The neighbor you know in passing is going on vacation and asks you to please feed the cat. There is something throat-catching, almost heart-pounding about permission to take the key and enter such a private, personal space for the first time. Trepidation transmutes into curiosity, and backstories are imagined, which, in turn, invite introspection. Welcome to the world of Laure Mary-Couegnias, who creates drama in the stillness of velvety rich still lifes that speak volumes—if you choose to turn the key. Flatness has never felt so fulsome, and as Rod Serling would caution, it’s a whole new dimension.
Gwynned Vitello: We haven’t met, but when I look at your work, I imagine that you must live in a city. So, tell me if I’m right, but also tell me where you spent your childhood.
Laure Mary-Couegnias: I was born and lived until I was a teenager near Chamonix, one of the oldest ski resorts in France. Whether the landscape is covered with a white coat of snow in the winter or a flowery dress in summer, you are continuously surprised by the beauty and serenity of this place. As I child, I always looked out my bedroom window at the mountains, which gave me plenty of space to imagine, and its mysteries still arouse a lot of curiosity in me today. My studies then led me to settle in the city of Lyon. Renowned for its first-rate gastronomy, so not short of delicious delicacies, I savored all the pleasures and riches of this city for about a decade. Then I moved to the French capital, Paris, where the eyes almost burn looking at the scale of appointments, and where, going through the city, your mind tells you that you should have turned around a thousand times. I like to regularly change locations, no matter the distance because each new experience brings you new thoughts and points of view. It helps me evolve in my work, so I would even call it a personal need.
What started you on the road to an artistic life? Were there any particular cultural influences or family role models?
My parents both studied art and they passed on this attraction to knowledge to my sister and me. We were lucky to grow up with the chance to approach life with such encouragement to develop our imaginations and to define ourselves with a measure of grace. Books, movies, music, theater, cooking, dancing, and even gardening were all a path to discovery, no matter what theme or subject. It was necessary to feed the range of the foliage of acquaintances. Growing up, this uncertain ghost of freedom pushed me into a foolish desire for open air and even peril, and so, within the greatest secrecy of my family and friends, I took the examination to enter an art school.
What did you enjoy the most about that experience and what maybe surprised you about your studies?
Indeed, after passing the admission exam, I followed the complete curriculum in a national art school in France. It was a thrilling and enriching experience because it is so good to feel, well, dispossessed of oneself, and it is in this way that education pushes you to achieve. Art, in its broadest spectrum, has the power to awaken senses that were previously lying dormant in us. When I began my studies, I liked that this complexity existed because to reach it one needs to summon silence and strength to search and understand.
On the other hand, there were no so-called “technical” courses, as the teaching was mainly based on theory. I sometimes regretted it, but depending on the whim of the moment, I understood that this absence was constantly pushing me to show more and more willingness, determination, and creativity in order to progress. Then, when the acquired wisdom wins you over, you suddenly understand that it doesn’t matter if the subject is mobile or immobile because everything you could want from it no longer exists—because it never existed!
How did you develop your own style of painting? How do you think the two-dimensional style portrays scenes and objects compared to the depth of three-dimensional representations?
The provocation without control is a principle of the law also called “image,” so that in penetrating the field of the representation it must plunge itself into a deregulated use of unforeseeable disturbances.
The flatness that dialogues with the relief are two units that we can transpose to the real. In this sense, there are multiple interactions between our daily lives and the digital. My paintings transpose this juxtaposition, so some elements are as flat as our screens but other elements seem to want to leave the canvas. It is an approach of “mise en anime” which has the ambition to express the need to escape through objects which plunge us into another dimension that itself is imprisoned in a frame.
Absence asks for the same abandonment from those who look. Danger makes us discover something unknown, uncomfortable and attractive at the same time. My paintings never cease to evolve associations and declensions of subjects by a succession of mutations, a duality between an overabundant representation and a scenic device that belongs to the void. I mobilize a rigor of execution in order to obtain a very meticulous result.
