A painting really only has two parts: a film of coloured slurry and whatever surface it's applied to. Until relatively recent times, the "support"-- sometimes a panel or a plaster wall but usually stretched fabric, sometimes linen or black velvet but usually canvas -- wasn't given much attention. It was there to hold the imagery, meant to disappear behind layers of gesso and paint, sealed off at the edges with a decorative frame.
Once photography became the default means of making images, however, artists grew more attentive to paintings' status as unique, physical objects, and as a result the "support" took on a more prominent role. Starting in the 19th century, painters began working directly on unprimed canvas, letting the weave of the fabric show through. Later, in works ranging from Ellsworth Kelly's irregularly shaped monochromes to Lucio Fontana's slashed canvases and Sam Gilliam's un-stretched, draped, and folded paintings, paint itself would be co-star at best, if it even made an appearance.
Hélène Brunet Neumann, whose exhibition Undulations opened at the CCFM last month, picks up on this long-developing trend, working at the intersection of painting, sculpture and fibre arts. Her primary medium: stretched canvas.
Neumann literally deconstructs her material, teasing out individual threads that skim across the surface of the work like drawn lines, accumulate in matted clumps, or hang in loose cascades. She painstakingly hand-colours individual strands, tacking them down with paint or stitching them back into the fabric. She slashes and sutures stretched canvases, presenting them singly or in pairs and clusters, bridging the gaps between them with lianas of unruly thread.
While favouring formally spare abstraction, Neumann flirts with imagery here and there. Certain threads become kite-strings, cocoons, or bits of nests. Consistent with established veins of abstract painting, other works more vaguely suggest landscapes, maps and biological structures. An odd little pair, Universe 1 and 2, consist of frenetic embroidered "action" lines buzzing around central masses of loose, dark brush-strokes. They could be embryonic forms of one of Lee Bontecou's steel-frame and stitched-canvas assemblages from the 1950s, with their soot-blackened "holes" that seem to go on forever.
More than anything, though, the work is playful, even insistently so (on one canvas, a thread breaks into a loping cursive, instructing us, "amuse-toi bien pour toujours," "have fun forever"). The work is fun to look at, and it looks like it was fun to make.
Beyond painting, Neumann's use of fabric and fibre bring to mind traditions of tapestry and needlework, but her process might more strongly evoke grade school art classes spent gluing bits of yarn to pieces of construction paper. This "childlike" technique and sensibility gives the most compelling pieces -- larger, sparer canvases with distinct passages and ample breathing room -- a vibrant, liberated quality with nods to Cy Twombly's (magnificent) scribble-scrabble paintings. On a smaller scale, unfortunately, the same technique occasionally yields results more closely resembling the generic "wall art" sold at furniture stores.
Neumann matches her considerable formal ingenuity with a strong decorative sense. Taken alongside her inventive reimagining of familiar materials and her close engagement with various strains of art history, the result is work (all of which is for sale) that a wide range of audiences should find approachable and engaging. Undulations runs through the end of the month.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.