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July 21 - August 25, 2007 at d.e.n. contemporary, Culver City

by Mat Gleason

"Bootsy," 2007, acrylic
on birch panel, 24 x 24"

"Funhouse," 2007, acrylic
on birch panel, 24 x 24"

'Cuppy," 2007, acrylic
on birch panel, 24 x 24"

"Malibu," 2007, acrylic
on birch panel, 60 x 48".

Some stereotypes of mid-century Modernism have become barriers, retarding innovation within the visual vocabulary of this style. The loose mid-century look defined an era of freedom, hope and boundless optimism. Over the years, the clean geometry that once symbolized possibility has been lumped in with hard-edged abstraction and reductive design. The mid-century, gestural Modern style was almost the opposite of the formal totalitarianism of the taped-off stripe and minimal concrete square. Somehow, the notion that one needs to be crisp, clean and have an anal-retentive approach to design that borders on the neurotically fastidious arose out of the once liberal approach to picture making.
Painter Alexander Couwenberg makes sure to scrap the needless perfection out of the mid-century canon, improvising along the way on many a Modernist idea, as he helps shepherd this great American style into the 21st century. Like a jazzman feeling out a long-idle trumpet, his paintings offer countless new riffs on old favorites. Not content to replicate, he uses the forms and colors of Eames-era design and hard-edge masterpieces as points of departure for masterful abstractions that develop counterintuitive ideas across this untitled series. To wit, Couwenberg gluts his pictures with layered forms upon layered forms to bring about an orchestral majesty from apparent chaos. What initially appears to be a tense juxtaposition becomes a lyrical passage. This is an intelligent response to an era—our era--where inundation of images without substance is what ails us.
The exhibit’s paintings are all acrylic on birch panel, and this wood surface is exploited for all its mid-century potency. The wood tone has that fleshy, natural feel that warms the coolest geometry. In many of these works, the artist stacks abstract forms upon the raw panel like a collapsed house of cards. These shapes then splay into patterns of chaotic beauty that utterly defy the very geometric structure their form implies.

Far be it for beautiful abstraction to be political, but the composition of a work reflects its time, and the current upswing of chaos in the world yields chaotic artworks. Couwenberg’s mastery is to make order from this chaos, to juxtapose and then harmonize out of what ought to have been a cacophony. The opaque layerings of this work may anticipate what will soon come to pass, or conversely what has just left the buildings of our consciousness. The early 21st century has challenged us all to hold to memories of what was last month, let alone last year, let alone in our childhood. Couwenberg’s work captures the grace of this frenzy.
The soft poetry of asking where we have been and where we are going is contrasted with absolutes of line and hard-edge; the distinction of Couwenberg’s new work is that neither the wistful beauty nor the politburo formalism ever completely dominates a picture. The spirit is of a democracy of ideas, each vying for visual primacy. When the viewer pulls back to see the entire picture, the tension of this conglomeration transforms into a patternless, complex engagement . It is not sentimental work, but it is not a comrade of the unsentimental either. Couwenberg’s Millenial Modernism depicts the frenzy of making a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The artist succeeds in this endeavor with style and aplomb.