use of texture juxtaposes these glassy planes of color.
While Couwenberg embraces the outward and somewhat superficial aspects of finishing a painting, it only works to heighten the dynamism of his formal compositions. The artist’s preoccupation with line may be his greatest asset. The strong contours and layering force the viewer’s eyes to dance across his compositions. Quiet and reserved at first, the controlled line work in Solo (2011) is organized and precisely positioned to balance the forms within the strong contours. Yet these colors and textures push outward as the artist’s use of line allows these forms to be excitable within their containment, a polarity that consistently resurfaces in his work.
Couwenberg’s oeuvre, although reminiscent of the past, departs significantly from his predecessors’. The artist earned his MFA from Claremont Graduate University in 1997, and while he did not study with noted hard-edge painter Karl Benjamin (1925 – 2012), a pioneer of the movement, the two became friends, and Benjamin served as his mentor and colleague. Their relationship puts Couwenberg’s work in a larger tradition of abstract painting in Southern California, and is a foundation for his development as an artist. Couwenberg’s complicated forms and exquisitely finished paintings raise the bar for abstract painting and pay tribute to some of the masters who built the foundation.
Through Couwenberg’s study of his immediate landscape and history, aspects of Southern California are presented like memories. The artist absorbs the details and aesthetic sensibilities and then incorporates them into his repertoire for a repurposed power. As shapes and textures are built on his surface, they function as a new language that reference fleeting memories. With a dualistic perspective of looking back in order to create a new future, Couwenberg ushers us into a new era.
G. James Daichendt, Ed.D. is associate dean and professor of art history at Azusa Pacific University in southern California. The author of several books, including Shepard Fairey Inc. and Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art, he earned graduate degrees from Harvard University and Columbia University.
Byways Essay 2015 by Cooper Johnson
Making art requires iteration. Whether it’s rearranging a mental composition, refining a concept or sketch, or adding paint to a canvas – there is always that step, in between each change of the image or contact with the painting, where the painter looks at the previous step, mentally reacts, and physically responds with paint. But the mental image of what the artist wants the painting to be is not bound by the material constraints of paint and canvas. You can’t think in paint, and thought is not a physical medium. There is always translation. And it’s never perfect. So, you are forced to put onto the canvas something you can’t control. The image that is created through the medium is not the failed one, though, but a richer, subtler version of what you had planned – something you could not have imagined.
“Byways” is about this very idea of translating mental imagery through the medium of paint. Among the many other things that Alex Couwenberg’s paintings do, at their core is his fascination with how an image is created. In “Byways” you can see how he has pushed the conversation of aestheticized process into new territory, addressing not only physical, but mental process, weaving elements of digital imagery, and conflating the accidental with the intentional.
The paintings are about process in many forms. They often contain a spectrum of moments recording how the paint was applied, ranging from immaculate surfaces to deliberate imperfections. In “Rayban,” you can see the gritty striations from the where the paint was pulled across the surface with a broom. You can see where the stroke pattern starts to curl from when the brush lifted off the canvas. You can see the thickness change from the variations in pressure. You can see the paint cavitate. You can see ridges form from where the tool was pulled up. The turbulence in the paint makes you think about the interstice between the surface and the tool, how that reveals the unevenness and imperfections both. Some of the paint in “Rayban” catches light like it’s still wet, like it was just put on the canvas and barely moved around. The paintings at times even allude to the milling and construction of the frame itself. In “Funhouse,” he’s left the grain and discoloration of the wood as part of the composition of the painting, even leaving preliminary pencil marks.
Couwenberg’s paintings say more about process than rough brushstrokes and unfinished surfaces. Process can sometimes be about negation, too, like in “Untitled Pink 1” where he paints over “finished” layers with a base coat, selecting only portions to remain visible in the negative space.
Although many of the visuals concern physical process and application of paint, Couwenberg is just as astute in aestheticizing mental process as well. The challenge is that in the mental process of forming a composition, shape and contour can arrange themselves in multiple ways at once. Thought is not constrained to a fixed form, and doesn’t have a single way of being said. We can’t actually see the single shape in the artist’s head, swiveling, hinging into various compositions, settling into fixed form. There is a simultaneity and multiplicity of thought that is hard to translate into the physical world of the single affixed image. Yet, the shifting possibilities of composition don’t come out as chaos in his paintings, but find some form of meditative Zen. They don’t appear as rough or unfinished either, but instead, polished, meticulous and ordered. By repeating the same shape on the canvas, Couwenberg alludes to the iterative process of forming a composition by reacting to the shapes that are previously layed on the paintings surface. As each possible placement for the next shape might effervesce at once in the artist’s head, we can almost see this happening on the canvas, like every possibility is crystalizing into a fixed image.
Some of the paintings, such as “Bootsy” and “Funhouse,” expose the stages of painting as a linear process where the beginning layers are on the bottom, and the final layers are closer to the surface. In later paintings though, every layer overlaps and collides into the others – every stage happens at once or out of order. The more polished, finished contours and shapes interact with the more inchoate, or even contours that have been coated again and buried. In many of the paintings, you can see how the lines left from the bristles of a brush lead to the perfect lines that have been taped out and meticulously planned. In “Untitled Pink 1,” pinstripes curve back into the negative space and disappear into obscured layers. Sometimes, like in “Alice’s Buzz,” the layers are so inextricable that it’s impossible to discern the order in which they were painted. In “Double Dutch,” the textures created by the bottommost layer are the most prominent; the coats of paint covering them have been sanded down to reveal the buried surface. In all of these images, the timeline of making the painting is deliberately tangled. You can crawl though Couwenberg’s experience of creating the image, not as a progression of stages, but as synchronous events.
Couwenberg paints the dismantled moment. Like the panels of a machine pulled back to reveal an elaborate circuitry or delicately engineered system. But unlike components that can be detached from their adjoining parts, irregular and out of context, every line, shape, and edge depends on – and might actually be a part of – its neighboring forms. This is more than a visual balance of color and form that arguably is sought in every painting, this is a complex system of discrete and interlocking, functioning parts. And the "system" implies more than what’s in the visual field, you can see traces of buried layers, possibly several paintings deep, you can see contours echoing shapes that aren’t there, parts “functioning” with forms that aren’t there – the paintings are molded by the enormity of the unseen or the covered up.
