Catherine Courtenaye’s “Feathered” – oil on canvas, 30 x 35 inches.
Through free flowing, broadly laid brushstrokes and tightly penned handwriting taken from original Victorian-era documents, painter Catherine Courtenaye conveys a sense of transmission, an opening to the quiet and chaotic boundaries of what it means to be human in our society. History felt, not just seen, not just read about, Courtenaye brings with her a modern approach and deep respect for the constraints of the past.
“I have a dual interest as an artist,” she says. “One of them is the formal concerns of line, color, space and composition. And the other is history, American and art history, Americana.”
After many years of working as an artist, her attention was caught by American penmanship and the trace marks found in the margins of 19th-century ledgers and workbooks.
“I felt those little trace-marks, made from steel-nibbed pens, were a real connection to where we came from,” Countenaye says. “It also connects to my interest in line and composition and how those marks sit on a page, analogous to a large canvas.”
Courtenaye works in layers, starting with roller-thin applications of color and transparency transfers of handwriting taken from original sources. Her process of painting in layers lends itself to creating a different, but relevant history in the studio. She then works each detail until she feels something emerging, something blended, something complete.
These fragments of texts also form a comparative narrative to its contrast within 19th-century society.
“It was a time when there were so many rules and conventions followed, in some ways they were comforting and in other ways very restricting,” Courtenaye says. “Victorians were inclined to break the rules, you can see it in their doodles and stray marks on pages. There’s a lot of flourishing in Victorian penmanship, an excessiveness that comes out. I’m interested in the conflict between rules and regulations and excessive flourish and expression.”
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