In conversation with Adrien Couvrat:
the French artist talks colour, light and 14thcentury inspiration
“I don’t look for how my work reflects me, rather I look
for how the work emerges from me”
– Adrien Couvrat
Adrien Couvrat knows Lake Geneva well. In 2017 he was invited to produce a site-specific commission at Le Corbusier’s Villa “Le Lac” in Corseaux on the lake’s eastern shores. Couvrat spent days at the Villa, collaborating with curator Patrick Moser and Bassel Tabet, making preparatory sketches and observing the light and atmosphere of the architect’s revolutionary Modernist home. The seven resulting canvases which interpreted Le Corbusier’s famous colour keyboards mesmerized visitors with their exquisitely precise chromatic representation of the lake and environment. This month the artist returned to the Swiss Riviera to talk about his inspirations, technique and how colour remains an infinite source of surprise.
Born in Paris in 1981, Couvrat graduated from the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts and trained at IRCAM. His work has been exhibited at the Institut du Monde Arabe, the Qingdao Sculpture Art Museum in Shandong, China, the Musée des arts et métiers, Paris and the Centre d’Art Contemporain Les Tanneries, Amilly as well as a presence at Art Köln last year.
Talk to Couvrat and his passion for perceiving what is before him and for the craft which began initially with painting is immediately apparent. On what would be a grey day to most sees his eye drawn to the virtually imperceptible turquoise and pinks tinting the winter sky. An innate ability to distinguish how colour and light behave is his talent and the rationale behind a fascinating oeuvre. “It seems that the Swiss artists like Hodler and Vallotton stayed in this area to paint in the Léman light just like Cézanne and the other French artists sought the light of Provence. The light here is incredible, quite different from Northern Europe” muses Couvrat. The French also came to the region to paint, notably Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet, a fact which Couvrat is pleasantly surprised to discover. Indeed, surprise is what this affable Frenchman relishes.
Having started his career with painting, Couvrat began to experiment with moving images using projection and sound as a way of generating sensorial works of infinite colour variations. His 2010 installation in a stone-walled room at the Centre d’Art Bastille in Grenoble projected an energetic stream of colours ad infinitum onto a screen framed by mirrors on either side. Using live programming, Couvrat coded a selection of base colours to create an interactive composition. “By tweaking the blue or the red or the green I could produce any number of colour variations where the notion of time was removed”. Nonetheless, realising its exploratory potential, Couvrat returned to the traditional medium of paint to master optical movement using pigment and light. His canvases are comprised of coloured striae, generated from random colour interactions using acrylic. “I continually experiment with what I consider as infinite possibilities of colour variations in what is a rather simple application. The magic materializes with a combination of the paint and the ambient light, its source, the time of day and the orientation of the canvas. Look at Caravaggio’s masterpieces in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, how he uses the natural shaft of light coming in through the window to illuminate his compositions. One is unsure whether it’s the real light of the chapel itself or the light in the painting”.
Couvrat’s canvases achieve an iridescence which is impossible to capture in a single glance. What one initially perceives does, at the slightest change of movement to the right or to the left, alter the composition. Imagine the undulating folds of a water’s surface or the rippling fluidity of a flag and you begin to grasp the ethereal chromatic motion conjured by Couvrat. “My paintings reflect a passage from one thing to another, but the question we should ask ourselves is what is it that we are really seeing? And at what point do we realise what it is we are seeing? I try to capture the intangible, like a fleeting reflection in a window. It’s a little like hypnotherapy where the left hand is doing one thing but the right side of the brain is recognising and processing something different, it’s a disassociation between one thing and another”.
Unsurprisingly, the artist has been compared with the visual Op Art of artists such as Jésus Rafael Soto and Julio Le Parc. The sensorial works of these illusionary masters require, as do Couvrat’s canvases – which appear as dynamically-charged linear colour fields – an active participation by the spectator whose eye serves as the motor for movement. The kinetic principle is a relevant link to Couvrat’s hypnosis analogy and how his work is interpreted. One might imagine a view of the sky: look from the East and the viewer perceives one thing but look from the West in that same sky and the perception is something unequivocally different.
Though it’s easy to draw parallels with the kinetic avant-garde from the Fifties and Sixties, Couvrat suggests a closer affinity with the Impressionists – Monet, Degas and later Seurat in his pursuit to discover the properties of paint. “What interests me about the Impressionists, particularly Monet, is how they used only one medium, the medium of paint to evoke movement in their compositions. They were using one simple medium, not complicating their process with several which was the case with the kinetic artists who used multiple materials to produce optical movement in art. I guess the purer method resonates with the painter in me!”
