Alex Couwenberg: “Left at 69’s”

at Lyons Wier Gallery

“Puako,” 2016, Alex Couwenberg, Acyrlic on canvas, 24″ x 30″
Photo: courtesy Lyons Wier Gallery

Alex Couwenberg’s unique brand of retro- futurism has always been joyful and seductive, but somehow it also keeps getting ever more complex, adding new layers and dimensions-both metaphorically and literally. Deeply felt and rigorously planned, Couwenberg’s painting is infused heart to head with a Southern California sensibility: glints of mid-century modernist design, surf culture, and car culture (the siren curves of automotive tail lights) refract through the work in its sense of formal play. The work obliquely recalls the syncopations of jazzy hard-edge painting pioneer Karl Benjamin; no coincidence, as the elder Benjamin was in fact Couwenberg’s mentor. In recent years, the two men showed together, and seemingly inspired by the pairing, the chromatic brilliance in Couwenberg’s work jumped to nearly prismatic effect. Yet if Benjamin seemed to channel jazz and bebop, Couwenberg is very much of the current moment; his work rather conjures some pulsing form of acid jazz, filtered through mind-melting electronic or digital feedback loops. Which is to say that they’re deliciously trippy, and even psychedelic, in a totally contemporary way, more so than any work so rooted in such meticulous craftsmanship and art historical analysis has a right to be. His distinctive Finish Fetish approach never ceases to dazzle; in their own individual way, each of these works is a detour into pleasurable sensory overload. One’s experience of them (as Jack Kerouac wrote so memorably about drinking tea) occurs over several stages: first negotiating the complexity of color, form and information, then confronting them, enjoying them, soaking them in, making sense of the borderline cacophony. Then, at last, venturing closer, to examine the myriad of stimulating details and juxtapositions.

Couwenberg’s newest works are noteworthy for their increasing density of layers, not just of form and textures but also at times adding architectonic perspective lines into the mix, amidst swoony juxtapositions of color. Sugar Coast (2016) starts with variations of avocado green, fragmenting into overlapping diagonal, outlined keyhole forms and striped elements: pale pinks and washy teals and dark crimsons. The Very Things (2016) offers oblong explosions atop fields of brooding brown and gray and bourbon-like amber; Tsunami Condo (2016) is pale off white, fragmenting into angled stripes and shards of jade, black cherry, pea green, and blood orange. Puako (2016) hints at the contours of some mid-century edifice amid striped forms of bright teal and tangerine pulling it in all directions, like some utopian fever dream pinned flat to the canvas.