Plenty can be said about how the use of the iterated shape adds to the discussion of modular imagery common to modern aesthetic, or even that art or design can be systematized or manufactured. More interesting, though, is Couwenberg’s discussion of process and “the moment” in the context of digital imagery and the scaffolding of three-dimensional space. And this goes beyond the abstraction of a representational image or an analog mark. You can see this as early as “Alice’s Buzz,” where the angles of the chevron shape start to resemble those of the edge of rectangular prism. Then in “Double Dutch,” the iterated shape is only a hexagon, but the angles of the edges imply cubes, and when overlapped, they all start to echo one another, like in an exploded view – your mind wants to connect all of the edges into isometric cubes. “Vivi,” “Anke,” and “Paloma” take the idea to another level by hanging nonobjective forms on the imaginary lines of a one-point-perspective system, which is used for framing three-dimensional space. The palette chosen for these lines even suggests a binary system or discrete set of repeated colors, like some form of rudimentary digital system. But these paintings are more than what a computer could generate. Couwenberg has infused them with the element of human touch and the instantaneous application of paint.
Alex Couwenberg’s paintings compress the time span and spatial possibilities of artistic process into a single image. Yet, even with the sense of everything at once, there is still a gravity to his compositions. And the image doesn’t cave-in under the weight of everything overlapping simultaneously. Where we would expect to find chaos in those places of collision, we instead find a sense of deliberateness, something planned. We find that feeling, for just a moment, of mistaking control for coincidence.
ArtScene May 2014 by Molly Enholm
There is a certain sophistication in the pairing of Los Angeles artists Alex Couwenberg and Lisa Bartleson in their two-person exhibition, "Inform/Form." Although each artist works in abstraction informed by the legacy of SoCal’s modernist explorations, they are emphatically different. Bartleson evokes the luminous and perception-shifting legacy of Light & Space, her palette dominated by cool blues, magentas and lavender pigments nestled into cast bio-resin. Clashing with this contemplative aesthetic, Couwenberg, often associated with Finish Fetish and Hard-Edged Abstraction, uses fully saturated primary colors, incorporating complements to ratchet things up a notch. Given these distinctions, the two bodies of work harmonize rather than detract from one another.
In Bartleson’s new work she creates an illusionistic depth of field by manipulating the materials beneath th surface. This technique is most vivid in "Volume No. 1" and "Horizon No. 1," among the most striking works on view, in which a horizontal line of cerulean blue seems to hover in a misty field of violet. Couwenberg also charts new territory in his formal investigations. With a simple shift of emphasis in the compositional strategy from horizontal/vertical stability to diagonal lines and swaths of colors cutting across the surface, he creates a dramatic sense of energy and movement. In addition to the solo works, Couwenberg worked with Bartleson to create small wall-mounted bio-resin works built of complex layered geometries that effectively bridge the two artist’s diverse styles (Launch LA, Miracle Mile).
SQUARE CYLINDER December 2013 by David Roth
When it comes to visualizing the forces that shaped Southern California from WWII to now, Alex Couwenberg offers a unique, hard-won vision. His exuberant abstract paintings reveal a highly refined view of his immediate surroundings and, by extension, a portrait of of that region's culture, consciousness and aesthetic sensibilities. With allusions to the overlapping intrusions of freeways, signage, industry, suburban sprawl and communication networks (visible and unseen), his works form a psychic map of a place where discontinuities and vast disparities are on parade.
If that sounds like a mildly dystopian vision, I can assure you that it is not. Couwenberg’s precisely crafted paintings — built of off-kilter geometric and biomorphic shapes, taped-off lines and blocks of strong color — radiate the kind of synthetic sex appeal that has long been a hallmark of LA art. That, of course, is a multi-faceted designation that includes hard-edged geometric abstraction, Minimalism, Finish Fetish and the Space and Light movement. All, as this show attests, have been strong influences on this 46-year-old artist who, as a student, fell under the sway of Karl Benjamin, but afterward developed an idiosyncratic vernacular language from the hotrod, skateboard, surfing and aerospace cultures that dominated Southern California during his youth. Custom car colors, drab institutional/industrial hues, metallic and pearlescent finishes, pinstripes and gradations of luminosity and opacity achieved through layering are the basic building blocks of his art. Reproductions show only its graphic qualities; the more rewarding aspects, revealed upon close inspection, lay in how the artist creates the sensation of deep, labyrinthine spaces, interconnected through subtle shifts in tonality, eye-fooling replications of oxidized metal surfaces and raised, taped-off lines that impart to his acrylic paintings a relief-like quality. The near-perfect state of equilibrium he achieves in integrating these elements is a wondrous thing that only a curmudgeon opposed to retinal pleasure could deny.
Technology has always loomed in the background of Couwenberg’s work; but here, in Spectrum, a chromatic study played out across a dozen 12 x 12-inch paintings executed on Plexiglas and arrayed across the gallery’s back wall, he brings it to the fore. Their matte finish brings to mind the resin vessels Rachel Whiteread displayed at Gagosian’s LA branch several years back, as well as the early work of the Sacramento painter David Wetzl. The explicit reference is, of course, to electronic circuitry, visible in both in the colored bands that form the grounds and the taped vertical lines that rest on the surfaces. In a pair of larger, more densely layered Plexiglas paintings, Victoria and Franco, in which light is allowed to penetrate the surface, we feel an almost frenzied energy, owing to the profusion of oddly truncated shapes, and to the zingy race track-shaped lines that unite them. To those susceptible to such enticements, paintings like this send out a masculine scent that if translated might read: “Drive fast and hard.”
By recasting the orthodoxies of geometric abstraction and combining them with the tropes of SoCal car/surf culture, Couwenberg evokes the sensation of living in a region where exhaust fumes, sensory overload and subliminal connectivity have long been facts of life. In so doing, he pushes a decidedly retro sensibility into the digital era.
