Inland Empire painter Alexander Couwenberg is riding the wave of Modernism that’s sweeping creative and media industries alike. But Couwenberg didn’t mean to—he’s just been doing what he’s always been doing: making rich, invigorating abstracts that, while rooted in the past, seem fresh and purely independent of any stylistic strangleholds. We sat down at the dba256 Gallery in Pomona (co-owned by his wife, Andi Campognone) and talked about his current artistic hang-ten (which recently garnered him the prestigious Joan Mitchell Grant), and what it takes to get on that wave: Staying true to your art.
Inland Empire Weekly: This award is huge!
Alexander Couwenberg: Yes, it’s pretty major—on the same level as the Guggenheim and the Paula Krasner. Everyone I’ve spoken to about it, their jaw drops. I was a little surprised, because everything happened so quickly.
How did you get it?
[Art critic] Peter Frank nominated me—the only way you can apply for the grant is to be nominated.
So, can my mother nominate me?
[laughs] Well, there are a select group of people who are eligible to nominate you, writers, art dealers and museum people—you have to be in a certain club that has an affiliation with the foundation. It whittles down from maybe a couple hundred to about 25 applicants and then they give out the grant and certain clumps of money. I was one of two artists in California who received the grant and it’s an amazing boost to the career, not to mention nice financially.
So what are you going to do with the money?
Well, it’s for your art career, and they want an update every six months as to how the money is benefiting that. I’m toying around with everything from fixing up my studio space to possibly publishing a vanity pressing of my work.
A coffee table book! That would be gorgeous.
Well, I want to use the money to do something beyond what I’d normally be able to do. Just about every artist has a catalogue of some sort, but to do a book that is available for people to purchase is a great promotional tool. People take you a little more seriously.
It’s a lot of work to put it together.
Yes, and I have a lot going on right now. Fortunately, Andi’s been helping with my career from day one and she’s great with all that stuff. I mean, I barely know how to check my email!
The computer is not your friend, but that’s okay—your talent is in other areas.
Yes, but it feels like I’m being forced all the time to be a part of this new stuff, and I don’t want it, you know. I’m a painter! When someone asks me for a hi-res image, or something, I’m like “let me call my wife.”
When were you finally comfortable calling yourself a painter? Did you feel you needed to earn that title?
Yes. It was only recently, like three to five years ago that I felt that I could say I was a painter, and I’ve been doing this professionally for about ten years. It took a while. While I was in school I was listening to people, trying to figure out what I was interested in, and I’m still trying to navigate what’s happening in the art world. You want to be part of that world, but to some degree, there’s a lot of bullshit out there. I stay true to what I do and my vision, and that’s what I can do. There’s a lot of good stuff out there as well. But it took me a long time to be comfortable calling myself a painter—not an artist, but a painter. There are a lot of artists . . . but not a whole lot of painters.
Do you think that a lot of what’s being produced today is driven by fad and money and not so much an independent vision?
I think we’re a period where art is so much about ideas and conceptualism that we’ve gotten away from craft and creating a product—a painting or sculpture. It’s true for a lot of things in the arts, whether it’s music, fashion, visual arts, there’s a fashion element to it—what’s hip, what’s happening right now. A lot of people tap into it. The people that I hang out with, they make what they make. It could be that whatever they make isn’t in style, but they still do it. Like the man I studied with, Karl Benjamin—he’s been making his stuff since the ’50s and ’60s. He stayed true to his style and his time has finally come.
But Mod is huge now—and you’re benefiting from that. Do you worry that in a few years, if Rockwell paintings are the rage you’ll be out?
[laughs] That doesn’t worry me. I just stay with what I do. I don’t do it because it’s fashionable. If you look at my work ten years ago, you can see the roots of what I do. I don’t think my work has jumped around too much. It’s one thing to be conscious of pushing the envelope and trying something new—I mean things have been redone and rehashed so many times the idea of making something new is so rare. I’m certainly not saying that anything I’m doing is groundbreaking on any level, but I think just keeping your vision is important.
Putting a twist and your own stamp on something that maybe people have already seen?
Yes. I mean Modern definitely refers to a certain period that holds a place in time, but what are you doing with that period now? How are you going to switch it around?
You don’t adhere to the perfect model of Mid-Century Modern, though.
I think that’s the idea. Along with that there are other influences that inspire me—as much as my paintings are Finish Fetish oriented, I look at Pollack paintings and some abstract expressionists and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. So, I’m trying to merge all of these influences and see what comes out. A lot of my experience is the SoCal experience of mid-century design, the surfboard culture, the hot-rod culture—all those things are evident in my paintings and I think they’re starting to develop a voice.
What does it take to sustain a career that you really want?
Well, I teach art at a high school [Etiwanda] as well, and I enjoy it—it’s an extension of being an artist. It’s part of your responsibility to make something thought provoking and my idea as an educator is to bring that to the classroom and actually teach people in a formal setting. I mean, it’s not perfect, dealing with high school kids, but I really enjoy it for the most part. But of course, I wish my job could just be to be a painter.
That’s the ultimate.
Yeah, but when paintings aren’t selling! Fortunately, I’ve been having a lot of solo and group shows and a number of commissions. It’s all about figuring out where you belong in the art world. But there’s also this weird thing that if you sell too much, you’re a sell out! If you have paintings in a hotel, then you’re not hi-art.
You can’t win!
Right, and I’m like “screw you guys, I have to make a living!” I have four kids and a wife who just opened up a gallery—so it’s all about juggling it around.
Well, you need at least one person to bring home the bacon.
Exactly. It’s nice that you want to go out there and move paint around and fool around and say how great you are, but what does it really mean when the electric bill comes? It’s a very hard thing. I’ve got little mouths to feed. But what do you do? Quit? I think if you’re really passionate about what you do, you’ll figure out a way to do it. It’s been a pretty cool journey so far. I think I’m moving in the right direction.
Alexander Couwenberg currently shows at Katherine Markel Fine Arts in New York City, Modern Masters Fine Art in Palm Desert and the Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach. For more info, check out: www.couwenbergfinearts.com