An Interview with Melanie Authier

Photo: Julia Martin

Canadian artist Melanie Authier deliberately seeks out chaos, conflict and contradictions as fodder for her abstract paintings. The results are what she calls “a brimming jostle of pictorial oppositions,” which are immediately engaging, yet surprisingly calm and reflective.

Born in Montreal in 1980, Authier earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Concordia University (2002) and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Guelph (2006). Authier is now based in Ottawa, where she has a studio practice and teaches painting at the University of Ottawa. Her work can be found in numerous national and international collections — including the National Gallery of Canada, where she also participated in Builders: Canadian Biennial (2012).

The new touring exhibition, Contrarieties and Counterpoints: Recent Paintings by Melanie Authier — on view at the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) until January 2, 2017 — features a dazzling array of Authier’s works. The exhibition has been hung with canvases next to works on paper, and grisaille next to highly saturated colour, creating, as the artist has noted, “some interesting visual dialogues.” Although billed as a presentation of Authier’s recent work, the exhibition explores many of her processes and artistic preoccupations, turning the show, by the artist’s own admission, into an unintended overview of her practice.

In this interview, Authier discusses painting, the power of gesture, and why she likes solving problems on canvas.  


NGC Magazine: You talk about employing visual contradictions in your work. What do you mean by that?

Melanie Authier: There are so many visual elements that painting as a medium offers: line/gesture, colour, texture (or the illusion thereof), and shape. These can all be manipulated to play out in a variety of ways. I am interested in juggling all these elements so that they can contrast with one another and interact in unexpected ways. With every painting, my aim is to accomplish a sense of unfathomable space as a result of this jostle of visual language.

NGCM: It sounds as if this approach may be the epitome of the phrase, “opposites attract.”

MA: Yes! Although, I don’t know if it is as much about attraction as it is about setting each other off. Creating visual tension is of great interest to me. I think a lot about the contextualization of a mark or colour. For example, a seemingly “natural” colour can take on a disproportionately neon quality when set off against an adequately muted tone. 

NGCM: In terms of your creative process, how do you approach starting a new painting, and do you have an aim in mind from the beginning?

MA: Both, in fact. I never work from source imagery. Rather, I start with a certain type of space in mind: one often associated with landscape. The faint memory of a cavernous space will then get filtered through my abstract visual language. That being said, the instant a mark or form is laid down on the canvas, I engage in what is often referred to as a “question-and-answer” scenario, in which every subsequent form or mark responds to the previous, and the building-up and layering process that follows definitely relies on a certain amount of foresight. I think this is most evident in my recent works on paper. With these, it is important to retain certain areas of the pure white of the paper throughout the entire process. This allows the paper to present itself as background, while being framed by visual content in a way that simultaneously allows this same background white to present itself as forms that leap towards the surface.

Melanie Authier, Ground-Seeker (2015), acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 182.9 cm. Photo: Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects

NGCM: What do you find happens along the way?

MA: With each painting, I am interested in setting up parameters/rules for myself to play within. I set up a challenge between myself and the canvas from the get-go. This generally involves a colour I am not particularly drawn to or, with the black and white grisailles, the lack of colour. I find beginning this way ultimately traps traces of this struggle, or a specific “energy,” within the work. The fast drying time of acrylic also means that I can have a quick response time from one layer to the next, so that also links to the read of velocity. A gesture has the capacity to tell a viewer so much about the work. Especially with my broad, sweeping gestures, there is a direct relationship between the mark and the scale of my body: the action of my arm reaching and traveling through space. In a sense, all my painterly marks are traces of the speed: the applied pressure, the angle, and the twist of the brush. Each variation of mark plays a different role. Every mark and form is the result of a series of compositional and formal decisions, built up and interwoven to create a sense of depth, and encourage a Baroque space.

NGCM: Your abstract paintings are at once controlled, with straight lines and hard edges, but then they also include soft gestures and muted tones, paired with explosions of bright colours and splashes of light. Are you deliberately setting up a conflict between yourself and the canvas, then again between what is happening on the canvas?

MA: Absolutely. I try to begin each painting with a challenge to myself. I try to go against my normal predilections. I try to override my first impulses in order to avoid falling into a formulaic, predictable, repeatable answer. Of course, this gets more difficult the more you paint. Painting is not a science. A solution to one painting is not transferrable to another. This challenge can take the form of using a colour that is unfamiliar, or perhaps a colour to which I have an aversion. This can also include placing a form in an awkward compositional scenario. I enjoy doing something counter-intuitive so that I have to generate a certain level of inventiveness in order to respond to it. My husband and studio mate Martin Golland has made the observation that I enjoy setting fires in order to put them out. I attempt to set up parameters that will force me to paint myself into a corner, so that I can in turn paint my way back out.

Melanie Authier, Assembly of Deliriums (2015), Quartet Installation, acrylic on canvas, 213.4 x 548.6 cm. Photo: Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects

NGCM: Can you explain the benefit of this approach for you as an artist?

MA: I find that engaging in this type of process ultimately captures a certain level of energy and dynamism in the final resolved work. I never know what I am looking for until I actually begin, so there is not necessarily the idea of an end result that I am pursuing. The agenda is always for each painting to have its own sense of individuality, so that one painting leads to, or counters, the next. Each work is a recalibration of my visual language, so in a sense the manner with which each improvisation is resolved is always a bit of a surprise. 

