Holly Coulis is a painter living in Athens, Georgia and recently had a solo exhibition of new work titled Table Studies at the Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery in New York. Coulis has been known for radiant, patterned and delicately worked surfaces comprising bodies and objects in landscapes or tablescapes. Her more recent work has been skirting away from defined figuration into paired down yet scintillating objects on tables. Her current paintings illuminate the secret life of objects, reveal prismatic auras and defy easy explanations of pictorial space.
TH: When I first came upon your work at Cherry and Martin in Los Angeles, perhaps a decade ago, the work was centered around figuration; mysterious bodies and heads set into strange landscapes. However, in the past few years you've been tacking exclusively towards still life. Can you explain this shift?
HC: Oh yes, it’s true. That’s a good question. There are probably many reasons for shifting… The still life has always been an interesting genre to me. Maybe I prefer the mundane to the epic. But the accessibility of the subject matter is appealing. Most people have sat at a table with some fruit on it. Almost everyone has cups and bowls around. I like the idea that these common foods and objects can be tied to contemplation. Maybe that makes sense, because they are still. And there is reward for me in drawing simple and familiar shapes and playing with them like they are part of some geometry.
I think the shift happened fairly gradually, with detail and pattern disappearing and more open, flat spaces appearing over time. The figures used to inhabit more complex worlds, and the last time I showed figurative work (at Cherry + Martin in 2015), things had started to become pared down – more solid colors, shapes, and lines. It got to the point where the backgrounds became my focus – a place where there was exploration. And really, in that body of work, I feel like the faces were part of still lifes, in a way – positioned beside a cat or a stack of lemons.
TH: Your work has become decidedly more minimal, some of it veering into abstraction. What is your current thinking behind the draining of content and focusing largely on shape and color?
HC: Well, I suppose I don’t think that representation is the only link to content. For me, there is what the painting (or any artwork) is telling you it’s about: a queen, war, an idea, an abstraction; and then there’s an underlying, and maybe more important aspect of the work. Poetry enters the interpretation and I always enjoy that part more.
Back to your question about my work specifically and this show at Klaus von Nichtssagend… Probably it was just a natural shift. The more I worked, the closer I moved to what I’m doing now. And it will no doubt shift again as I continue to work. It took time to give myself permission to make more space in my work and to give in to the elements of making that were more joyful or playful to me. Maybe it took a while to figure out what those things even were. Color and shapes are crucial for sure. It’s a funny thing, it’s almost like a very slow self-psychoanalysis. But yes, I love the way color combinations can reach certain vibrations or energies. And the way shapes can function together like an answer to a puzzle. Abstraction is interesting to me, although I do still have a foot firmly planted in representation – they are still life paintings, after all. That accessibility is important to me.
TH: There are salient features to your still life paintings now, mainly a vibrating or fuzzy outline. Can you speak about the use of the outline and how it delineates objects and space?
HC: Of course. One of the things painters must contend with (and something I always admire and look for in paintings) is the edge – where one object or color meets another. How the paint melds or separates, etc. etc. I started to think more about this and the individual energies that objects have. You know, are things touching or not touching – at a molecular level, even. I hope the paintings encapsulate the idea of that tiny distance and energy that is happening between the stillest objects.
TH: Speaking of space, the perspective in your paintings is strange, almost medieval, as if you were channeling an intuitive perspective. How do you approach the organization of space in a picture plane?
HC: I think it’s pretty simple for me. Maybe most artists make their own rules about what can be and what cannot be in their paintings. It’s a narrowing of parameters to focus on certain aspects of painting. And one of the things I decided was that the picture plane (table top) could bend to show the still life in a way that is best for the objects and for the image. Also, I think we see things in ways that are different from how a camera might perceive things. A camera is even. Maybe people tend to focus on certain things, making them seem larger or differently shaped. The few times I’ve taught perspective to students has made this seem more obvious to me. I don’t really feel too beholden to a true perspective.
TH: Your paintings clearly owe some debt to Morandi - they’re almost as if he lived to become a pop artist! What aspects of Morandi's still lives do you feel resonate?
HC: Morandi is my favorite painter. (Along with Gary Hume.) For many reasons. I love that he took everyday objects and made them resonate in a spiritual sense. The shimmer, breathe, huddle, fade… Recently at the Centre for Italian Modern Art on Broome St in NY, I took a guided tour by a wonderful Italian art history student. I learned that he had objects fabricated, painted glass bottles so that they would be the color he wanted them to be, and most wonderfully, that he let dust settle on the objects so that he could paint that too. The level of commitment, concentration and ability to find an unsettling beauty in these objects is mind-bending to me. I feel like he allows a profound humanism and meditative stillness to emerge from his paintings.
TH: So you've moved from New York to Georgia. Can you talk about the fears, drawbacks, joys and benefits of moving out of the city?
HC: Oh boy. There’s a can of worms. Let’s start with the joys. Space! There is a lot more space in Athens. The sky seems bigger, I notice the light more. My studio is definitely bigger, although I am still huddling with my paintings in the corner. My goal is to spread out and step back. It’s also a lot quieter. This can be both a joy and a fear. Sometimes, I think: Where is everybody?? But it’s also pleasant to embrace that quiet and acknowledge it. I feel like I have more time here – also both a fear and a joy. NY can take up all of your time. It sort of propels you along. I feel I have to be more proactive here.
Briefly, I miss friends (and New Yorkers in general) and seeing art. And the food in NY is better – that goes without saying. But I don’t miss the subway or the congestion.
TH: Do you have a certain quote or quip from an artist you admire that regularly inspires you?
HC: Hmmm. Well, at the risk of being cliché, I will give this quotation from Picasso. As I get older, I think about this a lot. Life is long, and I’m not sure what I would do without art. And without its influence on my daily life.
“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”
Exclusive interview conducted by Timothy Hull for Aujourd'hui.
Images courtesy of the artist and Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery.