Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.
It seems adequate to introduce this textual accompaniment to Beth Letain’s exhibition at L21 entitled Mountain Climbers, with a quote by American painter Agnes Martin (1912-2004). Not only because Martin is amongst Letain’s recognised references, but also considering that there are substantial similarities in their ‘savoir faire’: a gestural expression on flawless surfaces; a direct and confident brushwork; and a seamless simplicity which conceals an inner intuitive compositional logic. As Letain said, ‘for me, if there are two rectangles coming together then they have to be orange’1 .
This sentence could be a poem – reduced, concise and vibrant like the gestures in Letain’s canvases. Their titles could be as well:
It is when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles a trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.
—Nan Shepherd, ‘The Living Mountain’
The works’ titles in the exhibition might give us a hint on the core of their meaning, but the answer is a moulding, negative or packaging of it. In Letain’s practice, form and colour occur at the same time, elements that are derived from her drawing practice. Phone-sized drawings with gouache and watercolour are the basis for the painting. I imagine hundreds of them being made, until a few asks to be trasposed into a bigger size.
A few passages of Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’ come to mind while thinking through Letain’s paintings. Surely the exhibition title unknots a certain narrative – paintings like rocks, vibrant matter that has its own life, and therefore producing an affect. An attempt at communication.
Beth Letain’s canvases – as much as Shepherd’s tale is ‘timeless’. Not because it delivers some ‘universal’ truth, but rather because it provides a type of knowledge and a perception of this knowledge that is intimate. It has both an affective and an intellectual dimension and therefore it transcends the traditional divide of experience into the two categories – a subjective and personal versus an objective and public one – that modern Western philosophies have generally privileged.
Mountain Climbers are contemplative. Inviting the audience to pause and join in their inner action.
1. Flying Colors: Beth Letain on Her Electrifying, ‘Slightly Perverse’ Painting Practice, Ana Finel Honigman, ARTnews, 2019.
2. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain. Canongate Books Ltd, Edimburgh, 2008.