LOUISE BELCOURTby Sharon L. Butler
Jeff Bailey Gallery February 17 – March 27, 2010
For years Louise Belcourt has divided her time between Williamsburg and a small Canadian town on the south side of the St. Lawrence river where she spent summers as a child. More than 12 years ago, she built a studio on a high cliff overlooking the river; the clear Canadian light, majestic water views, and looming, manicured hedges that surround her family’s nearby property have figured prominently in her work ever since. In earlier paintings, sweeping vistas populated by distant hedge-like formations were informed by the isolation and broad vantage point of her surroundings. In the new exhibition at Jeff Bailey, her first solo in almost four years, the magisterial panoramas have given way to a series of fractured, hard-edge spatial illusions that bump up against the picture plane, simultaneously framing and blocking the view. Much good painting demonstrates this paradoxical capacity of the medium to both illuminate and obfuscate, and these canvases continue the tradition.
Belcourt operates in a private, sparsely inhabited, irony-free zone. She does not seem particularly comfortable with the transparent, tell-all nature of the post-modern digital age. Her work speaks to classic, intrinsically aesthetic considerations like balance, surface quality, subtle color relationships, unity, contrast, and beauty rather than conceptual conceits or narrative approaches. She does not frontload her work with particular exterior worries. Satisfaction for her appears to reside in the focused painterly process of getting it right—without going too far. Unlike other artists who move fluidly between media without necessarily achieving mastery, Belcourt has a longstanding commitment to the craft of painting. Her world lies unmistakably within the boundaries of the rectangular canvas.
In her new work, she continues to utilize a cool palette, exploiting mixtures of green, white, and blue to create crisp, well-observed interplays of light and shadow. In previous work, Belcourt relied heavily on white tints to limn cloudless expanses. Now she downshifts the color to a darker, denser register. Like Hans Hoffman, Belcourt works with the spatial effects induced by subtle color shifts. On close viewing, color turn-backs proliferate as shapes shift between two and three dimensions. “HedgeLand Painting #8” features a sliver of pale purple-blue that reads both as a hedge shadow and a river.
If Hoffmann’s color gaming is an important precedent for Belcourt’s work, so too are Alex Katz’s cool simplicity, Georgia O’Keeffe’s meticulous brushwork, and Stuart Davis’s engagement with geometric shape. What sets Belcourt’s paintings apart, emergent from her exacting method, is a decisive solemnity: they do not manifest much of a sense of fun, if any. That does not mean that they are lacking, for it seems unlikely that Belcourt wishes to be playful. Rather, her apparent purpose is to essay the lonely seriousness of the artist’s endeavor: to suggest that for all the vivid color, geometric grace, and compositional elegance to be found around us or in a painting, there is also a bleakness, an existential flatness, which even beauty—and her paintings are visually beautiful—cannot suppress. In this aspect, Belcourt’s paintings recall Anne Truitt’s sculpture at her recent Hirshhorn retrospective, the blocky largeness of which poignantly contradicts their cleanness of line and pureness of color. From this perspective, Belcourt’s self-imposed isolation does not deprive her work of philosophical depth, but, to the contrary, gives her the psychic room to get at a universal truth.
Belcourt’s finely crafted and homogeneous new work, made over the course of the past year, reflects the cautious deliberation of an artist who does not readily embrace transition—or, indeed, failure. At the same time, they evidence a continuity of mindset and vision that, against a backdrop of increasingly evanescent art, is oddly refreshing for being so assuredly anchored. Like Ellsworth Kelly, Belcourt makes paintings that hide far more than they reveal, and, by secreting something significant, challenge the viewer to find it.