An Interview with Artist Alexander Couwenberg

May, 2009

Alexander Couwenberg received a BFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, and an MFA from the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, CA. His work has been featured in over twenty solo exhibitions since he began exhibiting in 1994. Couwenberg’s work appears in many private, corporate and public collections, including: the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA, the Claremont Museum of Art, Claremont, CA; the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, Sedalia, MO; the Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, CA; the Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA; the Riverside Art Museum, Riverside, CA; California State University Stanislaus, Turlock, CA; and Georgia Tech University, Atlanta, GA. Couwenberg was the recipient of a 2007 Joan Mitchell Foundation Award in painting. He lives and works in Los Angeles, CA .

Julie Karabenick: You just had a solo show at the William Turner Gallery in Santa Monica. What are some of the aesthetic concerns reflected in this new work?

William Turner Gallery installation
Installation photo: A Bit Left of Right, William Turner Gallery, January, 2009
(photo courtesy William Turner Gallery, Santa Monica, CA)

Alex Couwenberg: My recent work has to do with the process of painting. Over time, the steps I take to make a painting have changed dramatically.

Maxim, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 114 cm (48 x 45 in), 2009

I used to begin my work with precise drawings that described in great detail the direction a painting would take and how it would work itself out. Over the years, I felt my paintings began to take on a “machined” quality, and I began to miss the organic process usually involved with creativity. Gradually, I began to rely less on drawings and notes and more on intuition.

Glint, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 122 cm (28 x 48 in), 2008

I’ve come to appreciate the nuances of the painting process. I’m doing more visual editing—making decisions and changes as the paint dries. I’ve learned to listen to what the painting is saying and pay attention to when it tells me that it’s finished.

JK: The act of “listening to the painting” recalls the words of one of your mentors, Karl Benjamin.

AC: I began to develop my chops as a painter in the halls and classrooms where Lorser Feitelson previously taught, and I studied at the graduate level with Karl Benjamin, another leading figure of West Coast hard-edge geometric abstraction. Karl and I would always have great conversations about life and what was going on. It wasn’t until the end of our conversations that he would wrap the dialogue around to art and painting—about living with your paintings, making them an extension of yourself, almost as if they were your children. It wasn’t until a few years out of school that I really began to understand this and find my own voice in my work.

Groundpiece, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 61cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

JK: In addition to developments in West Coast geometric painting, what were other sources of influence on your work?

AC: I was born and raised in Southern California. My paintings are personal investigations and interpretations of the Southern California aesthetic, including mid-century design, graphics and architecture, hot rods and car culture, surfing and skateboarding, music, fashion, and the landscapes of metropolitan Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego.

Evergleam, acrylic on canvas,
122 x 86 cm (48 x 34 in), 2008

I come from a Dutch-Indonesian family and was exposed to the art and craft of those cultures from an early age. I spent my time at skateboard parks, at the beach surfing, and listening to punk rock music in between. The polished finish of surfboards, the multiple layers of varnish on a custom car, the fine lines and pinstriping associated with their graphics all influenced me. Becoming an artist came naturally as I was already a product of the DIY (Do It Yourself) approach to things—the main idea of punk rock philosophy.

Niagara, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 168 cm (72 x 66 in), 2005

JK: The layering of forms has always been important to you, but in your recent work, the layering seems more complex and varied.

Pressure Drop
Pressure Drop, acrylic on birch, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 2009

AC: Layering has always been evident in my work. Through the layering process, new forms materialize through shared space. Especially in my more recent work, layering produces a fragmentation of forms, making them less obvious and predictable. One move dictates the next, sometimes changing or distorting a form, sometimes almost completely canceling it out.

Alfie, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 2007

My earlier work was more about investigating layering, trying to figure out how it could work in the process of making a painting. In Cocktail, below, the layering is subtle as forms mimic one another and shift around an axis point, creating a sense of echoes or fluttering.

Cocktail, acrylic and polyurethane on canvas,
61 x 56 cm (24 x 22 in), 2003

The layering in a recent painting like Bellflower is much more obvious. The forms are blatantly painted over each other, all the while pushing and pulling one another throughout the composition and creating a much more dramatic sense of space.

Bellfllower, acrylic on birch, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2008

JK: You’ve always preferred hard-edged shapes.

AC: I’m drawn to the use of hard-edged elements because of the contrasts they create within a painting. As I work more intuitively and without preparatory drawings, more random or unexpected elements occur —visible brushstrokes, transparencies, distress marks, happy accidents. Working in this more painterly style, I feel it necessary to create a balance by incorporating elements that I have more control over. This is where the hard edge comes in. It delineates areas within the painting and creates a balance between control and the random.

JK:In the painting below, we can clearly see the physical nature of the layering of forms and their crisp edges.

