Pierre Coupey, Cutting Out the Tongue: Selected Work 1976-2012, at the West Vancouver Museum until April 27. Artist talk March 23, 2-3 p.m.
PAINTINGS evoking war, torture, and dead poets hang on the walls.
Artist Pierre Coupey stands in the centre of the West Vancouver Museum, preparing to discuss the greed, treachery, and violence that colour much of his work, but before that can happen, he has to get a smartphone to work.
The museum is hoping to record some of Coupey's insights and opinions in advance of a March 23 artist talk, but so far the iPhone is proving an obdurate adversary.
"They told me I had a recording function on this, but where or how, I don't know," Coupey says. "Would it be in utilities?"
It does not seem to be in utilities. The gallery's assistant curator Kiriko Watanabe suggests Voice Memo. Coupey regards the phone and smiles.
"You are a genius. Bless you, child," he says. Scrutinizing a tiny cellphone screen while surrounded by artwork is somehow fitting for Coupey as the West Vancouver artist often creates two distinct works simultaneously.
"You get interesting combinations, the purpose being to find out what you don't already know, to get something unexpected," he explains.
The unexpected, reversals and accidents are Coupey's treasures, something he strives to find from the confines of his 600-square foot Sentinel Hill studio.
"For me, the ideal studio would be me, the radio, the painting table, one wall, the canvas. That's all. Nothing else," he says.
The radio, generally tuned to CBC, is a crucial tool for Coupey, rupturing his isolation and funneling political upheaval into an otherwise serene environment.
"Israel's invasion of Lebanon and the American invasion of Iraq, and the American's so-called war on terror," he says, discussing his inspiration for his paintings Rig and White Chair.
On first glance, White Chair resembles snowflakes slowly melting on a windowpane. But with a closer look sharp lines emerge and the snowflakes streak like bad graffiti.
"The chair is in effect, the chair where people are interrogated and tortured. The White Chair is in a sense that white scream of pain that I imagine people must experience when they're in that situation. I have been locked up blindfolded in a closet without water," Coupey says. "Of course, I'm a wuss. I break very easily, and it sure broke me very fast."
Asked when he was detained, Coupey offers a fraternal smile and declines.
"We won't even talk about it," he says, laughing.
Painted in rich browns and deep blacks using copper and a tar-like material called asphaltum, Rig is seemingly less ambiguous. Straight lines cut through amorphous shapes to form an oil derrick, but the right set of eyes might also observe a painter's easel.
"There's always an ironic complicity," Coupey says, discussing his support of, and scorn for, the oil industry.
"I drive a car. . . . . Our lives are rigged by the oil industry and our dependence upon it," he says. "So much of what we benefit from here in our peace and calm and serenity in the beauty of West Vancouver, is unfortunately dependent on violence occurring elsewhere."
The two paintings, both composed in oil, were painted in tandem. "Usually when I'm working on paper I'm doing two at a time because very often I will lift colour from one paper and imprint it on the other," he says.
Despite earning a master's degree in creative writing from the University of B.C. Coupey is strictly a former writer.
"I really did ultimately decide: 'I don't have to write anymore. I'm going to focus my energy on painting,'" he says.
As a writer he was technically adept. As a painter he scribbles letters and blurs words. "My paintings still, all of them, really do refer to literature and to poets and derive from that world," he says, discussing his work Lorca's Bones.
Federico Garcia Lorca was a poet, a proper gypsy who wrote about parchment moons and orange souls. Fascist soldiers killed him in Granada at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
Lorca's Bones brings to mind black blood leaking from gunshot wounds. "That tragic bout of violence where a democratically-elected government," Coupey says, pausing to laugh at the insensibility of it all, "gets overthrown by a fascist coup."
The painting, like many of Coupey's works, is dedicated to San Francisco poet and Simon Fraser University professor Robin Blaser.
"I felt instinctively that there was some connection between Blaser and Lorca," Coupey says. "I didn't learn until much later from his partner, his surviving partner, that in the last few years before Robin Blaser got ill and died, he had been working on a major work on Federico Garcia Lorca. . . . I didn't know that, but sometimes these things happen by magic and you're in tune with something."
Coupey ruminated on the two poets during a trip to Andalusia, Spain. "At the time that we were in Granada, there was a push on in order to find and exhume Lorca's bones," Coupey says.
Despite a two-month excavation, Lorca's remains were not unearthed.
"There's a sense in which poetry is the dead speaking to us. Shakespeare's dead, but he's alive," Coupey says. "Lorca still speaks to us, Blaser still speaks to us."
Coupey's exhibition, which is split between West Vancouver and Coquitlam's Evergreen Cultural Centre, is called Cutting Out the Tongue. "The irony is that I'm talking a blue streak," Coupey says with a laugh. "It is really stupid, and my brother gave me shit for it."
The title is a reference to French artist Henri Matisse's often-repeated philosophy: "He who wants to dedicate himself to painting should start by cutting out his tongue."
"That's why I don't like writing artist statements because that's in effect, proclaiming to everyone: 'That's what it's all about, and I know what it's all about, and now you know what it's all about, and so we can all go home and sleep or turn on the TV,'" Coupey says.
An artist's statement can be intriguing, but they should always be met with skepticism, according to Coupey.
"Don't necessarily trust what I have to say about my own work or what any artist has to say about their own work.
Never let that become a substitute for your own understanding and perception," he says. "Maybe he doesn't know. Maybe she doesn't know. Maybe I don't know what I'm doing. You know what I mean? There are things that go beyond your intentions and beyond what you know."
Coupey paints the entire surface with each session, creating works with nine or 10 layers beneath what you can see.
In some instances, words are buried in the sub-surface layers. With Isola San Michele I, scrawled letters cover the painting, flirting with legibility.
The painting is part of a series of works inspired by Coupey's trip to the island on the Venetian lagoon.
At the request of poet Duncan McNaughton, Coupey travelled to the island's cemetery in the hopes of placing pebbles on the graves of composer Igor Stravinsky, ballet patron Sergei Diaghilev, and poet Ezra Pound.
"Diaghilev and Stravinsky were easy to find because, being Catholics, they were in a very well-maintained area of this vast cemetery. Pound, having been a Protestant, was in the section that was reserved for, essentially, unbelievers, infidels. It was in disrepair and decay," Coupey recounts.
Despite far-reaching influences, Coupey's painting technique is rooted to the pre-gentrification days of Lower Lonsdale and the crack of the pool balls at Max Billiards.
"There's a certain kind of blindness in my approach to painting. . . . The best pool players, it's a question of aligning your body entirely in relation to the cue ball, and you don't even look at the pocket," he says.
"It's all in the proprioception motion of the arm and the hand the perfection of your body's relationship to making that stroke. The same thing with a brush stroke."