Surrealism creates metamorphosis and forces you to revise the world. There is the attraction of a rendezvous without rendezvous, of an agreement superior to the desires in a universe about which we know so little. But do we always get what we want? The embodiment of thought cannot conceive of a greater mystery and becomes a survivor of normality. I learned to preserve my sorrows and joys, sometimes indifferent, sometimes brutal, to finally express what was most authentic in me: weakness and tenderness.
The flat, two-dimensional look creates a very theatrical scenario as if the viewer could insert their own drama, their own personal story into the picture. So maybe that has been your intention?
You can, without any limit, modify and interpose all kinds of objects in one or several defined spaces. Like a magic game, these arrangements provoke contact with the infinite. But a game is usually played at certain times because it is, at the moments when you know there is no one theorem, the anxiety evaporates and gives way to the eternal part of yourself that communicates with the cosmic part of yourself. This lively meditation, like the appearance of a child’s secret, approaches, with serenity, the physical sensation of death and the exaltation of the living. In my paintings, I let the unreal take shape without becoming reality so that everyone can call upon his or her own past, which haunts the mirage of memory.
Do you sometimes have an idea and kind of search for the perfect space, the right piece of furniture, a specific window, or a particular texture?
There is a rule: The subject does feed on the subject, otherwise it withers. For example, the chair does not feel the waiting as an ordeal because it embodies immobility as a notion of time.
Do you paint on location or from photographs?
I confess that I never work from photographs or drawings. Each painting is completely imagined and mentally studied for a long time. Once in front of this place, the impressive and inspiring blank canvas, I begin my first layer by giving total freedom to my instincts—often quite unfaithful to my desires. But sometimes resisting your desires gives you the sensation of being free. Painting is a bit like the action of the waves; they do with us what they want, sometimes carrying us away and other times separating us. Wanting to reach the point is endless exhaustion, but it allows you to escape time guided by the light of the rotating beacon of gains and losses. The truth supposes the error.
Does time of day exist in your paintings? It almost seems as though many of the scenes exist outside of a clock as if they’re almost in a vacuum.
The dream needs nothing to create its matter and can give rise to multiple births. The passing hour is like the fine sand that escapes and is abandoned on the shore where irreplaceable dreams gather. The artwork, in that it is the creation of an event, is a communication of the experience by its crystallization. Time is built as an era where confinement and isolation prevent joy and peace from visiting you. Its absence allows the heart to be free without being aware of it.
I love your use of greens, berry hues, and deep, velvety blues. How do you choose your colors and then infuse the paintings with such richness? Tell us about the materials you use to achieve this.
The choice of colors is comparable to the horizon. It is not because we see it that we possess the sky. When I go to buy my tubes of paint, I first select by habit—the browns, blues, and greens are almost always the same. But I often let my intuition of the moment make its own choices. It’s kind of like going to a candy store—even if you know what you like, you’ll also pick out something new just to “try it out.” Voila, paint tubes and candy are the same!
I apply a lot of layers on my canvases, relatively thin ones in order to get an almost perfect flatness and also acquire the strongest contrasts. During my studies, one of my professors told me not to be afraid of color. Being a person who does not always control the reason with accuracy, I made the decision, to this day, that color would not be a fickle enemy, but a faithful excess. Creating harmony requires a confrontation in contradiction. It is elusive but fraternal.
Do the shadows in your rooms signify a way to retreat or run away, or are they conveyors of privacy, maybe liberation?
The shadow is only understood by the light and vice versa. It is both a compass and a clock, as it tells you something. The light, defined by the frame of a window reflected against a wall, is the sign of an off-field space, of something we cannot see directly, of the possibility of an elsewhere. This “elsewhere” is definable only by these lines and suggests the freedom to imagine what is there.
I don’t always paint in enclosed spaces. Some scenes represent the outside, sometimes also the nothingness. The shadow, lights, and perspectives are also sometimes deliberately false where there is no mixture of natural and artificial light, of chance and staging, or spontaneity and control. All these assemblies lose us in a confusion, the same one that constantly plunges us between digital life and the one we really live. With regard to the splendor, the weight of the shadow only obscures itself by its refusal to convince the light.
