By Stacy Davies
One of the things that often enhances the understanding of art is knowing a bit about the artist’s process. In fact, it’s probably why I own the book, Why I Write by George Orwell, and not because I have hopes of becoming the 1984 icon, but because it’s always a kick to know a bit about what makes an artist tick.
When it comes to visual arts, knowing how and why an image is created are standard questions in the minds of most viewers and sometimes difficult for the artist himself to explain. Abstract art is even more visceral, of course, and anyone familiar with the contemporary abstractionist Alex Couwenberg knows that this particular artist usually keeps his process to himself and chatter to a minimum. He’s a minimalist painter, after all.
Recently, however, Couwenberg and his wife, curator Andi Campognone, sat down to survey over 200 photos snapped by Couwenberg during his various travels to New York and Hawaii, and his days just kicking around his Pomona neighborhood. They selected almost two dozen, all of which star Pomona, and decided to put a show together.
The photos are high quality, and exceptionally composed, but Couwenberg is quick to point out that he is no professional photographer and that these are merely images that inform his art.
“These photos aren’t meant to save the world,” he says. “They’re nothing more than snapshots of visual composition that I found interesting. They translate a lot to my paintings, in terms of how I look at space and shape and how I arrange space visually; it’s another medium that I use in my thinking process.”
The show is “One Block Over,” at Cooper Johnson’s The Dark Room lounge above New York Delight Deli, and the images are mainly of sliding doors at loading docs, archways and segments of walls featuring various textures, color and graffiti. They are rough in composition and gritty, and sometimes in silhouette, such as a shot of the tops of a chain link fence at dusk.
Couwenberg’s paintings, on the other hand, are smooth and slick, often light in hue and with no broken or frayed edges. Clearly, the photograph is not the exact model for any of his work, but merely an image that sparks ideas, resulting in a product quite unlike the thing from which it was derived.
“I get in these modes where I’ll find doorways or windows and compositionally, there’s a connection between all of these things when you line them up, and then I figure out how they work with the space arrangements. Some of them end up working and some don’t. But it’s all in the moment. Some go into a file drawer for later use, others are deleted on the spot.”
Being able to toss out anything that doesn’t immediately work for his eye is a product of our modern age, he notes, and all of these photographs were taken on an iPhone. There was no set-up to the shots, no pre-planning, so special equipment or mental decision to go out and find subject matter. They happened in a small moment of recognition, and using the only tool he carries with him other than his brain—a phone, which he jokes is a very “punk rock” way to take an art photo.
Whatever the inclination for the show, the fact is that all of these photos not only reveal a part of his process, but they’re actually good photos, too. How they end up transforming so completely into something else will always remain elusive—except to Couwenberg, of course—but for a moment, we’re allowed a mini ride-a-long through the jarring and disjointed moments of inspiration that eventually piece together into a solid idea, and it’s a trip worth taking.
“One Block Over” at The Dark Room, 310 S. Thomas St., Pomona, (909) 868-6518. Call for hours. Free.