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As an undergraduate at the École National Supérieure d’Art of Paris-Cergy, Lauren Coullard was one of very few in her year to pursue painting. In the lingering legacy of post-1968 French arts education, the medium of oil on canvas remains suspect. But Coullard has not succumbed to the political or historical weight of her chosen media, or for that matter, to the rising fashions for video and performance-based work. While at Cergy, Coullard typically developed her canvases from images found on the Internet, often of animals. As if reclaiming these creatures — captured, digitized and infinitely reproduced on computer screens around the world ¬— and resituating them in a more permanent, tactile medium, Coullard yoked her found beings to pigment, brush and canvas, granting them new, unexplored territories in which to roam.

In her graduate studies at Chelsea College of Art in London (where she earned her MA in Fine Arts), Coullard spent a good deal of time working with sculpture, stepping away from the canvas to experiment with texture and volume in three dimensions. Coullard has since returned to a primarily painterly practice, bringing with her an expanded knowledge of space and surface that she gained through her work in sculpture. Today she sees her practice informed by collage, textiles and installations, and considers her own studio as a “site-specific project.” Within her composed spaces, she fuses her sense of painterly surface with a longing for texture and volume, often incorporating textiles in her investigations of landscape and ritual.

For Coullard, her latest paintings reflect “a real struggle between gestural abstractions and forms,” a struggle similar to that which was played out in the cold-water walk-ups and later the Long Island studios of the American Abstract Expressionists. Coullard speaks of canvases marked by “uncontrollable movements” — spectacular gestures that deny a fixed reading of the suggestive forms and scenarios that define her compositions. Spaces of tightly bound tension as well as of chance and loss of control, Coullard’s work echoes de Kooning’s turbulent canvases of the early 1950s as well as the emotionally-charged, landscape-inspired work of “second generation” Abstraction Expressionist Joan Mitchell.

Likewise, Helen Frankenthaler’s development of Color Field painting, out of the Abstract Expressionist tradition, informs Coullard’s work, particularly in terms of palette and the physical interpretation of territory. Known for her lyrically abstract canvases of translucent washes of color, Frankenthaler first articulated her mature style in her painting Mountains and Sea, 1952, an organic composition in which pools of red, green and blue bleed into and across a warm, untreated expanse of canvas. When Frankenthaler realized this work, she says, “I knew the landscapes were in my arms as I did it.” “‘In my arms,’” art historian John Elderfield clarifies, “is not a casual figure of speech;” Frankenthaler was working not only “from landscape but from the experience of its physical creation.” Like Frankenthaler, Coullard foregrounds color as well as the corporal interpretation of landscape (be it real or imaginary). But whereas the pigment of Frankenthaler’s canvases melts outwards into pools of color, Coullard tightly binds her compositions, driving her brushstrokes inward into a Turner-like vortex. Likewise, while Frankenthaler generally emphasized surface over depth, Coullard mines deep, often cavernous, expanses into her works on canvas.

Coullard describes her choice of “odd and off colors” as a means to create “conscious accidents, … catalysts” that evoke a “spectrum of emotions” and a “state of wonder.” Her series Territories (all 2012), small works in oil on cardboard or paper, reflect this choreographed clash of tones and shapes in a dance of line and pigment. Likewise, in her collages built from a thematic archive of her own photographs, Coullard explores the possibilities of tonal and geometric contrast. Memories, Coullard’s series of gouache and pastels on paper, share the rapid pace of her collages as well as the gesture-driven composition of her larger works in oil on canvas. Creating a veritable archive of photographs, sketches and collages, Coullard mobilizes these forms in the creation of her works on canvas, layering paint to arrive at “the essence of the image by modeling it over and over again,” a process that draws her (often) figurative starting point towards abstraction.

Of her broad range of references, the Désert de Retz, constructed by Racine de Monville in the late 18th century comes up often in Coullard’s discussion of her work. An “anglois-chinois” garden, just twelve miles from the center of Paris, the Désert de Retz is defined by naturalistic landscaping combined with picturesque ornamentation. The distinguishing feature of the garden is the “Colonne Détruite,” or Broken Column, a four-story habitable construction in the form of a ruined monolithic column. Thomas Jefferson, Queen Marie-Antoinette, and painter Hubert Robert were drawn to the site and its monumental architectural feature, seen by some as a crumbling Tower of Babel, ominously prescient on the eve of the French Revolution. The garden was essentially forgotten until the late 20th century, overgrown yet remarkably intact after decades of neglect. Spending time there in the 1930s, when the park was still in a state of abandon, the French novelist Colette wrote, “Rétz’s luxuriance is that of a dream, of a fantastic tale, of an imaginary island.”

