Abstract by accident

Tara Bradbury
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Without thinking about it, Christine Koch has created compositions from the palette of her life

When Christine Koch paints, she keeps a slip of paper by her side. The scrap is always the same, 7 x 15 inches and black, and she uses it almost as a sketch pad, testing out colours, trying different brush strokes and drawings, and blotting excess paint from her brush.

By the end, the paper becomes a miniature piece of art in itself, created as a byproduct of her landscape pieces. Although they weren’t originally intended to be put on display, they now are — hundreds of them installed together as Koch’s “Colours of the Landscape” exhibition, currently running at MUN’s Grenfell Campus Gallery in Corner Brook.

Koch is a painter and printmaker who lives and works in St. John’s for the most part, but turns to Woody Point during the summer, where she owns a small house and gallery. After completing a residency in Gros Morne National Park in 1998 as part of Parks Canada’s Artists in the Park program, Koch fell in love with the landscape of the area.

“I was blown away, and I knew that a month there would not be enough,” she said.

For years, Koch — who is a landscape artist — painted nothing but the Tablelands, her work as a painter launched by her love of the area.

Painting plein air on black-gessoed grounds or in her studio from photographs, Koch’s scratch pads end up linked to her representational landscape work, bearing her palette of blues, greens, pinks, purples and yellows, and essentially forming a visual diary of her progress as an artist.

The doodles weren’t intended to be shown, but their spontaneity and unselfconsciousness give them a particular energy that allows them to stand alone as works of art, Koch explained.

“It was a bit of a leap initially, but I’ve always liked abstract art; I did abstract painting before I was a landscape painter, so it’s something I was quite comfortable in,” she said. “An abstract painting is something that’s really difficult to make. People think it’s easy, they’ll look at an abstract piece and say ‘I could do that,’ or ‘My son could do that,’ but it’s not that easy. When you make an abstract painting by accident, it’s quite exciting.”

Koch has been saving her “colour test pieces” over the years, and has installed them in the gallery together, floor to ceiling and wall to wall, in an effort to give the viewer the feeling of being surrounded by pure colour and brushstrokes and nothing else.

“Pure paintings, without any literal kind of images or connotations,” Koch explained.

Koch first showed the pieces at the Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s in 2008, and again in 2009 as an installation called “Entropy” at Edmonton’s Harcourt House Gallery. The installation is different each time, based on the layout of the gallery and Koch’s vision at the time, making the hanging of the pieces an intuitive work of art in itself.

“I think of the entire installation as one piece, and putting it up as kind of a creative activity. It’s a lot of fun for me,” Koch said of “Colours of the Landscape.” ”There are different kinds of marks and colours, so I try to make a balance and to lead the eye all over. Every little panel will be a focal point, but the whole piece works as one, as well.”

Koch, who usually works in series, generally prefers to install her work, whether paintings or prints, in multiples, for a bigger impact. Her work began with interior scenes but moved outdoors as her fascination with the province’s west coast grew. Today, her work ranges from linocuts to acrylic paintings on panel or prepared wood.

Over the past two years, Koch has spent time in Labrador with scientific teams, executing her landscapes next to biologists and geologists. She has displayed some of her Labrador pieces in the past, and earlier this year, completed a series of pieces based on her time doing climate research in the Torngats which were given to winners of the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council arts awards.

At the end of this month, Koch is heading back to the Torngats for two weeks with a team of geographers from MUN. Next year, The Rooms will hold “Torngat: Spirit of Place,” an exhibition of Koch’s work inspired by her time in Labrador.

The Torngat landscape has the same draw for Koch as Gros Morne.

“It’s the relief; the mountains. It’s so sculptural,” she said.

Koch has received a good response from gallery-goers since she started showing the “Colours of the Landscape” pieces, including people who may not have previously had much knowledge or appreciation of art.

It’s the accessibility of the pure form, Koch reckons.

“All art is abstract. It sounds like a cliché, but even the most representational figurative paintings are essentially abstract, so when you distill a painting to its formal element, brushstroke and colour and marking, I think if it works, people will respond to it. It’s fun for me to do this.”

“Colours of the Landscape” will run at the Grenfell Campus Gallery until Sept. 8.

tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Grenfell Campus Gallery, Parks Canada, Eastern Edge Gallery Harcourt House Gallery Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council

Geographic location: Woody Point, Gros Morne National Park, Labrador Torngats Edmonton Labrador.The Torngat

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