Painter Louise Belcourt refers to her new work, on view until March 17 at the Jeff Bailey Gallery in New York, as “paintings of sculptures of landscapes.” The boxy, minimal shapes in her canvases are hybrids of the landscapes she divides her time between—the countryside in Quebec and the über-gentrified, urban one of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They exude a calm and playful radiance. Here she talks with fellow artist Joanne Greenbaum, whom with she’s been in dialogue for over two decades—since the early, DIY-days of the Williamsburg art scene.
Joanne Greenbaum I remember the first show of yours that I saw—these blood-red all-over abstractions that were very intense. They had a certain over-worked surface. Some areas were actually torn or worn down from use. What you are doing now is very different, but I suspect the process is very similar?
Louise Belcourt Funny that things are so different-looking. Same concept though. I’m still trying to ground forms in a space that feels mine, but I’m using external colors and representational elements more to get at that. And the process is still the same; it’s still me making them. I am rubbing things off and sanding things down every day, it seems, but I don’t actually go through the canvas anymore. In other words, I don’t physically tear through the material. I might, though, at some point—I want to reserve that right—but, for now, I seem to be able to find forms, light, associations, and sensations that resonate with something that feels real and therefore leads me on.
Those red destroyed paintings were like that because I had less language to work with back then. In hindsight I realize that I was trying to develop as an artist; I was trying to find something that was mine. They weren’t all that original or anything—they looked just like Abstract Expressionism—but the struggle was kind of driven and intense. I took things pretty far, but I feel I still do now, just without the holes. I felt that those holes were “birthing holes,” an inception point for me to grow out of. They allowed for forms to start existing in the work.
I have always admired your work because you seem to find things and resolution relatively quickly. Your work always has this fresh, direct feeling that I am embarrassed to say I just can’t get without driving to the moon and back and, even then, often it isn’t there. God!
JG I don’t think I come to a resolution quickly. The point for me is to not resolve at all, to leave it open and somewhat unfinished or leave the work asking more questions than it answers. What you said, though, about looking for content in the earlier paintings, and being unsatisfied with the “Abstract Expressionism” you were doing, interests me a lot because of where we are now. Someone recently said to me that they were surprised by the “Expressionism” in my newest works, and I had to point out that they are not expressionistic at all. I am not referencing the art historical term; I am not invoking the New York School of painting. I think enough time has gone by—one can use these things freely without having to identify with any movement. Which brings me to the fact that we are doing this interview in the first place. Your work, and maybe mine to some extent, is not easily categorized. It doesn’t fit into any specific group or stylistic slot. You are pushing for something that is outside a dialogue, especially a verbal one—your project is not about language. I can identify with this in your trajectory, and also with the need to be not seen as part of any group. I wonder what that hermetic impulse is.
LB Hermetic is a good word; one that I wouldn’t have thought of, but it’s true. I have definitely become more hermetic out of necessity, certainly. I can’t work with the constant bombardment of stimuli that seems to be much a part of what city living is. But I am happy to do this. I feel “in my skin,” as the French would say, alone in the studio. Plus, I feel that it’s my job as an artist to push things as far as I can, and that entails not having the work fit easily into a niche. Makes for trouble out there in our art/business world, but so be it—it’s good for the art and that is the point.
About that Abstract Expressionism matter: we both are “expressing” something, of course, in our painting, and we both are abstract painters. You are looser than me in your handling sometimes, but that doesn’t make you more expressionistic. What a dumb word anyway. The point is to make something new however naive that sounds, and being a bit of a hermit helps with that, at least for me. I mean, it’s a tall order. I am so grateful for my land and barn/studio in rural Quebec. I suspect your dual life of living in Berlin and NYC does a similar thing for you? That it helps your focus?
JG I can work anywhere, even in a hotel room, on the bed. Sometimes when I am away from New York I find myself bored and, in spite of what that particular place is offering, I find myself going to an art supply store, getting a watercolor set and going back to the room and drawing. Sometimes I am ashamed of this, for not participating. But it is similar to the focusing you talk about—my life is my work. I have been going away a bit to Berlin and somehow it’s quiet there and I can think in a way I can’t in New York. Maybe the isolation of being in a foreign country is a kind of buffer. I don’t have to pay attention so much, so I can relax deeply, in a way that I never can in New York. I am not convinced being somewhere else changes my work, what changes the work is the unwinding that happens by being in a different place.
I have been looking at your recent work. What used to be landscapes and barns has now given way to a sort of geometric configuration of a landscape. It’s like the structure of landscape symbolically rendered. The distinctions between abstraction and representation are made irrelevant, as they should be. I think you are trying to make something new, however awkward that may be, in the tradition of modernism, in a way.