–DAVID M. ROTH
CrossCurrent by Evan Senn November 2013
Layers of textural shape and planes of transparent color act as a doorway into another realm. Standing in front of a recent Alex Couwenberg painting is less like standing still and more like entering a portal into the purity of paint. Giant, visceral objects move and breathe in the materials—plastic, canvas and paint—they seem to undulate as you are immersed inside the work. Though abstract, Couwenberg’s paintings take on a life force that seems to personalize for each viewer, creating a glittering new world, intimately reflecting the internal desires and expression of the viewers, themselves.
Larger than life, Couwenberg studiously renders feelings and emotions through his instinctual process, constructing and de-constructing whole universes in shapes, lines, planes and color fields. The perfect blend of dissonance and harmony, the paintings tug and pull your attention from edge to edge, each layer and plane of texture and color sway your focus onto the next, guiding you through this manmade realm of expression.
Couwenberg is one of the rare artists that truly connect with his materials—his practice is centered on the paint—he moves and creates with it, not against it. He doesn’t abuse the material, force it to do what he wants, he lets the paint guide him, giving permission to his instinctual connection with the work to take over and bring out true artistic innovation and clarity.
As if his paintings were music, Couwenberg’s paintings push and pull at these small subtle corners of composition that sound like sexy little flat minor chords thrown into a mix of an evocative symphony of melodious combinations.
Inspired by contemporary life, Couwenberg’s new series, like many of his series, takes from his surroundings and his passions, but, through his instinctual interpretation of the world, Couwenberg focuses on the root and the core of the object, helping to create a sense of intrigue as well as accessibility for viewers. Though his work involves simple shapes, lines and geometric textures and color blocks, they teeter on the brink of organic and inorganic objects. With subtle curves and obtuse angles, his work holds a power of emotion that is rarely seen in abstract work. Not unlike his masterful mentor, Karl Benjamin, Couwenberg knows exactly what to do with color. Precisely placed and meticulously rendered, his paintings carry emotional weight and life embedded in them.
The immersive depth of Couwenberg’s new paintings are due, in part, to his new found obsession with acrylic plexiglas as support. His techniques are evolving from traditional materials to innovative experimentation. Though many of his larger works are still on traditional canvas or wood panel, his most intriguing pieces in his new series are playfully dancing around this interesting new support. The plexiglas gives a range of movement and interaction with the paint that Couwenberg had been trying to create on canvas and panel. The serene strength in these plexi paintings end up having a sculptural quality to them that cannot be replicated on canvas.
Some of his smaller works, like his color studies, are also on plexi and are profoundly powerful—as if digitally printed off of 3D printer, they interact with the viewer on a more physical and contemporary level, referencing industry, new media, technology and a sleek and simple design that feels deep and inviting.
I cannot be in the presence of Avalon, a medium-sized, predominantly red acrylic painting on plexiglss. Anxiety seeps into my emotional subconscious in front of Avalon. Its dissonance and vibrancy—in color, texture and composition—is so strong it puts me at distress. The edges, the lines, the angles—they push me to a point of urgency, of inadequacy; this vivacious orb stands there, deeply peering into my soul, engaging me to be more than I am, more than I think I can be. It demands forward moving action from me.
Soft and sleek lines, gentling curving after long stretches of straight and strict journeys—shapes that seem to float to the surface; appearing out of thin air, only after you’ve been staring at the ominous red orb. The layers of the object create an intense depth that feels palpable—there is direction and movement through the different layers and planes of color and texture. A flicked wing-like shape moves your attention to the every-so-slightly connected lines of neighboring shapes, while other shapes bring heavy weight to the composition and ground the seriousness of the entire feeling of the piece. With one or two tiny stripes of ocre opposition, you can be brought back to reality, with a light caress on the surface.
Victoria, another medium-sized work on plexiglas recalls in me, memories of staying home sick from school, watching vintage movies on daytime television and eating my mother’s homemade soup. There’s a coldness to it that feels like winter; but, the core contains design elements scream for velour jumpsuits and ‘60s and ‘70s style. The warmth is minimal and on the surface, only in delicate doses, while the deep-rooted cold goes on for layers and layers, creating multiple planes of memory and sterile curation.
Sandspitter, one of Couwenberg’s paintings on canvas really tugs the viewer with movement and action. Like watching a never-been-seen-before NASCAR race from the 1960s, it invigorates and entices, in an exotic aesthetic that surprises the viewer. Its unique shape and chaotic, patterned center seems to call upon a racing helmet being spun around and stopped mid-motion. His many layers of color and exquisitely placed lines and surfaces give the illusion of speed and depth. The cool colors feel whimsical instead of cold like Victoria, but his bold use of lines and color blocks suggest movement more than anything else.
Many of Couwenberg’s series are visually themed around consistent inspirations and driving force, though they may be a mystery to unknowing passersby. His new body of work, to be on display at “CrossCurrent “at the Andrea Schwartz Gallery in San Francisco was inspired by Couwenberg’s great loves—motorcycles, surfboards and classic architecture. Like many of the greats, Couwenberg gets inspiration from the things he surrounds himself with. His whole life, growing up in Southern California, has been immersed in motorcycle and car culture, in surf and skate culture and in stylish Modern architecture and design. Many of his “CrossCurrent” paintings seem to call upon the motorcycle gas tank, full of potential and bordering on the edge of natural oblong shapes and sleek pinstripe lines. With playful attention to the textural details of every layer and line, Couwenberg clearly references his adoration for surfboards and simple subversive subcultures and design.
The work in Couwenberg’s “CrossCurrent” series is the most sophisticated groupings of paintings in his career so far, with true innovation in his design, composition and in his insightful instincts. As a purist, Couwenberg’s connection to the paint is mind-blowing and incomprehensible. Only his late mentor could compete with his control and vision. His hard edge techniques and lifelong fascination with design, architecture and California subcultures have groomed his work into the amazing, intuitive gems prevalent in “CrossCurrents.”