NGCM: Your exhibition, Contrarieties and Counterpoints: Recent Paintings by Melanie Authier is currently on view at the Ottawa Art Gallery, and is scheduled to tour Canada. Can you tell us a bit about how this exhibition came to be? How did you go about selecting the works for the show, and how do they interact?

MA: I was initially approached approximately three years ago by Carl Lavoy, then-Director of the Thames Art Gallery in Chatham, Ontario. He invited me to do a solo exhibition and asked if I would be interested in touring the exhibition. We then approached Robert Enright (Canadian journalist, art writer, academic and the founding editor of the quarterly art magazine, Border Crossings) about writing a text for the accompanying catalogue, and he generously agreed to be guest curator of the exhibition. Robert was my professor at the University of Guelph. He has always been very encouraging and supportive of my work, and has followed my art career for the past ten years. He has seen my paintings evolve, and has a very strong understanding of the work.

NGCM: What do you like about how he approached hanging your show?

MA: Prior to this exhibition, my works on paper had only been shown once alongside my canvas works, and even then they were in their own area of the gallery. The idea of hanging the works on paper intermixed with the paintings is a first, and I think it has created some very interesting visual dialogues. Along the same line, the grisailles and high-chroma works are also intermixed, so in a sense this exhibition is a true overview of the various tangents of my practice.

NGCM: What would you say are the dichotomies in Contrarieties and Counterpoints?

MA: Each painting presents a perpetual play between chaos and control, the synthetic and the organic, the technological and the natural, flatness and depth, the atmospheric and the geological, the sublime and the everyday. However, I would say that the idea of a counterpoint speaks to the inter-dialogue between works: the way the visual language gets shifted and recalibrated from one work to the next.

Melanie Authier, Beneath the spin light (2016), acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 182.9 cm. Photo: Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects

NGCM: One of your works in the national collection is Spine Walk (2012). It is a torrent of strong colours, but movement also seems to be very important in this painting. In what way was this painting a departure or creative stretch for you?

MA: I dedicated myself to the vertical orientation of that piece at a time when I was predominantly focused on horizontal paintings. Also, the inherent vortex that spirals upward in the painting was an interesting challenge: the idea that the forms were unfurling within themselves and moving upward simultaneously. The chief premise of this piece was a negotiation of extremes: dark solidity meeting a light-filled ascension. The angular, rough-hewn abstract formations in the bottom left side of the painting dissolve into the bright altitude at the upper part of the composition. As viewers follow that movement through the composition, they discover that the skeletal structure of the painting is based upon a helix-type movement that spirals upwards: a Baroque movement through space.

NGCM: Is it apt to say that your paintings fall somewhere between dreamscape and landscape?

MA: My work is situated firmly in abstraction: its history, evolution, and its manifestation as biomorphic, geometric, gestural, and so on. I also utilize various paint strategies of so-called representation. I don’t see representation and abstraction as binaries at either end of a linear spectrum. Rather, I see it all as fair game in creating my particular amalgam of paint vocabularies. Each painting is an imaginary space created through a free-form improvisation.

Each painting is also very much a conversation between myself and the unfolding of what is happening on the surface of the canvas or paper, but it is also about the contrasts of daily life: the mundane, the anti-sublime versus the moments that take your breath away. Incidental encounters and snippets of visual experience catch my attention: the wine glass that slips from a hand, smashing against the tiled floor, the perfect bulls-eye. You see it shatter as the pieces scatter, refracting light, reflecting transparent red. When I’m painting, I recall the texture of water, its erratic patterns, ranges of intensity; the sharp edge of the sun’s glare in the studio; the darkness that creeps into the painted road lines when travelling; the blur from the concentrated grime. These types of encounters inform what then unfolds in paint.

NGCM: Why is acrylic paint your preferred medium? 

MA: In thinking about the long tradition of painting, acrylic is the medium of modernity, of speed, artificiality. Its inherent synthetic properties are an important contrast to the connotations of natural phenomena in the work. I love describing my use of acrylic as having my cake and eating it, too. Acrylic allows for a fast drying time that is very helpful for getting crisp edges, and for a quick response time from one mark or form to the next; but with the use of mediums, one can also achieve the blending and blurring more generally associated with oil paint.

NGCM: What new projects are you working on? What is the next challenge for you as a painter?

MA: I spent the summer in Spain. I was predominantly based in Madrid, where I had the opportunity to regularly visit the Museo Reina Sofia and the Prado. I spent time looking at Spanish mid-century abstractionists, and works from the Baroque era — Ribera, El Greco, Rubens. During this time, I completed a new body of works on paper. Now that I’m home, it will be interesting to see how the afterburn of these visual experiences influences my subsequent paintings. 

NGCM: What advice would you give to an emerging artist?

MA: Practice like crazy. Work hard in the studio, experiment, and don’t wait for the work or opportunity to find you; work to find it for yourself. Try not to worry about what other artists are doing. It is important to be aware of what is happening in the art world around you, but chasing trends is not going to help you find your own voice.

For a full list of touring dates and locations for Contrarieties & Counterpoints: Recent Paintings by Melanie Authier please click here.

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