Cuppy  Cuppy detail
Cuppy, acrylic on birch panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2007Cuppy detail

AC: The forms are masked and then painted. By masking the forms in my paintings, I pay a lot of attention to the precision of the outline and how it flows. Over time, this process has become refined to the point where the final outcome is a crisp, hard edge that is extremely controlled. The process of pulling up the tape will leave a raised edge in the paint, often resembling an embossed texture like you would see in paper. This done multiple times creates a dimension to the painted surface that is extremely tactile.

JK: You vary the relative opacity of your forms a great deal.

AC: I use various levels of transparency and opacity in the paint. This reveals much of what is happening on the surface of the painting as well as below it, creating a relationship among the layered forms that push and pull each other to create a greater sense of space. In Cuppy and Bootsy, I’m allowing the wood grain of the painting surface to become part of the composition. This more natural or organic component paired with the harder edged, painted elements creates a whole new realm of suggested depth.

Painting on a birch surface represents a nod to the mid-century Southern California design, a period when so much of the aesthetic was material-based, and multi-ply panels were used in many styles of furniture.

BootsyBootsy detail
Bootsy, acrylic on birch panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2007Bootsy detail

JK: You assign an important role to linear elements.

AC: My use of line reflects my interest in hot rod culture and the way the old timers would use pinstripes to highlight custom cars. It also comes from mid-century furniture, architecture and design, as well as skateboard and surfboard graphics. As I mentioned earlier, I was introduced to Lorser Feitelson’s work while I was in school—not his paintings, but his figure drawings. I paid a lot of attention to how he used the sweeping line to describe the figure. Later when I became familiar with his paintings, it made perfect sense to me how the line used in his figure studies functioned as a major element in his abstract paintings.

In my work, the line often mimics the primary shape used in the painting. It may suggest form, emphasize certain elements in the design, and create a sense of movement throughout the composition.

In Toby, line work pulls the viewer’s eye around the composition. The lines mimic the primary forms and spin off elements that cluster at the bottom of the painting to suggest a circular or radial movement. They’re very playful, and, through changes of scale, have a jumping quality.

Toby, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 76 cm (36 x 30 in), 2009

My works that begin with a lot of underpainting suggest the most movement. Brushstroke textures create directional forces that pull the viewer’s eye in a specific way. In Buzz Bomb, lines run through the middle of the painting horizontally, echoing the format of the stretcher. Flaring at a few points, the lines acknowledge the surface texture underneath—almost like they’re hitting speed bumps.

Buzz Bomb
Buzz Bomb, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 244 cm (48 x 96 in), 2008

JK: I’ve always been attracted to how dynamically your forms interact. Road Runner, below, was an early favorite of mine.

Road Runner
Road Runner, acrylic on canvas 183 x 168 cm (72 x 66 in), 2004

AC: When I was making this body of work, I was investigating using smaller forms on larger canvases and larger forms on smaller canvases. Karl Benjamin and I would talk about how the decisions made in the arrangement of forms within a space can make a small painting look large and a larger painting look huge. I wanted to juxtapose shapes to create visual tension. In Road Runner, large shapes come together to pinch or compress smaller shapes. Some of the shapes fall just short of touching one another, while others overlap to varying degrees.

In Adrift, some of the forms command their own space in the painting, while others are forced together, sometimes forming windows to reveal the underpainting below. The lines or pinstriping have their own identity, but also redefine forms that were obscured or buried in the painting process. They also create a sort of visual pull that swings the viewer’s attention to something else.

Adrift, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 2007

JK: Sometimes you create tension by arranging forms in precarious groupings.

AC: In addition to creating a feeling of compression, in Aleutian the forms are stacked to give the sense that they may topple over at any second. They are placed in a certain order that creates a visual tension in itself, giving the viewer a sense of uncertainty or discomfort about how the forms function in the composition.

Aleutian, acrylic on canvas,
122 x 91 cm (48 x 36 in), 2007

JK: Do you see your work moving in any particular directions?

AC: I’m very conscious of my work—where it’s been, where it is now, and the direction it’s going. Much has been said and written about my work with regard to Modernism and the interpretation of mid-century ideas. As much as I agree with this and do acknowledge my influences, I don’t want to be stuck making paintings that represent a past era. I’m starting to incorporate a wider visual vocabulary and minimize those elements that are indicative of the aesthetics connected to a specific time and place.

At this point, I feel like I have exhausted the soap dish/ television screen forms that have often appeared in my work, and I need to move on. I’ve been investigating and incorporating forms that are taken from random sources. In a painting like Mayfair, the primary form that’s used is taken from the cover plate of the body of an old band saw.

Mayfair, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 114 cm (48 x 45 in), 2009

Painting for me is a continual investigation of various ways to address the picture plane. I spend a lot of time in the studio just looking, making visual decisions on what to contribute to the painting. Not all paintings are successful, but they’re all attempts to work out my visual curiosities.

Alex Couwenberg in his Los Angeles studio with
Road Runner

More information about Alex Couwenberg at:

Interview images and text copyright © 2009 Julie Karabenick & Alexander Couwenberg All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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