Alex Couwenberg: Selections from 2009-2013 by Monica L. Mahoney
LISTENING: ON NEW WORK BY ALEX COUWENBERG
by Monica Lynne Mahoney, Museum of Art & History
Alex Couwenberg is a master alchemist. He is a seer, with an expertise inextricably linked to the power of visual language, a language that he has studied, developed, and practiced as a painter and art educator. His mastery is rooted in his ability to recall the volumes of lessons he has learned from dedicating his life to perfecting his craft. He is a painter’s painter: his work speaks to the materiality of paint, the layering, and the revealing and concealing of one action, one stroke over another, orchestrating a sometimes sharp and sometimes subtle game of opposites in color, texture, line, form, discipline and freedom. And for one year, while at the top of his game, Couwenberg took a giant leap forward by stepping back from the work, from the profession, from the practice, and simply listened.
During Couwenberg’s painting sabbatical he listened from his heart and from his self-prescribed immersion in nature, making personal and professional decisions from a place of renewal that has ultimately lead to his newest, most elegant body of work. As each layer, stroke and block of color are viewed and experienced, it becomes clear that the elegance stems from his courageous willingness to leave the work and gain new insights from the people and places that matter most: his family, his long-time mentor and celebrated painter Karl Benjamin, who passed away during this time, and perhaps most profoundly, his beloved refuge: the ocean. In every remarkable choice, Couwenberg draws upon the new vocabulary he gained by listening.
When the time came to reenter the studio, Couwenberg attended to freeing himself by working with the intimacy of acrylic on paper. This less temperamental medium allowed him to liberate his intrinsic drive to test the visual gift he is celebrated for in his monumental works on panel in just a fraction of the space. In the very first piece: Tideline, he guts the lozenge and ditches the cube, abandons the architectonic and summons the sensuous, yet formidable rhythms of nature, purposefully working them into the painted surface. The scalloped shapes push and pull over the relaxed textures of coral and aqua, like the tide reinventing itself, over and over again. The painting is pure beauty, offering itself as a harbor in our oftentimes-difficult world. The series takes an unexpected turn with the second piece: Kodiak where the “swell” motif emerges in a palette of blacks, whites and grays—revealing Couwenberg’s laboratory for experimenting with an almost undetectable gestural sweep together with bold, jagged edges. Couwenberg continues to move forward by joining opposing forces in Darby. His keen ability to play among layers is apparent here, especially in the swift gestures of under-painting, perhaps implying a turbulent relationship to the ephemeral abyss of the ocean while anchoring to the hot temperature of earth.
The transition from paper to canvas occurs sharply with Castaway. A robustly narrative work, Castaway is infused with the hand of the artist, speaking of the moment when Couwenberg fully commits to the gestural sweep. Requiring an involvement of the whole body, not just the wrist, or mind, Couwenberg’s richly textured gestures awaken the relatively intimate size of the work. The reemergence of his signature mid-century architectonic shapes are equally noteworthy here: Couwenberg composes and edits the line with such precision that when viewed against the abundant gesture, it places us simultaneously inside and outside of the painting. The adventure continues with Axiom where we see a groundbreaking expansion into the realm of light. Through pulling larger, more ambitious strokes of pearlescent paint across the canvas, the work reaches a level of translucency not previously seen within his entire creative repertoire. The levels of luminosity in the work shift according to the light source and time of day. “Light becomes a medium maker”, says the artist, meaning that yet another ephemeral quality of the natural world activates his work.
From listening to the light as a mode of exploring movement and translucency in Axiom, to employing a greater involvement of the physical gesture in Castaway to experimenting with the scalloped and swell-like shapes of the ocean, as seen in Tideline, Couwenberg’s new work provides an immediate oasis in a world filled with adversity. Taking time away from the work brought the artist closer to it. He infused it with the energy of renewal and with the generous vocabulary that he built simply by listening. Couwenberg’s knowledge and respect for his painting process, together with his raw investigative nature, compliment the new works and provide a vehicle for our own inquiry of freedom.
Huffington Post 2012
Alex Couwenberg is one of southern California's rising abstract painters, just as Karl Benjamin had been two generations ago; but pairing them in exhibition is more than a ritual exercise in torch-passing. Benjamin has long been mentor to Couwenberg, and the coupling - although giving each artist his own room - allowed for stylistic comparison. Benjamin, one of the pioneers of hard-edge painting in the late 1950s, also explored minimalism and pattern painting in prescient ways, always thinking about form and sequence even as he responded intuitively to color and shape. Benjamin is never afraid to let things get beautiful ; rather, he avoids pretty. His eye-to-mind-and-back-again approach doesn't simply give Couwenberg permission to play with line and color, it almost insists he does so - and does so with a crafty abandon, an athletic way of thinking about where and how something happens, how one has to take chances, and how one educates oneself about such chances so that they're always worth taking. Couwenberg, enamored also of mid-century design, allows himself more frivolity than Benjamin does, so his elaborate but tightly wound interplays of converging diagonals and itchy serrations pack more goofy surprise. But, in juxtaposition, they bring out the subtle wit percolating throughout Benjamin's work as well.
Peter Frank, 2012
ARTltd Magazine Review by A. Moret March 2012
At its heart, "Influence, Divergence, and the Evolution of an Idea" is an exhibition about the illusory properties of paint and the ability of artists Alex Couwenberg and Karl Benjamin to coax infinite depth from seemingly flat surfaces. The two artists are from notably different generations--Benjamin moved to Claremont in 1952, and was among the original "hard edge" painters, while Couwenberg was Benjamin's acolyte, though not his student, while attending graduate school at Claremont (he got his MFA in 1997). So the dialogue between them is anything but superficial.
In Lens Flare, Couwenberg tugs and pulls at linear geometric forms thereby transforming rectangles into sweeping, elegant shapes that inspire curiosity and mimic a viewfinder both of a camera and the mind's eye. As the shape multiplies at the center of the canvas, thick applications of acrylic paint create a texture of alternating primary surfaces. A band of white lines propels through the lens like a reel of film on a projector and draws the viewer deeper into a visual plane unnoticed from a distance. Positioned at the opposite end of the gallery, Karl Benjamin's rectangular canvases titled #4 and #7, rendered in oil presents a series of lines of complimentary tones subtly changing from dark purple to blue, orange and green. When standing still the large paintings appear to the viewer as a rigorous exercise in repetition, but when viewed in an oscillating motion, the lines transform into a single three-dimensional color bar. The dialogue of the "ideas" that echoes between the works of Couwenberg and his mentor Benjamin declares that the surface is a vehicle for exploration.