Couvrat cites other artists who he has called to mind when preparing his projects. “When I was sketching the works for Villa “Le Lac”, I was thinking about the Weltlandschaft paintings of Joachim Patinir, the Flemish Renaissance painter. Some of the colours in his geographic landscapes – the turquoise blues, the natural mountainous elements, rocks etc – guided me on the colours I wanted to capture from the Léman environment. I was also imagining altarpieces, the retables which are painted grey on the outside but when opened up during the Mass reveal the colour and light of the composition inside, like an apparition. My paintings evoke a similar passage in their technique”.
There’s a philosophical profoundness to Couvrat’s thinking, an emergent spirituality as he recalls the work of 14thand 15thcentury artists. “I’m very interested in the time when the world was being discovered by explorers like Magellan, but particularly the 14thcentury artists. When I look at the works of Fra Angelico, that’s when I believe in God!” Undeniably, his own canvases exude a meditative quality through their emotive chromatic vibrations.
From his spacious studio on the North-Eastern outskirts of Paris, Couvrat meticulously prepares his canvases using a serrated ruler to impress concertinaed furrows creating a double-sided, textural surface on which he applies acrylic. “It all starts with a black layer, it’s from there as I work that the light and colour variations begin to emerge”. At any time, his palette is purposefully limited to a handful of pigments, “you know Claude Monet only used a small range of colours”. By projecting acrylic onto canvas, he is able to create from the entire colour spectrum. Yet it’s unpremeditated, “a phenomenon which is out of my control” stresses Couvrat. “Take green and red. If I layer these two colours, it will optically, at a certain point produce yellow on the light spectrum. And that can surprise the viewer”.
Couvrat’s commitment sees him on occasion work through the night for several days, his “warrior-working” he calls it. The ambient music which he listens to (the early music of the Hilliard Ensemble is a favourite) lends a resonant calm to the creative process and enables him to rise out of himself. Rather than looking for how his work reflects him, Couvrat looks for how the work emerges from him. “More than anything, I’m surprised by the experimental effects revealed during the painting process. I may add more of a certain colour and the results are not what I expected. It isn’t always a positive discovery but it’s almost always surprising. And if I can surprise myself, then I can surprise others. More recently, I’m using cobalt blue, phthalo green, vermillion red, lemon yellow or a quinacridone pink. These base colours give an infinite number of variations in terms of depth, volume and luminosity particulary with spray paint” explains Couvrat. Listening to him, the term ‘colour alchemist’ springs to mind.
His studio is divided into several areas – a painting cabinet, a stock room and most importantly, says Couvrat a seated space in front of a window facing a large wall where he hangs his works and observes. “Sitting here on the sofa, looking at my paintings from a distance is an essential part of the creative process, particularly if I’m working on a series. It’s the moment when I evaluate, contemplate, put into perspective, ‘to and fro’ with what I have produced. The wall gives me a visual distance, a bit like Matisse who purposefully used a long cane to paint with so that he had a better view on what he was doing. I find it very difficult to accept that a painting is finished, in fact to me it’s never finished. My work has a ‘last-minuteness’ to it because I’m inquisitive to see what else might be revealed if I continue. What I create has a presence, something that can be interacted with which is, I might say, living. More often than not, it takes an arbitrary force to interrupt me and remind me that time is up! In this respect, one could say that yes, the Kineticist principle – that it is only with the participation of the spectator that the work becomes complete – applies to me too”.
In the same vein, this contemplative process may take longer, in fact a favourite work of Couvrat’s is one which he did in 2014. “It’s only now, a few years later” he explains “that I appreciate what I achieved with this painting. A luminosity rises in bands from darkness, at the same time initiating a defined sunray effect. I see how the striae are created with the combination of particles of pigment and the waves of light. Exposing the canvas in a different context, in this case with the passage of time helps me to realise what I have achieved or where I am going with a particular work”.
Heading back to catch the TGV to Paris, Couvrat reflects on what drew him into the arts originally. “My grandmother was an artist. She did a lot of tapestries, not the traditional type, she was more shamanic in her style” he explains fondly, “akin to someone like Sheila Hicks today”. “She had a wall full of bobbins, every hue, tint and shade of wool you can imagine. When I think about it, my work implies this sense of ‘warp and weft’, where the vertical lines on the canvas – the warp – are woven by the horizontal dynamic of the spectator as he or she walks from one side to the other. Perhaps what I create is linked to this subliminal memory of line and colour. Who knows, maybe it will feature more in my work in the future?”. Having listened to Couvrat’s convincing deliberation affirms that, whichever the direction chosen by this Renaissance man, its outcome will be optically enlightening.
Adrien Couvrat is represented by Galerie Maubert, Paris.
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