Some of the windows remind me of Magritte’s paintings of buildings at night. Who are some artists who influence you?
I’m a lover of history and don’t have room to name all the geniuses who have inspired me, whether in art, cinema, literature, or other genres, but artists who come to mind are Séraphine de Senlis, Edward Hopper, Camille Bombois, Giorgio de Chirico, Ed Ruscha, Emily Mae Smith and Robin F. Williams, whom I admire so much.
Although people don’t appear in your paintings, animals have. Why do you give them entry into your stories? How do you choose a particular animal and their role? And do you have a pet?
I have the pleasure of enjoying the company of a ghost of a cat, to whom I did not give a name because, not being of this world anymore, I consider that he can now be free to choose for himself. He is kind, attentive, and very quiet. It costs me nothing except the consciousness that it looks at me as soon as my back is turned. That helps for many things, I guess.
Have you painted portraits before? What attracts you to studying objects, especially many, like chairs, couches, and beds, that occupy people?
Is the ambiguous sense of absence due to the memory of shared moments? The consciousness of the present is linked to the possession of the intense until the fall of the ordinary. The absence of a human figure in an image does not mean that there is something missing because for this image to exist, then it is necessary to have someone look at it. And so, the portrait takes life without the subject knowing themselves that they are the main character of the scene they are looking at.
Do you ever write down a story to go with your paintings?
I find much satisfaction in the occasional exercise of writing, but I have never had a particularly fertile pen. I am, in a way, like the poet who sleeps on a bed of feathers. My paintings are the books I have never written. On the other hand, when I prepare a monograph exhibition, I produce a small introductory text. This one accompanies the surrealist framework of the paintings and has the ambition of giving you the first turn of the key in the door that will lead you to the exhibition.
I’d love it if you would share an example of an introductory text.
Yes, with pleasure. Here is the text for Escape Lane that I wrote for my last exhibition with Richard Heller Gallery in June 2021:
“On one of the armchairs that looked towards my desk, free and, at the same time cumbersome, lay waiting for a visitor who would not come. The nostalgia of the forms and the light drew a weariness in the dusk, and it is in the heat of the day that I remember the sweetness of the night.
“The scene is so peaceful that it could be a painting, in a cheerful atmosphere, calmer than I. It is at this moment that you realize you no longer want to be anyone, to take the time to think selfishly about all these thighs, to refuse to become the future that reassures in its flatness, and to no longer walk outside in fear of the exterior. Although one is only a varied sequence of contradictory and fleeting states, there are times when one needs brutal sincerity. When the escape lane appears in the landscape, one must venture into it like opening a messy drawer. Here is some of that light so that you will never again be afraid of the void. The most beautiful freedom is the one to remain naive.”
What is your studio like? Is it possible to tell me what a typical painting day is like?
I have occupied four different studios so far. Currently, my studio is in the same space as my home, but this hasn’t always been the case. Each change of location has caused changes in my work.
I wish I had the courage and talent to describe a typical day of painting, but I believe that the space between what I imagine and what is reality is so vast that it is perhaps best not to disturb this imagination I have built and to keep it secret. I fear that one day this naivety will leave me.
I wonder if current and social events impact your practice. The scenes have a very timeless quality, but I wonder what situations inspire you.
Walking through fields of hazard is my favorite playground. No matter the geography or the time, only quality counts. Narrative, encounter, and discovery are the major ingredients that closely intertwine life and work, the substance that generates the creative process. These elements are essential for a work to gain existence and depth, to allow the blossoming of adventures that offer the harvest of elements on the complexity of the world.
I’ll tell you one of my secrets: every painting has something that belongs to someone. It can be a story, a situation, or even an object I pick up as the days go by, elements that without any particular explanation, have caught my attention. Then, sooner or later, they end up in one of the scenes I represent. It’s quite amusing when I tell people about it, and explain how it happened. Being contextualized, these elements are not what they used to be because the personal becomes universal, like a crystallized memory, something to be kept forever and shared with the world.
Laure Mary-Couegnias will open a solo show at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica, California from September 10—October 22, 2022.
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