The "divergence" of the idea alluded to in the title appears in Couwenberg's Pulse (Blue-Violet Blue) and Benjamin's #1. Composed of 12 rectangular canvases Pulse extends across an entire wall as the colors shift from dark to light blue. The flat application of the paint highlights layers of high gloss acrylic formations of hexagons falling across multiple planes. The shapes unravel like origami and the "finish fetish" style is devoid of the artist's hand. Benjamin's #1 is two square canvases wherein a solid color frames an alternating tone inside the borders. Both artists use the color spectrum as a container of ideas: Couwenberg manipulates form to bring the viewer into the world of his complex layers, while Benjamin uses bold compositions to bring the viewer outside of the painted surface.
INFLUENCE, DIVERGENCE & THE EVOLUTION OF AN IDEA by Peter Frank, FABRIK Magazine 2012
Pairing Alex Couwenberg & original hard-edge painter Karl Benjamin, Influence, Divergence & the Evolution of an Idea finally brings together master & pupil – except that Couwenberg (who in fact studied with Roland Reiss at Claremont University) wasn’t Benjamin’s student so much as his acolyte. The two are now fast friends, and the exhibition
demonstrates the power of elective affinity through aesthetic DNA (or vice versa). In his 60-year career Benjamin has rung numerous changes on the possibilities of geometric painting, from dynamic asymmetry to insistent patter, and the wealth of forms and strategies his ouevre features recurs in a fascinating way in Couwenberg’s own work. While
Benjamin tends to explore specific formulas deeply, in effect taking each apart and reassembling it with different color combinations or structural inversions, Couwenberg synthesizes such formulas into complex – and, compared to Benjamin’s featureless technique, painterly – compositions always on the verge of recomposing or even disappearing into themselves. Benjamin, principally concerned with the articulation of planar region, always blends towards minimalism (and, indeed, directly anticipated that trend in the early 60’s), while Couwnberg, preoccupied as much with line as with color, returns again to the asymmetric harmonies of pre-war constructivism. Benjamin grew
out of that aesthetic; some of his most handsome work recapitulates that almost choreographic dynamism. But by and large he sought a more neutral, open image, one that brought abstract expressionism’s meditative, all-over sense of field to geometric form. Couwenberg now seeks to re-introduce cubism’s facets and futurism’s kinesis into
Benjamin’s minimalist colorscape – with the senior painter’s blessing.
PETER FRANK - FABRIK 2012
Alex Couwenberg 2011 by David Roth Square Cylinder Magazine
Alex Couwenberg’s visions of the Southern California landscape mix the spatial ambiguity of cyberspace with the disorienting angularity of Cubo Futurism; they create a perception-bending universe in which it is impossible to situate yourself physically. Imagine a 2D version of, say, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s kinetic sculpture Light Space Modulator and you get some idea of how Couwenberg, using line and color to describe solid and transparent volumes, distorts our sense of balance and space.
The artist lives and works in Pomona, and like the region itself, he embraces its contradictions. The crazy-quilt of competing billboards, the clashing architectural motifs, the beauty and scale of the natural landscape and the blitheness with which Southern Californians accept its demise all converge in Couwenberg’s pictures to form a highly processed record of the artist’s perceptions.
Couwenberg, 43, has always attempted to include in his paintings, bits of every art-historical style he has ever admired. That list, as evidenced by the 13 paintings on view, is a long one. It includes Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Minimalism, mid-century LA architecture, graphic design and Finish Fetish, a style whose hallmarks – reflective surfaces, pinstripes and candy colors — are as much a part of the LA aesthetic now as they were in the hotrod and surf-crazed ‘60s. Judging from such titles as Poweflex, Joyride, Brodie, Accelerator and Ray Ban, it would be tempting to think that Couwenberg’s allegiances lay with the Finish Fetishists; but his paintings suggest closer affinities to early modernist styles and to the Hard Edge Los Angeles School painters Lorser Feitelson (1898 -1978) and Karl Benjamin, the latter of whom he studied with at Claremont Graduate University.
Couwenberg synthesizes these styles in exuberant, precisely organized canvases animated by bold oppositions. Bulbous buoy-like forms painted in bright, closely hued colors are stacked, one atop the other in semi-translucent layers — layers whose interpenetrating geometries merge to suggest other shapes. Out of them sprout curving antennae-like lines that are hard-edged and ragged, thick and thin, and have finishes that alternate between gloss and matte. In and around these contours the artist places rectangular slabs of pigment that have been raked with a hand tool to look embossed, their “fins” echoing the air filter-like textures of so many iconic LA-area buildings. All of this activity is set against large tracts of neutral color (olive drab, gun-metal gray, yellow ochre, taupe) that I can only assume are intended to reference the aerospace industry that dominated the local economy during the artist’s youth.
At a distance, the paintings, which reproductions don’t even begin to describe, appear to be graphic patterns that give off a faint surrealist tinge. Up close, they engulf you with their complex topographies. In Ray Ban, the largest picture in the show, so many different surface textures come into play, you feel as if you’re looking at collage built entirely of paint. Within it Couwenberg takes some fantastic liberties, like the splatter of pigment in the lower left-hand corner that looks like a smear of plum jelly and the amazing concatenations of thinly painted, interlocking shapes that float in a perfect state of equipoise.
This pictorial strategy places Couwenberg squarely in the neo-modernist camp. It’s a huge group that includes Linda Geary, Susan Frecon Xylor Jane, Ara Peterson, Alexander Kori Gerard, and Heather Gwen Martin to name but a few artists of diverse temperament who turn modernist mannerisms to their own ends.
