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 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
Alex Couwenberg @ Andrea Schwartz Gallery through December 20, 2013.