L’art du portrait selon Adrien Couvrat

The Parisian artist returns to Switzerland with a series of new works including a cast of characters conjured from colour, light and a paint gun.

“I was driven to find a more profound variation of my earlier abstract works, to personify the emotion experienced in my paintings and ultimately breathe renewed life into them”.

Adrien Couvrat
Adrien Couvrat, Présence I, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 85 cm, © Julien Gremaud

From his studio in Pantin in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, contemporary artist Adrien Couvrat has been making the final preparations for his latest solo exhibition which runs at Galerie Heinzer Reszler in Lausanne until mid-February. It is the third turn for Couvrat with the Swiss gallery and follows on the success of this summer’s group show when he exhibited alongside other artists including Mingjun Luo, Sophie Bouvier Ausländer and Thibault Brunet. 

Located in the city’s vibrant Flon cultural district, the contemporary gallery is a stones-throw away from the spectacular Plateforme 10 arts quarter, one of the most exciting new international art centres to emerge recently. 

Seventeen new works are presented including a series of never-before-seen paintings which introduce a host of characters conjured from Couvrat’s alchemical talents using acrylic paint and a spray gun.  Several of the paintings are applied on the artist’s custom, striated canvases which he meticulously fashions with a steel ruler.  Recent works on paper are also shown for the first time.

Paragone I, exhibition view, IV, © Julien Gremaud

Figuration opens up a field of possibilities for expressing space, volume and emotion”.

It’s an ambitious accomplishment for the artist who has spent the past few months pursuing an alternative artistic direction. The genial Frenchman is known for his minimalist compositions which capture random colour and light interactions to create mesmerizing chromatic superficies. Now, he says, it’s time to turn his painterly gaze towards figuration. 

Like everyone else, I was at home during the confinement and working with the materials I had available. I did some digital drawings on a tablet and found a small box of oil paints. Without searching or engaging too much, I started to play around with a few of the colours to see what I could do with a limited palette. When I finally returned to the atelier, I felt a renewed energy to do something different with the ideas I’d developed with the oils and sketches. It was an urge that I found difficult to ignore!”.

Painted entirely from his imagination, the new compositions delve into figurative representation, bringing a human aspect to Couvrat’s habitual abstraction. In the same way that those earlier works call for the spectator’s interaction, the new paintings, when viewed from one side to the other, reveal phantasmagoric apparitions, millimetre by millimetre, from nowhere. 

Do they reflect Couvrat’s own emotional response to the isolation of lockdown? Or, are they a natural evolution born from the many artistic influences he cites?

In a similar way to Rothko, I’ve always considered that my paintings have a presence. I wanted to personify this, to elucidate what lies beneath the canvas” he explains. “These figurative paintings offer a new way of seeing, where sensual incarnations born from an abstract landscape rise up and out of their own pudeur”.

Danaé, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 85 cm, © Julien Gremaud

Working to the rhythmic hum of the compressor, Couvrat immerses himself in a realm of colour and light where, from the nozzle of the spray gun, his painterly posse emerges.

I felt I couldn’t paint in the same way I had been doing before” says Couvrat. “Even though the compositions I’ve worked on for the past four years or so are still very much the basis for how I operate – a number of these minimalist paintings are in the show – I was driven to find a more profound variation of my earlier abstract works, to personify the emotion experienced in my paintings and ultimately breathe renewed life into them”.

The Renaissance masters Couvrat often refers to are detectable in the holographic visages he conceives. Echoes of Van Eyck’s Singing Angels from the Ghent Altarpiece and Titian’s palette are all perceptible. So too is Caravaggio, not only in the contrasting light and shadow addressed by Couvrat but in the depicted states of being. Emphatically brought to mind is the expression of terror on the face of the Italian painter’s Medusa as she is slain by Perseus. (In a witty nod to his provocative hero, Couvrat painted his own self-portrait during the process).

Are the enigmatic gazes of these strangers a portrayal of agony or ecstasy, horror or delight? 

They convey both exaltation AND lamentation” says Couvrat.

Such emotional contradictions stir a psychological tension which becomes increasingly plausible with the kinetic dialogue between viewer and canvas. The side-to-side, up-and-down movement brings this gallery of dramatis personae to life. Indeed, catching their eye for the first time is as tentative, intriguing and exhilarating as an intimate encounter with a new acquaintance. 

Paragone I, exhibition view II, © Julien Gremaud

“I want to create an experience for the viewer, where I propose an interaction with the paintings through the circulation from one space to another”.

Couvrat’s redolent works go decidedly beyond face value. With mindful consideration of linearity and positioning in relation to light in a given space, he explores architectural possibilities in the way that Turrell or Flavin use light to create space and volume.

Of great importance”, he stresses, “is the staging of the artI want to create an experience for the viewer, where I propose an interaction with the paintings through the circulation from one space to another.  I think about the work of Robert Wilson whose stage productions use line and colour and light projections to manipulate the perception of space”. 

The show’s title Paragone I is germane to its multidimensional nature. Referencing that historic debate concerning the rivalling superiority of painting and sculpture, his concertinaed surfaces vie between both art forms.

“I wanted to extend the depth of space and volume to achieve something sculptural and return to the notion of ‘paragone’ as a multifaceted approach to artistic execution” claims the artist.

A shifting aesthetic further contributes to the sense of spatial scope. By moving left to right, what first presents itself as a black and white plane gives way to a polychromatic landscape.

The painting exposes its richer self in a similar way that an altarpiece, which is painted grey on the outside, reveals colour and light when it is opened up during the Mass”.

Through Couvrat’s consummate manipulation of paint on canvas, the results are a revelation. Watch this space, while it furtively watches you.

Lyre (Traverse 1-7), 2020, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 60 cm, © Julien Gremaud

Adrien Couvrat Paragone I at Galerie Heinzer Reszler, Lausanne from 5th December – 12th February 2021

For further information go to www.heinzer-reszler.com

Lyre (Dyptique I & II, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 cm (x 2), © Julien Gremaud

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