Couwenberg, for his part, translates the psychic impact of his environment into the realm of the tangible, using the most basic of means — line and color — to disrupt our equilibrium. As such, his paintings aren’t just abstract representations of the landscape – they’re intimations of what it feels like to be fully inhabited by one’s surroundings.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Trajectories Essay by James Yood 2010
I like to see complexity resolved. There’s a certain beauty in an intricately plotted mystery, a Baroque fugue, a Roman floor mosaic, a Dickens novel, anything that seems at first to be scattered and random, too filled with separate thoughts and contradictory impulses ever to come together—and then they do, they take what seemed to be chaos and turn it into pattern, they bring what seemed to be arbitrary and make it appear inevitable. That’s part of what I respond to most about the work of Alex Couwenberg, how his is a highly personal art of retrieval and reconciliation, how he skirts the edge of dissolution and wreaks it into hard-won harmony, how he shuffles it—whatever “it” is-- relentlessly to and fro, weighing and adjusting, calibrating and interrupting, a quick swivel here, an unexpected torque there, a whisper of the stability of line tested by a sudden tonal shift--well, you better bring your lunch, there’s nothing quick and easy about this work, you’re going to have to do some serious looking. If you’re a musician or a writer or a dancer you can take your audience through these acts of reconciliation in time, time gives you the thread you can follow from beginning to middle to end. But a painter! Time is collapsed all within one surface, one rectangle, only the artist knows the layers embedded beneath the final painting, remembers when everything seemed lost, the false steps and conundrums that needed to be rectified and solved, the pivotal moment where it began to come together, the rush of being when all the intricacies began to resolve themselves, that final sense when you were finished, that it was done. That’s how I imagine Alex Couwenberg works, that within his own idiom (and more on that in a bit) he does his version of the painter’s core archetypal thing: to do something on the surface of a painting that requires him to do another thing that calls for something else that means he has to do this other thing and so forth until he’s locked in the taut embrace of picture-making that only ends when the damn thing is done. Take, for example, Peep Show. Notice how rarely Couwenberg centers his imagery, it usually falls off somewhat to the right, as if it settles
somewhere on the composition where a lot of to-ing and fro-ing had to happen. (This reminds me a bit of how a Scrabble board gets played, sometimes one quadrant gets all the action and another seems immobile, frozen, what begins in the very center ends up meandering away as the game progresses.) And while there may be a tendency to privilege Couwenberg’s painterly and linear incident in these works, one should never overlook the color he initially lays down on these canvases. In Peep Show it’s a deep dark gray, a kind of Jasper Johns gray, a gravitas gray that seems solemn and determined, not like the spry tans or cool blues or creamy light yellows or rich browns or even the pale grays or off-whites he’ll use elsewhere. Somehow this first color is the first gesture for Couwenberg, the causal gesture, it provides the context for what will ensue, somehow this graphite gray from which he can go darker or lighter will motivate the next gesture he will make. Only Couwenberg knows what that next gesture was. It may not even be on the surface of Peep Show any longer, it’s probably not, that gesture itself perhaps effaced by his subsequent activities, the motival act buried beneath its many progeny. We’re left with the finished thing, the endgame, but only Couwenberg got to play it, there’s a process going on here but we don’t get to see it work itself out, we just get to see it resolved into a kind of hard won but inevitable perfection. But let me tell you how I go about looking at a painting by Alex Couwenberg. I stare at it for a while, and then try to find a fulcrum point in it, some smallish element somewhere that somehow seems the opening salvo to the whole composition, the little Rosetta Stone that decodes it, the spring lock, the tether, the string that you can pull on to unravel it all. In Peep Show for me it’s the little silhouette of 3/5 of a circle set within the orange field at the lower center part of the painting. I look at that thin circular line and suddenly everything starts to spin off it, sometimes logically, just as you would expect, but sometimes in riffs of such curious curvy inventiveness that it starts to careen about, into the vortex you go, up, down, left, right, solid, transparent, substance and schematic, flatness and texture, interpenetrating areas of positive and negative space that never seem to cease shuffling about. (OK, here are a few of my other tethers, in Lani it’s the little horizontal blue bar a bit to the right of the center, in Cadillac it’s the top of the gray cone at the bottom center, in Showist it’s the olive green area that seems to propel itself leftward, Hijack is a tough one, but I can’t take my eyes off that incredibly assertive small swath of orange that makes a mini arc at the right-center of the painting. Sometimes it’s a big thing, this tether, but often it’s a small element, sometimes a little child will lead them.) Tension and release, areas of tight energy then radiating and diffusing outward, almost centrifugal in nature, that’s a Couwenberg move, action and echo, a balance always achieved at last. But so much of the allure of Alex Couwenberg’s work resides in the stylistic idiom that his hand and eye and mind always gravitates toward, that is some reflexive part of his being, his way of ordering himself through the world. It’s an incredible communing with the fundamentals of a kind of so cool SoCal
Modernism, a here muted beckoning of a giddy California 1960s design, for sources it’s all woofers all the time, Philco TVs meet Valley burger joints, Jazz LP covers in a Ford Fairlane, TV antennas from the Brady Bunch house, funny-car decals, the curve and the swerve, like nothing exists but bulbous swivel chairs and sleek hi-fi components. None of those things actually appear in any of these paintings, but their aura everywhere does, Couwenberg’s got all this stamped in his DNA, if DNA was only a bit more oval and torqued. It’s not nostalgia, certainly not retro, or only marginally and obliquely so, it’s a visual manifestation of time and place, as connected to its context as European Cubism is to the staccato rhythms of early modern urbanism. Couwenberg summons the attentive optimism of SoCal design culture, its bold curves and upbeat rhythms, he layers and de- and reconstructs them, he channels them from function to pictorial language because it’s his vernacular culture, because it’s his. These new paintings, soberly and with exquisite control and attention to detail, appear to me to evoke these things and more. Let’s close with Alt (tether? For me it’s the small vertical greenish rectangle at the bottom center). It takes you for a skillful spin in and around itself, with thin lines and sweeping arcs releasing and resolving its density in several directions towards its edges, a taut image of great concentration then gently dissipating outward. Above all else what I appreciate in it and in the work of Alex Couwenberg is that balance of tension and release, of passages of such focus and hypersensitivity that I think they can never be escaped--and then suddenly they are, in images that always manage to negotiate their way through the seemingly contradictory zones of multiple interpenetrative attentiveness and the equanimity of resolution and calm. They’re complexity resolved.
