Belem Lett & Genevieve Felix Reynolds
Saturday 11 April 2015
Australian artists Belem Lett and Genevieve Felix Reynolds are nearing the end of a whirlwind New York trip that has centred on their American debut and first collaborative exhibition, Bang Bang, at CHASM Gallery in Bushwick’s famous Bogart complex. Bang Bang presents new painting works from both artists, in a veritable explosion of colour, tone, shape and form. Through their distinct styles, Lett and Reynolds engage in a considered dialogue on the formal qualities of painting that references Modernist concerns reinvigorated and revised for a contemporary context. I sat down with the artists in a bustling café on Saturday afternoon to discuss, amongst other things, the exhibition, their inspirations, and how living and working together influences their practices.
Based in Sydney, the artists share a warehouse in Chippendale that doubles as their studios and the gallery space they run, Wellington St Projects. Although the two have previously shown together in a group exhibition, Sydney Painting Now, a 2014 mini survey of current painting practice in Sydney, Bang Bang sees the artists focus on a more direct investigation into the relationship and dialogue between their work and practices. The concept for Bang Bang has been in the pipeline for over a year, but it “changed as we got closer to the show and as we looked more at the relationship between our works, which has become more apparent.”
Although focusing independently on their separate bodies of work, there are noticeable parallels and shared concerns in Lett’s and Reynolds’ works about conceptual considerations such as the pictorial field and space as subject matter. The artists agree that this is an inevitable factor of living and working together, being interested in the same ideas, and of course, both being abstract painters.
BL: There are so many formal concerns, those conversations happen naturally. There are a lot of surface conversations and compositional conversations and discussions of colour, which result in a lot of honest critical feedback of each other’s work.
GFR: And the artists that we were exposed to or really enjoyed personally, even in art school and afterwards, are the same types of artists. There are a lot of different moments in Modernist history where we’ve both picked out the same things as our favourite bits.
For example, both cite American painters Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler as major influences on their practices. Both early examples of the Colour Field movement, these artists’ exploration of colour, abstraction and pictorial space clearly manifest in Lett’s and Reynolds’ work.
In terms of the inspiration for Bang Bang, for both Lett and Reynolds the exhibition gave them the opportunity to show a new series of work that marks a different direction in their respective practices.
BL: This is the start of a new series of work. Previously a lot of my work has been based on using found shapes, specifically referencing old maps, distorted maps of Australia and various countries that were built up with various layers, and that work led to me making paintings which were focusing on the exterior or framed space, because so many of these old maps had so much information in these beautiful caricatures in the space around the edges. So that led to me looking at the delineation between the frame and the wall, so where the painting stops and that presentation aspect of it. I made the frames first then started making paintings for the frames, so reversing that relationship.
GFR: My works are similarly a progression on previous bodies of work, and I guess its primarily formal concerns and the process of painting and layers, and looking at abstract, two-dimensional, geometric planes, and similarly the idea of the frame or the lack of the frame, and how the canvas limits and captures the snapshot of the composition.
Reynolds’ practice has evolved significantly in the past year or so, moving away from more figurative and representational painting towards a stripped-back exploration of painting as a two-dimensional space.
GFR: I’ve been exploring different ideas that I’m interested in. And I think there are all these similar concerns going on, like the concept of space and containment, and also negative space like holes and absences. Which is also what Belem is exploring.
BL: Yeah, previously in shows I’d have both object based abstraction, with these ambiguous forms floating in these spaces, and then these works with central voids in which the abstraction of colour and form has been squashed out to form a framed space.
GFR: I guess the window is something that is part of both of our works.
Lett's current body of work combines two elements of his practice, which were previously more separate. The sculptural objects that he has in the past exhibited alongside his paintings as separate pieces have been incorporated into the paintings to become not only an accompanying element, but the primary feature.
BL: Along with my conceptual basis for making is a formal interest in colour and form. I’ve been interested in the manner in which formal concerns relate to decorative aspects of painting such as the frame.
The frame of an artwork has conventionally been seen as merely a decorative method of display. However, the frame plays a powerful role in denoting an object as art through mediating between what is ‘inside’ and consequently what lies ‘outside’ the field of representation. Drawing inspiration from the formal qualities and conceptual function of renaissance framing, gilt mirrors and traditional altarpieces, Lett creates his frames through a process of casting handmade moulds.
BL: I started making the frames out of gypsum cement. Genevieve’s father [who is also an artist] has been using a lot of plaster so that encouraged my going back to doing something sculptural. I make the frame shapes through cutting out the forms in plastic, taping it all together and filling up the casts with plaster. I transferred that technique to resin to be able to make different coloured frames. I’ve used a lot of metallic pigment and aluminium powder in my other paintings so I wanted to incorporate that material into the work.
These bulbous, almost abject frames look sometimes like soft, cushiony clouds and at other times remind me of the brightly coloured, plastic blow-up furniture my sister and I were obsessed with for a period as children in the ‘90s. The forms are so invitingly tactile that the desire to reach out and touch them is overwhelming.
BL: I was interested in them being a bit gross or disgusting, sort of bursting out of themselves.
The painting then serves as a sort of mirror to the frame, contrasting colours following the outlines the form of the frame makes and receding into the central point of the piece, drawing the eye into the depths of the pictorial field.
Similarly, Reynolds explores framing and the concept of the window, through a process of layering paint to create plays with positive and negative space, often working wet on wet, and using translucent white paint to build up the layers. Tone, colour, line and form are brought to the fore through the emphasis on two-dimensionality.
GFR: I choose compositions based on a starting point, a starting colour, and then choosing clashing or complimentary colours. Once a base composition is done, which can be either gestural or flat, that is then covered up with further compositions, usually further flat compositions. A lot of the tonal play comes from trying to delineate objects or shapes by erasing parts of the previous compositions with transparent white. So by slowly layering transparent white that becomes a tonal variation, that makes the space recede.
BL: It contests the space as well, because we’re both creating objects but then contesting their object-ness by making the space ambiguous.
GFR: Right, so the objects that are created through erasing with white become like windows – negative space – but at the same time they’re positive.
The organic and geometric blocks of solid colour that reveal themselves through this process create alternating windows and frames, and by constructing the illusion of depth and space, Reynolds offers the viewer the chance to stumble into the imagined world beyond the surface of the painting.
Together, Reynolds and Lett offer a tribute to the experimental avant-gardism of Modernism, whilst keeping the spirit of wonderment and quest for newness very much alive and bright.