Like Coullard’s work, the Désert de Retz combines sweeping, organic expanses with enigmatic forms plucked from history and the imagination. From her series Upheaval, canvases such as Cavern, 2011 explore the ambiguous contours of a mystical and alluring space like that of Monville’s fantastical garden, as well as those described by Robert Pogue Harrison, in his book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. In an examination of “the role forests have played in the cultural imagination of the West,” Harrison writes: “However broadly or narrowly one wishes to define it, Western civilization literally cleared its space in the midst of forests. A sylvan fringe of darkness defined the limits of its cultivation, the margins of its cities, the boundaries of its institutional domain; but also the extravagance of its imagination.” This fascination with the fringes of society, as well as the breakdown of compositional order, defines Coullard’s works, each an evocative encounter between logic and chaos.

Coullard’s series Crash further reflects the artist’s fascination with ruins, combined with a thrust towards operatic theatricality and magical realism. Within this group of works, Scala, 2010, a dark and unsettling canvas, suggests a line of opera boxes going up in flames. Referencing both the former Teatro Regio Ducale, that burned to the ground in 1776 following a rowdy carnival gala (its site upon which Milan’s Scala theatre was built), as well as the heavy bombing of the Scala during World War II, Coullard also launches the site into her own fictive realm, aflame with imagined drama conjured by her bold strokes of paint.

Hiroshima Mon Amour, Coullard’s series of works referencing the title of screenwriter Marguerite Duras’s and director Alain Resnais’s 1959 film of love and memory, is one of the painter’s most clearly figurative. Each canvas in this series, such as Fear, 2008, for example, functions like a flashback from Duras and Resnais’s film; an image, vivid and jarring, that is difficult to anchor to a specific moment in time or a distinctive place. Especially for this group of works, Coullard’s titles are potent. In the same way that her turbulent language of paint, at once abstract and figurative, conjures landscape, space and personage without the limiting diction of a proper noun, her titles leave each work open to the fluid strokes of the imagination.

Coullard’s work as founding artist and editorial coordinator of the Cargo Culte Review speaks to the rigorousness of her research and the broadly informed positioning of her practice. Initiated in 2009, the publication takes its name from the term for the rituals the Melanesians created in response to “crises and social disruption caused by colonialism.” Each issue is made up of a collection of multiples by selected artists related to a unique research topic. In her contributions to the Cargo Cult project, Coullard has investigated the ornamentation and textiles of Japan’s Ainu people, specifically “the value of the Sacred that the community attributes to different patterns.” Reinterpreting Ainu folklore, Coullard has created a series of textile-based works that explore the veneration of territory and geometric design.

Recently, Coullard has also been drawn to the graphic, often enigmatic, work of contemporary Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie, as well as German painter Charline Von Heyl’s explosive abstract compositions in acrylic on canvas, and the intimate, abstract paintings of American Lesley Vance, who draws on the 17th century Spanish still life tradition. Coullard’s archeological pursuit of artifacts, and her dramatic sense of space and composition also recall fellow French artist Isabelle Cornaro’s elegant photographs, installations and paintings. Likewise, British artist Phoebe Unwin’s open and ephemeral paintings on canvas share in Coullard’s mesmerizing balancing act between abstraction and figuration. Coullard’s practice poses a fertile compliment to the work of these contemporaries who join her in the exploration of uncharted territories of imagined landscapes and pure painterly surfaces.


Lillian Davies, July 2012



100x65cm, oil on canvas
Sleight, 2011: 100x65cm, oil on canvas

35x27cm, oil on canvas
Cavern, 2011: 35x27cm, oil on canvas

73x38cm, oil on canvas
Dislocated, 2010: 73x38cm, oil on canvas

32x41cm, oil on paper
Serie Territories: 32x41cm, oil on paper

32x41cm, oil on paper
Serie Territories: 32x41cm, oil on paper