Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Delicate Power: Anne-Francoise Couloumy at Cynthia Corbett's vernissage

In this secular age, it may seem anachronistic and pretentious to speak of spirituality in paintings that are not explicitly themed on religious or spiritual practices. And yet ... 
The author studies L'atelier de La Rue Du Cherche Midi 4, 2010/2011, oil on canvas,
And yet ... we find in some artists' work a numinous quality that transcends the use of art for aesthetics, or for making statements. It is a force that seems to emerge out of the merely human construction of oil paints and canvas (or paper,or board), and confront us with something strange and moving.

For example, we find in Vermeer's paintings a peculiar potency that is at the same time both transcendent and immanent.  For it is rooted in the familiar scenes of mundane life, but it  reaches far beyond the merely visual and semantic spaces othe picture, or the quotidian nature of the subject. It is a power to transport the mind into what can only be described as a 'spiritual' space. Without being in any way religious or making explicit allusions to conventional forms of spiritual observances, Vermeer's paintings can nonetheless lead us into an engagement that is other than merely aesthetic or representational - it is an engagement of a mental faculty that would more explicitly be addressed in sacred works, but is nonetheless so strongly exercised by Vermeer's paintings that it feels natural (well, to ne, anyway) to call them spiritual.
Réception , 2010/2011, oil on canvas

Anne-Françoise Couloumy's paintings have a more than formal resemblance to Vermeer, for they invoke the same dimension of transcendence. Hammershoi and Hopper are two other artists to whom she has been compared, and they do share the same formalistic interest in surfaces and spaces, and also in the human life that is implied by the depicted spaces.  But neither Hopper nor Hammershoi reach out of the planar dimensions of the painted surface and into the dimension of the spiritual.

The modern artist who most famously uses a secular painting to engage with a spiritual faculty of the mind is, of course, Mark Rothko.  But Couloumy, like Vermeer, manages to fuse the spiritual dimension with closely observed naturalistic scenes rather than Rothko's abstraction.
The author talks with Anne-Françoise Couloumy

Couloumy (b. 1961) lives and works in France.  When I spoke with her at the opening of Cynthia Corbett's huge show of her work at Gallery 27 in Cork Street (, she patiently listened as I stumbled to express the above thoughts, between her basic functional English and my non-existent French, but unfortunately I was frustrated in my attempts to discuss these ideas with her. Damn it, I should have paid more attention to my French lessons at school.
Anne-Françoise Couloumy surrounded by vernissageurs

How can these paintings carry such a freight of transcendent significance? When all's said and done, we look but upon painted canvas! There is somehow a specialness in the intention and a genius in the moulding of paint around that intention. The reductionist instinct in me wants to analyse and dissect it, but my thoughts so far bounce off the ineffability of what Couloumy puts into her paintings. I think the magic comes in part from the composition: the depictioin of stillness in places where people have left behind traces of their activities (such as the the emptied glasses of the reception). But also from the quality of the paint itself, a particular layering of colours that triggers the mind into reverie, the paints laid down accoriding to some intuition or sixth sense that I can only marvel at. (And this of course is where she is most like Rothko.)

When she last exhibited in London, in 2008, her oeuvre was about large, empty interior spaces of buildings - homes, hotels, restaurants.They had an Apollonian clarity and precision. In her new works, there is an explosion of new subjects, but her works still achieve a sense of transcendence immanent in the physical painting and even deepen it, while the new works also bring into play a new force of poignant human emotion. Couloumy has a series of paintings of unmade beds that are piquant in their intimacy.
Lit a Rugnes 1, 2008/2009, oil on canvas

The gentle folds of soft blankets, the crumpled sheets, the casually left reading glasses and bookmarked book ("Lecture") all create a poignant emptiness. It is not, I think, a sense of loneliness or desolation as some people seem to see, but a heartfelt depiction of presence by showing an intimate absence. As if, moments before, the real subject of the painting was lying there in a nightdress, and has momentarily left - the immediacy of the departure, the ghost of the almost tangible presence - they really point to a loving embrace of the unseen subject, rather than to sadness or longing. These paintings hover on the edge between poignancy and sadness: you sense that the human subject of the painting has not gone far and will be back soon.
La Couverture, 2008/2009, Oil on canvas
In this show, the most poweful for me was "Le Lit Blanc 2", a corner of a white bed -- a formally simply study of light and dark, but one whose depiction of fathomless fields of colour into which one could vertiginously fall creates a feeling I only ever had before with Rothko. The bedroom paintings are for me the high point of Cynthia Corbett's new exhibition of Couloumy's solo show, which opened last night. See especially "Lit a Rugnes 1" & ".. 2".
The author disputes the merits of Le Lit Blanc 2 with contemporary artist Frances Treanor
 Also very impressive are the sky paintings, sober but joyful studies of cloud formations.
(clockwise) Nuages 4, Nuages 7, Nuages 6, all 2008/2009; oil on board
And I loved her gentle paintings if her paints and paintbrushes. These seem more personal than the other works that I admire here, less concerned with transcendence and more with the emotionally familiar and friendly tools of her profession.
Pinceau x et Tubes 1, 2010/2011, Oil on canvas
Of course there were also several of the big interior spaces for which she is famous (eg "Réception", see above). The show very well demonstrates Couloumy's range of genres in which she is master.  Like Rothko's field-of-colour paintings, reproductions of Couloumy's oils hardly catch any of the spiritual charge - you have to see the works in the flesh. Go to Gallery 27 and behold them. (The show runs from June 25th to July 7th.).
Celia Kinchington chatting with guests
At the vernissage

All paintings by Anne-Françoise Couloumy; all photographs taken by Jenny Chung, at the opening at Gallery 27, on 26th June 2012, and used with the kind and generous permission of Cynthia Corbett.

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