LB Let’s hope so. There is a long tradition of landscape painting in Canada and that is where my roots are based also. These new paintings, and even my older work, never really were straight landscapes with barns or anything. Instead, what has been making itself more evident is that my lives in the city and in the country are combining and overlapping; both are solidifying as one. I am building a painting now as if it were a sculpture. For one thing, I’m physically moving them around with me, be it to my Canadian studio or my one in Brooklyn because things get finished so slowly. I am painting the forms in such a way to produce as much of a visceral experience as possible. I also understand now that I am my painting, that the physical parameters of the canvas, while nebulous, parallel how I feel in my body. I don’t really know where my mental edges are but I can feel my physical edges much in the way I can touch the canvas’s edges. So I’m mixing landscape and architectural imagery together. Often they are one and the same thing. It’s in this melding where the human, my humanness, comes in. At first, though, the things are paintings—paintings of sculptures of landscapes.
I have noticed that what happens when I am away in the country for at least a month is that the work slows down. Well, no kidding . . . But how that manifests itself is what’s interesting. Not that the work gets made any slower—I don’t think you can be slower than me, period—but the focus gets very, very clear. It might have to do with being able to hear things a great distance away. Hearing gives one the sensation of space, and that heightened sense of space lets one feel that they are on the planet better. It helps with the search for meaning, for what a painting is, for happiness. I make studies in sketchbooks the whole time I am away. There is a big difference between the ones I work on during the first weeks and the ones I do in the last weeks. My drawings are usually much usually. I have acclimatized to my surroundings and am not so much a fish out of water. But working back in the city also has its influence, even if it isn’t as pointedly philosophical or unwound as you put it. The noise, rush, pollution, and frustrations of being in a very dense urban environment make me not settle for a soft, comfortable solution to whatever painting problem I’m working on. (And I always have a painting problem!) The city atmosphere sharpens the work and makes it tougher and I like this.
JG I’m fascinated by the notebooks you once showed me. Probably nobody sees this aspect of your studio; I know you’ve been making these books forever. I like the idea of making things that nobody will see, at least for the near future. Sometimes artists make things for themselves as part of their daily ritual, not everything is made for a show or to sell. It’s important for artists to have that secret thing they do—a type of drawing or art making that is very internal—yet not many do, from what I can tell. I see your work as very outside the prevalent dialogue. There is a stubbornness to not conform to the quoting of modernism and using those stereotypes that can signal that you are in the know. So your work doesn’t pander to the audience at all, and therefore is sometimes difficult to read. You don’t use entertainment or tricks with color. Your palette is very basic to the primaries, very pared down. It makes me question my motive for using a lot of bright and fluorescent colors. I came to the conclusion that the products are on the market and in the culture, and that that’s part of what I do. Is there a part of the culture that feels irrelevant to your artmaking?
LB I do feel I’m part of the culture, of course. I have been living, making art, and showing some of it in New York for 26 years. I see shows pretty regularly. I have moved into neighborhoods that weren’t hip at the time and then became nauseatingly over-the-top with hipness—Williamsburg, for instance. I have retreated to the country as much as I can, partly to get away from what New York has become, but mainly because returning to my roots has been very informative. Also I am at a stage in my work where I don’t need to be around the shows or street life for artistic input, at least not full time. Trees, growing things, and sky do that for me now. The bigness of the world—it’s a little bit bigger than the so-called art world, isn’t it? I push my paintings to get to the place they do because I don’t see anything like them around, and I feel this need. As you mentioned earlier regarding referencing expressionism, I don’t want to “reference” anything. I want to make something be totally what it is unto itself. If there are elements of a style or a theory that the thing I am making has in it, I certainly don’t want to underline them, but I don’t work in a vacuum. When I am aware of these references, I realize that I need to go deeper into the work and to bring other things out more. But to directly answer your question, contemporary culture isn’t irrelevant to me. It is probably more than half of the equation, being that it is a great thing to work off of, by funneling the good and the bad impressions and sensations of it into my work. Painting also lets me let off steam and forces me to come to grips with living in predominately an unjust and unfair world. I have to make sense of things painting-wise, and I have to find happiness. There is no bad in painting. Painting is good and bad together.
JG I asked that question about being part of the culture because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how one’s work is a product of it or not, about how certain things seep into what we do no matter how reclusive or outsider we might feel. Also, a rigorous studio practice is absolutely necessary, but the celebrity culture we live in seems to make it irrelevant. If the work is not seen, or if you are not seen, you don’t exist. So the pressure to be an artist now isn’t just in the work in the studio; there’s the added pressure to participate on some level. I have a book, yet unread on my nightstand, called The Nightmare of Participation. I don’t know if I will ever get to it, but I love the title.
LB Well, the way you are putting this, I would have to say that I am outside of culture’s perception then. I am not famous. I don’t feel the pressures that that would entail. The kind of painter I am feels a bit like being a marine biologist in relation to the “big” art world. I guess I don’t exist then?! But obviously I do—I am participating and interacting. The question might be how “in” does one need to be? The more “in” I get, the more I leave. The monetary rewards from being a little “in”—and having my work exhibited and purchased—allows me to leave for longer segments of time. It’s not a form of escapism, it’s the way I have found to contribute something of value.