Interview with Laura Courtney
Landscapes and abstractions by the Australian painter Laura Courtney are always imbued with light that provides hope for a restless, wandering soul or augurs a mystical revelation. Such a dazzling motif becomes clear, when looking at the artist’s background: learning and teaching meditation consumed 20 years of Courtney’s adult life, which has contributed to the formation of her highly thoughtful, intuitive painting manner thereafter. In the interview with Art Dealer Street Laura Courtney shared about the stages of her life and creative path, tastes in painting, beloved artistic mediums, and the things she just can’t do without.
“Transcendence may come in a fleeting moment, yet it is often that moment that you think about later and make a picture from” — Laura Courtney
Primavera, 2021, oil and wax on board, 140 x 100 cm © Laura Courtney
Laura, your way of life surprises a lot. You’ve spent 20 years learning and teaching meditation, after which you delved into painting. Before going into Transcendental Meditation, you also studied Fashion in Sydney. That decision of yours to become a painter, was it a kind of epiphany you had during your spiritual practices or there was a background for it?
I was very creative as a child and encouraged by my father who is an architect and a painter. I knew that one day I would pick up the creative life and in retrospect, I am glad I put my spiritual life first because it gave me a profound and disciplined foundation to create from.
Born to an American mother in Australia, you’ve spent a great deal of time both in Sydney and in the USA, currently residing in France. You say in your blog, each time you feel completely at home. Can you please tell us a bit more about your understanding of that sense of home and the way the latter affects your painting?
The first time I visited NYC with my mother when I was 14 years old, I told her I was going to live there and within months of graduating high school I left for New York. It was an affirming experience and that year taught me to trust my instincts when a place calls you in a powerful way as it usually yields many interesting connections. I feel that way about Paris, which has been home for me since 2018.
It’s not down on any map, true places never are, 2020, oil and wax on diptych board, 55 x 39 cm © Laura Courtney
Are there any locations on your map you consider the place of power? The ones you keep coming back to (either physically or just in thought), which are inevitably imprinted in your art?
Meditation has been such a huge part of my life with 30+ years of consistent practice and teaching, so the place I revisit is best described as anything that is transcendental in nature, whether it be through meditation, music or some breathtaking visual moment, especially, in the natural world. Transcendence may come in a fleeting moment, yet it is that moment that you think about later and make a picture from. Like photographers, painters are preservationists who record a moment or a feeling in time, figuratively or in the abstract.
So now we directly come to your oeuvre. Your previous works (early 2010s) were, for the most part, representational landscapes, while recently you’ve switched to abstraction, replenishing your works with significantly fewer figurative elements. Do you think that shift from figurative to abstract painting is a natural process for an artist; otherwise, how did it happen for you?
I do not think you can predict what direction an artist might head. I started painting as a traditional oil landscape painter. I made a change after feeling my work had become too rigid, realizing that I was relying too heavily on photographs to complete bodies of work quickly for 6 years of consecutive solo shows. I still paint in a traditional way with turpentine and stand oil, but it’s a very different world one is creating. Nowadays if a work does not go to plan, it may often be the idea is better suited to a thinly painted picture with little or no wax like the current small works on a solid copper plate that I am doing based on monuments and myths.
The nightwatch, 2011, oil on board, 47 x 21 cm © Laura Courtney
While watching your earlier paintings, I found myself thinking of works by Paula Rego and even a bit of Giorgio de Chirico’s art, and all because of the inexplicable feeling of suspense that the canvases smell of. Your new body of work ‘Unravelling Mythologies’ retains the enigma, yet it seems to be free of that sense of uneasiness as though the works were imbued with light. Do you acknowledge any artistic influence at different stages of your creative path?
My first art crushes were the works by Australian landscape painters Philip Wolfhagen and Rick Amor. Among my early works you will primarily see some high contrast, sombre, imagined landscapes with solitary figures moving through the scene, almost always turned away from the viewer. When I began painting the built environment, I was mad about Edward Hopper, and yes, de Chirico has been a great influence since I was young. While painting interiors, objects and the female figure, I turned to the English painter William Nicholson and Jan Vermeer. For my recent painting Leda and the Swan, I had been to Amsterdam and was looking a lot at the etching landscapes of Rembrandt, alongside the figurative works of Gerhard Richter and Boris Mikhailov, and studying Greek Myth. I find myself regularly ‘in conversation’ with some painter, past or present. The call and response between artists is one of the greatest hooks into why one makes art.
You’ve preferred using cold wax in painting for a while. I found it interesting the way you describe it, “With wax itself as my muse my work evolves more towards abstraction”. To your mind, what is so special about wax as an artistic medium and why do you find it superior to other means?
Wax is not for everyone. Cold wax is predominantly used by abstract painters because the medium lends itself to a process-driven approach to painting: the more layers you have, the richer and more substantial the finished work will most likely be. Applying layers directly, combined with scraping back into previous layers adds to the complexity and the effects arising therefrom, yet it’s equally important to work with the wax and see what is emerging. Sometimes it’s a rough, darkly stained or patterned area in the wax that is evocative of a piece of the landscape. Likewise, I may recall a study or a long-held motif, and so the picture comes to a conclusion.
All in a hot and copper sky, the bloody sun at noon, 2021, oil on copper plate, 6 x 6 cm © Laura Courtney
In your blog you mention you appreciate a fully resolved study before beginning a painting a lot. What may such a study consist of? Can you imagine entering into the creative process, having no idea about the subject of your work. You know, like trusting your gut feeling and improvising…
I work both ways. Using wax is mostly pure improvisation and abandon. Whereas a fully resolved study comes out of sketching ideas and fuels the imagination to put different elements together: a part of a dream, a bit of architecture, a tree or a cloud or some ancient piece of statuary you see one day with notes one has made about the tone and the colour of the sky. It’s a pleasure to paint from a fully resolved composition, which benefits certain genres and the kind of picture you want to make.
What role does the color play in your practice?
Colour is as important to me as any elements of painting are and more often, I consider colour a driver. The push and pull of colour is limitless. Currently I am interested in using a highly restricted palette of no more than 3 hues and one version of a white — unbleached Titanium, Asphaltum, Carmine deep, and Pthalo green are recent favourites.
La Republique, 23 x 17 cm, oil on copper © Laura Courtney
And in closing, what are you looking forward to as an artist in the near term? Any places to visit, things to comprehend, ideas to bring to life?
Along with travelling, being in the natural world is the thing that feeds me most. Just driving looking at endless trees and clouds and the sky. I love a road trip and it’s one of the things I’m hoping to get back to this year. The proximity to so many landscapes and cultures is the main reason for me being in Europe. I’m doing some studio visits with curators via Zoom, which is a great new way to showcase art under coronavirus restrictions. Meanwhile, I am completing the body of work for my first show in Europe and looking forward to seeing what will come out of it.
Learn more about Laura Courtney and her body of work from the artist’s website: lauracourtney.com
On the cover: artist Laura Courtney in her Paris studio, March 2021. Courtesy of Laura Courtney