10.11.2006

Holly Coulis, Literary Painter, Ghost Whisperer



Painter Paparazzi visited Holly Coulis, in her studio, a Brooklyn artist who has shown at LFL gallery with Dana Schutz (though she's not represented by Zach).

Her new work is looking magnifique, traditional figurative portraits in fake-looking indoor and outdoor settings, often with animals, or illustrating narrative. It feels both theatrical and literary, in that it poses stories, complete with characters, backdrops, scenery, props, and staging. These figures have x-shaped tape marks on the floor where they should stand.

Reviewers have likened the characters of her peers, like Ridley Howard to those of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like Coulis' stand-ins, they are richy types, with riding gear, motor boats, fields of poppies, spoiled pets, and grand pianos. But, they seem like pawns in someone else's gambling spree.

I wonder about the audience for paintings like this. Is she trying to paint for extremely wealthy collectors, who will relate well to her subjects? I think there may be more than just a J. Crew catalog in paint here, more richness than just luxury, but I'm not sure.

I find beauty in her voyeurism, pure aesthetically pleasing beauty, and sympathy with simple curves of the body, the wings of collar bones, and how they land below the neck, the absence of a stiff joint at the elbow, the humility of a high-waisted pant. Some of Coulis' earlier work emits a sense of peaceful coexistence with nature and survival among animals, because of the animals, for animals, or by exploitation, particularly in her painting of a fur-collared woman (The Russians) with bears, no idiot grizzly man in those heels. Does the Russian simply love bears, or are the bears puppets in her hands? Is she in hiding? Did she steal that coat? Is it wiretapped?

I want to see Coulis paint blood spilled by Napoleon, but I can't find the Napoleon paintings on line. Things are far from risky with the riding boots boys, though the curves of their torsos seem to suggest a fondness for horse sweat. The fact that a still image invokes ghosts of the oral tradition, or the written mystery, creepy and nostalgic at the same time, speaks volumes about their ability to chatter and ramble freely. Some of her recent work has the feel of an Henri Rousseau, an impossibly calm encounter between woman and beast, a great brush of hip against flank.

Roberta Smith gave her show with Dana at LFL a fine, but somewhat disinterested review, suggesting that each of them could learn from the other, "Ms. Schutz could do with a bit of Ms. Coulis's refinement, while Ms. Coulis might benefit from some of Ms. Schutz's robustness." She gives up a few sentences to Holly's gorgeous skill with laying out a scene in cinemascope, "It makes existential sense that the figures tend to be dwarfed by their surroundings, which are gorgeously appointed and lovingly rendered with careful attention to sky, water, wallpaper and carpet."

Later, Roberta slammed her solo show, calling the work "large overly amateurish, and intimations of history." Ouch. She did bring up Alex Katz, who also came to mind when I was thinking of flatly painted pretty scenes of rich people. But, Katz's boundless flatness is so much more than that, and so is Coulis'. It's more than just a pair of new shoes and a garden of dresses, it's a liberated poodle. It's more than an escape, it's a vacation. Seriously, I don't know if I can take this work seriously or not. I think I like it. I like that it reminds me of the women of Almadovar, decked out in hazardous patterns. I'm curious though, curious about how the work holds up in person. She's a gifted painter, a silent weaver of tapestries, and well studied, illuminating even, and clearly dedicated. What more do I want? I want to know where the corpses are buried, and where the servants live, and who paid for decked-out-man and his hunting napkin.

[quotes: Roberta Smith, New York Times, Archives]
[image: Painter Paparazzi]

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