James Yood teaches modern and contemporary art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he also directs its New Arts Journalism program.
ART: Theories and Provocations
Thursday, March 25, 2010
for as long as we've been smearing paint on a surface, it's indeed rare to come across a young artist who (perhaps) labors over work that could be called singular. rare, but possible-- as exampled by alex couwenberg these last 10 years or so.
i'd like to think that the act of painting is one of discovery and daring. you can toss triumph, fear, loss, destruction, etc, into the mix as well... couwenberg toils along (as we all do) and he brings it together in a fresh, invigorating art. in doing so, he elevates this ancient form of communication that we humbly and passionately embrace...
his exhibition at Markel Fine Arts should not be missed.
Palm Springs Life Magazine
Game On! Alex Couwenberg strikes a playful balance in his ‘Arcade’ paintings.
By Steven Biller
Standing in front of Continental — one of 14 paintings in the new “Arcade” series by Alex Couwenberg — viewers familiar with the artist’s oeuvre might need a minute, if that, to appreciate the smart direction in which he has taken his work. On this large canvas, the artist contained familiar elements — overlapping shapes, forms, colors, and pinstripes — mostly to the upper right-hand quadrant, and painted the rest of the canvas white with white pin-striping and bold lines stretching to the lower-left edge. At first look, these subtle, sometimes unfinished, lines draw you for closer inspection. However, with proper lighting, the varnished stripes and contours — a nod to 1970s California finish fetish — reveal the artist’s exploration of surface and space. It’s a dramatic change from his earlier paintings — one that, in this particular case, triggers a curiosity akin to that of the apes encountering the monolith in the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. They jump up and down, excited about seeing something new and different, and wonder what will happen next. Viewers of Couwenberg’s new works want to get close and touch the rough, flat, and varnished surfaces. This is an artist on the move.
Couwenberg, whose neatly composed, midcentury-inspired paintings propelled his career for nearly 15 years, has begun exploring imperfection as passionately as he did hardedge precision. The earlier pieces remind us of a simpler time. Couwenberg had become renowned for filling canvases from edge to edge with a dynamic vocabulary of crisp, sleek, and meticulously crafted lines, shapes, colors, forms, and finishes — all gleaned from the California surf, skate, car culture and midcentury design that permeated his youth. Although the once-pristine lines now have some rough edges, the guts of the paintings remain true to Couwenberg’s biography. “The paintings continue to grow and the vocabulary is maturing,” he says. “But midcentury [modernism] and graphic design were part of my upbringing.” The new paintings include bold lines in addition to pinstripes, and continue to resonate the influence of his mentor, Karl Benjamin, and midcentury contemporaries Lorser Feitelson and Frederick Hammersley. The execution of the lines, however, blurs the line between the exacting idealism of modernist design and the freedom of painterly expressionism. The “Arcade” series — evidently named for the pinball machine-style flipper shapes that appear on some of the canvases — signals a new direction for Couwenberg. Paintings such as Party Popper — a small, olive-colored canvas, with explosive pin striping in bright yellow and orange — shows this dog is off his leash. The “Arcade” paintings emphasize loose gestures that take their cues from the New York School and action painters. A freer quality prevails, but the control gained through his hard-edge past retains a measure of order. In the new paintings, contrasting surfaces — he creates a ridged effect on some pieces by pulling a hard-bristled dust broom over the acrylic paint — accentuate what has worked for Couwenberg for so many years. “A lot goes back to basic design: placement and composition,” he says. “There’s something about midcentury that was right on: simple forms and color. As a painter and image-maker, I enjoy seeing how they balance out and contradict each other.” Now, Couwenberg sometimes uses varnish in negative space to highlight an embossed effect. “It’s very much intuitive,” Couwenberg says. “One color determines another. And the layered fragments of original shapes equal a union of shared space. [This] is new in the vocabulary. “I’ve learned to become a mechanic,” he continues. “I ask what’s working and I start over and paint by editing, and the layering and color and lines come together. … I like to look at [the paintings] like children. I give them what they need and they start to talk back. They have a personality. And I know when they’re ready to go out into the world.”
ARTltd Magazine May 2009
Under the Radar -- by George Melrod
At once handsome and crafty, the paintings created by Alex Couwenberg in his Claremont area studio may boast clean edges, but they smudge the boundaries of modernist and post-modernist practice. Couwenberg’s work culls loosely—and delectably—from the mid-century modernist lexicon, mixing in aspects of vernacular popular design, as a form of autobiographical sampling. The result is a swoony pastiche that invokes not just hard-edge abstraction, but also skateboard and surf culture, the finish fetish movement, and California car culture, blending them together with lyrical-if-fragmentary verve. Last year, he got a Joan Mitchell Award for his labors. (Notes the artist: “I’m a huge Joan Mitchell fan.”)
A native of the Claremont area, Couwenberg got his BFA from Art Center in 1995 and his MFA from Claremont. “About half way through I realized that I really liked to apply paint to a surface,” he recalls. “I wanted to find a middle ground between expressionism and hard-edge abstraction. I was really into laying down grounds of paint, leaving the hard raw edges but exposing the underpainting, revealing the history of the painting.” While at school, Couwenberg took a class with painter Karl Benjamin, known for his jazzy optical geometries, and Benjamin became his mentor. Yet beyond their superficial homage to the modernist tropes of half a century ago, Couwenberg’s work culls from a wide variety of sources rooted in colloquial design and SoCal popular culture. “I’m a product of Southern California,” he states. “I grew up skateboarding, surfing, around a car culture, I grew up in the 60s with that Southern California design aesthetic... At a certain point, it all clicked.” The influence extends beyond his formal vocabulary; his lacquer finishes often recall car finishes or the varnish finishes seen on surf-or-skateboards. Couwenberg’s surfaces vary dramatically, from loose painterly sweeps to flat matte color fields to elements that seem glossily translucent. All of these, impressively, are devised from acrylic paint, which he mixes in different ratios to attain different effects. His process is complex and non-linear: sanding back into a surface, masking it, adding flat sections with a sponge roller, then often remasking and revarnishing.
