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
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Alex Couwenberg @ Andrea Schwartz Gallery through March 11, 2011
Learn more about Alex Couwenberg.