(The following is an interview with Kim Brent about my latest series of paintings).
Andy Coughlan’s newest body of paintings — “A Crack in the World” — is being shown at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas’ Café Arts gallery though May 7.
The series goes beyond exploring that which is hidden below the surface in the world — it’s also about what is hidden beneath the surface of every artist.
It’s the inevitable next barrier to be broken, uniting what came before, what’s happening now and what may be coming in the future.
“I think if you’ve looked at my work, several people have said this is different. It is, but also not, because I’ve been on the journey all the way through, So as an artist I think the thing I’m pleased with is, each time I do something, something evolves, and I think, ‘Ooh, I like that. Let’s play more with that and let’s move,’ ” Coughlan said.
Looking back at early work done nearly 30 years ago, Coughlan envisions the next permutation of his current work incorporating some of his early stylistic elements.
“I guess as I’m getting older, I like bringing things back a little more full circle,” Coughlan said.
It’s a circle that ripples out beyond his 30 years as an exhibited artist.
His love of art started as a child.
“I always wanted to be an artist. Legend has it I watched a BBC documentary on Rembrandt when I was 8, which is kind of funny, because it would have been in black and white.”
A small black-and-white TV screen circa 1966 was hardly the proper venue to appreciate fine art, but it did the trick for Coughlan, birthing a lifelong passion for painting, in addition to his work as a writer and professor of journalism at Lamar University.
“I’m probably a better writer than I am a painter, but painting is the passion, it’s the joy. I just like doing it,” Coughlan said.
When he first started making art, “I used to do these little tiny drawings and tiny shapes and stuff which recurred throughout my work over the years.”
Coughlan’s first show was at The Art Studio Inc. in 1995.
“Typical artist, I was full of insecurities. I had a real struggle with perfectionism,” he said.
That struggle didn’t deter Coughlan from following his creative muse, which delved into abstract exploration of form and figures.
It’s a journey that led to the artist’s current series, the idea for which began several years ago.
“I read an article about planes flying over Europe, and they were seeing these indentations in the grass – like the grass was a different color and making shapes. It turned out that because of the drought, the earth was sinking slightly, and as it shrunk down, there’d be some medieval town or even an old farmhouse that was there, but because the earth was settling, it created just enough that from the sky you could see these things were under there,” he said.
One of Coughlan’s recurring themes has been history — what’s buried underneath of everything, physically and psychologically.
“Maybe that’s growing up in England, like digging up something and finding Richard III’s bones underneath a parking lot. It was just really interesting,” he said.
At the time, Coughlan was doing paintings with wax crayons and would scrape off parts, revealing layers of color and shapes lying below.
“I’d call those my excavation drawings,” he said.
After hearing the story of the changing European landscape, Coughlan envisioned a different way of exploring what lies underneath – not by digging down to it, but by building upon it, allowing it to be referenced only in cracks and layers.
“When the pandemic came along and I didn’t have to go to work, I’d start walking like 8 to 10 miles a day – streets were empty, and I’d just go walking, and I’d start looking at cracks in the pavement and cracks in the road and especially where the city had come along and filled them in with the tar,” he recalled.
One of his granddaughters joining him on the walk-abouts said, “ ‘Ooh, that looks like your drawings,’ Then I started looking at them and thinking, what’s under there, what’s causing them to crack and shift? How much history is below our feet, (and) if we dug down far enough, what would we find?” Coughlan said.
Those cracks in the pavement became the inspiration for his exhibited works.
Coughlan began to photograph the cracks, the tar and the concrete surrounding the tarry veins running through it in either patches or thin lines. Later, he’d sketch the images, first as pencil drawings, then more complete sketches using ink.
Finally, it was time to paint.
He would “put the ground (color) on the canvas, then I’d draw (the crack form), then I’d painted over that, then I’d paint over that, so that when you look at them, what you’re seeing is the end result of a history.”
Coughlan pulls up images captured of one piece in stages from start to finish.
“Each of these paintings is like 7, 8, 9, 10 paintings – which is a completely inefficient way to work I’m sure,” Coughlan said. “It looked like that, and then it looked that and then it looks like that. And if you look at it, you can see that I’m going under it and over it and things like that.”
Amid the process, Coughlan would produce an especially striking layer. It wasn’t always easy to let it go, knowing it would be forever buried beneath the layers to follow.
“There have been some pieces that I’ve gone, ‘huh, I really like that.’ That little piece is almost like a lost love – ‘You don’t have that girl, but are you happy now anyway?’ ” he explained.
Coughlan simply had to trust that the painting would do what it needed to do.
“The thing is that you can’t scrape them off, the same way we can’t scrape off – I mean we can in some areas, like archeologically — but you can’t scrape off (everything), so, what is lost to us?” Coughlan asked.
In “A Crack in the World,” it’s what is lost that creates what is gained.
Ultimately, “the painting found its way,” he said.
“Of course you get little accidents – like, sometimes you’re going up to the edges and you’re trying not to cross the edges (but you do cross them), and sometimes you don’t, and that’s the part that’s fun,” he said.
Other techniques evolved with the series over time, like the brush strokes that are noticeably more pronounced in the series’ last finished paintings.
“Again, that’s the evolution – as I kept working, I’m like, ‘Ooh, I really like showing more of the strokes, so how can I start using more of the brush?” he explained.
Each painting finally came together in the last part of Coughlan’s process – applying a coat of varnish across the layered canvas. It’s a step that he saved until all the paintings in the series had been completed.
“When you varnish them, the under colors really come out, and that’s the exciting part, because I really don’t have any control over that. We’ve just got to see it now, see how it looks,” Coughlan said.
It’s a kind of blind faith in the process.
“Sometimes as a painter, you are in control of the thing, and sometimes, the best part of being a painter is that you have to allow the painting to create itself,” Coughlan said.
“I’ve always believed that. If you’re doing the work, sometimes it’ll just start to happen. And when it starts to happen, the really skillful artist knows to just let it happen and be there for it.”
In the end, the series was there for Coughlan as much as he for it, bringing him to a new level as an artist.
“Sitting and looking at this work, I’d say this is probably a mature work. This is the work that really just seems like I know what I’m doing,” Coughlan said.
It’s a growth as an artist married to one’s growth as a person – the moment when your internal worlds collide – the philosophical, the conceptual, the artistic style and techniques.
“I’ve always had deeply thoughtful, philosophical concepts underneath (my work) – that’s who I am,” Coughlan said.
“But I think maybe what makes these work so well is that (I was) putting myself in the box of the cracks. It’s not just ‘I’ve got this great idea and I’m gonna work on these things,’ but it has to within this self-imposed limit. The landscape is the crack, the crack is the landscape – everything I want to do, everything I want to say is like I have given myself a limit to work within – which in some ways has made the work step up to be even a little bit more expansive,” he explained.
Whether viewers embrace or dig for the meaning behind the works is secondary to Coughlan’s hope that the paintings simply elicit a visceral response.
“The concept’s there – play with it, like it, don’t like it. You can’t make the work and make somebody like it, and that’s fine,” he said.
One of Coughlan’s biggest pet peeves is people’s hesitancy to like a work of art because they don’t know what it means.
“It’s a painting. What it’s supposed to mean is you’re supposed to look at it and say, ‘I like that.’ Why do you like it — who knows? But if you like, it, take it home and ponder over that later,” Coughlan said. “Crack it open and see what’s there.”
This story ran on page 1 of the Feb. 28, 2023 Beaumont Enterprise.