Couwenberg is a gleaner of shapes, savoring their implicit allusions and relationships, and he uses his canvasses as Petrie dishes, letting his forms interact with each other like microorganisms. Many of his paintings feature television or soap dish shapes, which he layers like theatrical scrims, to reveal previous stages of the works’ creation. His recent paintings are among his most sumptuous and refined, featuring forms that suggest lozenges, wedges, or flippers from pinball machines, arranged in dynamic asymmetries. (Another family of shapes his work implies: car taillights). The contrast of textures between these glossy windows and the spans of paint surrounding them can be riveting. In May Fair, Couwenberg’s overlapping lozenges are pushed to the bottom of the canvas by outlined flippers in a stark blood orange field. In Hanging Garden, the flippers congregate near the painting’s center, amid a field of twilight black, as larger forms cluster and push in around them. In these newer works, the artist has given more weight to lines, allowing them to delineate his geometric elements, an effect at once subtle and bold. As is typical with Couwenberg, the allusions spin off in contradictory directions, evoking the hard-edge work of Lorser Feitelson, but also automotive pin-striping and hot-rod detailing. (“I’m kind of nutty about getting line right,” he admits.) For all its seeming polish, Couwenberg’s work is a heartfelt hybrid, both in its spectrum of sources and in its technical balancing act, embracing both rigor and experimentation; despite its backward-looking inflections, his work is staunchly of the present.
Alex Couwenberg: Zen and the Art of Imperfection by Peter Frank
ALEX COUWENBERG: ZEN AND THE ART OF IM-PERFECTION
By Peter Frank
Supposedly devolved into its own conventions, abstract painting was dismissed almost half a century ago as irrelevant and decorative. But in fact, the modernist allegiance to visual language freed of conventional syntax, self-sustaining and evolving, threads its way unbroken between abstract expressionism and today, eclipsed but never eliminated by the subject-, motif- and medium-driven concerns of post-modernism. And now, however timely its appearance may be, a new generation of painters is emerging that seems more than superficially dedicated to the exploration of non-objective composition on a two dimensional plane.
Such “neo-modern” abstraction manifests with particular conviction in southern California – perhaps because such idealism (and idealism about idealism) flourishes best at a remove from primary commercial centers and/or in primary intellectual centers. (The Los Angeles area may have burgeoned as a gallery locus and home to mega-collectors, but it remains the largest concentration of art schools and art departments in the country.) As well, abstract form has always been regarded by southern Californians as, at worst, an armature available to those who would explore concept or perception – and at best a higher, even transcendent, experience in and of itself, a potentially meditative, decidedly reflective approach to the distinctive regional abundance of, yes, light and space. “Hard-edge” painting, after all, began in Los Angeles.
Actually, it began in Claremont, east of L.A. proper, in the cluster of colleges that have anchored academic discourse in the “southland” for over a century. Alex Couwenberg was raised in this part of Los Angeles County and went to school in the Claremont Colleges. With many of his classmates, he was encouraged to paint abstractly all the way through his studies – not forced, not urged, but simply encouraged, and given the technical tools and the historical exposure to evolve his own approach to formulating and distributing abstract forms across a plane. The poise and elegance of Couwenberg’s style, which would engender suspicion in a New York context, is seen as second nature – and “good chops” – in California, a natural byproduct of the “finish/fetish” trajectory that began in the military fabrication shops of World War II and took root in the region’s postwar surf and car cultures. Couwenberg, an accomplished surfer, grew up familiar with the designs and glossy finishes given surfboards, fiberglass or otherwise.
The reliance on line as a critical component of image, the exploration of color – especially close-hued colors placed near one another – and the meticulous, just barely articulated surface all bespeak Couwenberg’s comfort with the language of abstraction, especially one derived from the techniques and materials of the late-industrial (and, for that matter, early-digital) era. For him, non-objective painting is a commitment, but not an ideological stake, as it would have to be back east. Rather, it is an expression of sensibility formed by time and place, an exploitation, and finally reflection, of sensory input – input that includes the manual as well as the visual, the practical as well as the theoretical. Handicraft is not the subject of Couwenberg’s work, perception is. But handicraft is the experiential armature on which he has structured his perceptual arrangements; it is the characteristic that distinguishes his art as a product of a distinctive southern California art, and social, history.
Couwenberg’s painting is more than a mere souvenir of the “southland,” however. In its rhythms, its interplay of line and mass, its subtle illusions, and its engagement of a palette that seems to find an exact, knowing midpoint between the “good taste” of interior decoration and the raw taste of (outdoor) sport design, Couwenberg’s art is impelled by a highly tempered intuition and subtle wit. His approach is gently self-aware, slightly satiric but not mocking, and indulgent of its sources while rigorous in their translation to abstraction. Couwenberg distills his life and times into these paintings, as if they were diary pages recording his retinal and tactile observations and reflections. There isn’t the same one-to-one relationship of seen shape to rendered shape, environmental color to painted color that one witnesses in, say, Ellsworth Kelly’s work. Rather, like John McLaughlin’s meditations on the real, Couwenberg’s paintings make use of everything seen every day in the construction of a less cacophonous and dispersed reality. Couwenberg does not aspire to McLaughlin’s purity, but that contemplative state operates at the heart of the young painter’s approach to reality.
Finally, Alex Couwenberg seeks to calm the tumult of life without losing the vibrancy of that tumult. The sense of exquisite balance that shivers through his work comes from Couwenberg’s search for that exact midpoint between the mundane and the transcendent, the sensuous and the disembodied. Hitting that midpoint exactly is itself a zendo exercise, and may rarely be achieved; but in their ready appeal, graceful and antic, Couwenberg’s paintings – rather like those Indian weavings with deliberate flaws -- make an art of missing perfection by a hair.