Marie-Louise Rouff



Marie-Louise Rouff in her studio gallery. Photo by Lynn Christoffers

 Colors and lines, from bits of memory.

“I have no clear idea of the final painting when I begin. It’s a matter of orchestrating different colors and lines, how they respond to each other. It’s a trialogue* between you, your hands, and the painting. You think you know what you want, but sometimes the hand picks up something else that may be just the right thing.” — Marie-Louise Rouff

Her paintings are currently on view in the David and Rosalie McCullough Room at the West Tisbury library. That is where we sat on a lovely late afternoon, looking at art, talking about art, facing each other, a couple of old friends.

I had just seen some of her paintings and monotypes at the Gay Head Gallery and of course, I am familiar with her studio, now also her gallery, filled with a richness of work arranged on the walls and in progress on her easel. But this was a bright, white room, large like her paintings, large enough to leave space and air between them, room for contemplation, and if you are also an artist, room to examine the artist’s process. I asked her about the mark-making on some of the canvases, were they drawn in charcoal or painted? Lines and designs on top of and under areas of paint? She told me she does draw into the painting, either with charcoal or pastels. I do the same thing. We began to talk about the “history of a painting” for the viewer to see, leaving the drawing and mark-making that becomes part of the finished surface. “The history of the painting is still in front of you,” she said. “This mixture of paint and charcoal and pastel, the depth of color and texture, where it’s been and what it has become.”

I have known her work for many years; we met in 1989 when she walked into my gallery and we began to talk. Those conversations have continued. Marie-Louise showed her work in my gallery for several summers in the early ‘90s, when she and her husband, Paul Levine, had a house in Vineyard Meadow Farms. There were always dinners and tea, with our husbands or without, always lots to discuss. We both read voraciously about art and artists, have always admired many of the same ones: Matisse, Cézanne, Rothko, Diebenkorn. We both enjoy a good esoteric conversation.

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Marie-Louise’s work of the past years is very abstract. My Oxford English Dictionary defines abstract as “theoretical rather than physical or concrete; denoting an idea, quality, or state; relating to or denoting art that does not attempt to represent external, recognizable reality.” I wanted this article to be about that transition, about how Marie-Louise went from painting those small landscapes of the 1990s, somewhat abstract, but certainly recognizable as landscapes, to the mostly large, built-up, colored abstractions that have absorbed her interest for the past almost 20 years.

When she and Paul moved to California in 1992, she began painting landscapes in all the colors she loved — ochres, reds, deep greens — California colors; clear, vibrant colors. Not the foggy grays of New England landscapes, where even a sunny day is rendered in grayed-down greens and blues. But she began to feel that the landscape was “so perfect there was nothing left for me to do with it.” A monthlong course in Monterey making monotypes was supposed to be a break from painting, an exploration of something else. And it was. Because of the printmaking process, putting the inked plate and dampened paper through a press, the image was transformed. “What I thought I put down came out looking different. I had no control. After making a lot of monotypes, I realized I could predict some of what would happen, and plan for it. Then I realized I could do that with painting.” Having less control and taking more chances was invigorating.

Most of her paintings are big, at least three or four feet in any direction, the canvas wrapped around the edges of a wooden matrix with deep sides that become part of the painting. Many appear to be mostly red or mostly ochre surfaces that make the “color speak in large surfaces interrupted by lines, other colors come in from the edges, a little like thoughts that come into your consciousness. I like the surface of the painting to continue. I don’t frame them, so it becomes like an excerpt that goes on.” The surfaces themselves are built up with layers of gesso that then holds and catches the paint. Marie-Louise says they are reminiscent of the buildings on her grandfather’s farm, the walls textured by the buildup of whitewash newly painted every spring. “There is something I love about that texture that stays with me. What it does for me is there is already a foundation, something to start with, something solid already. The beginning of the painting is already there.”

The large format is invigorating, too. Large gestures become the norm. “I have to work close-up, on trust that it will be all right. It is confirmed when I step back. You can’t really see till you step back. You jump off a cliff every time. That’s what I like about this work, that I don’t know where it goes.” I was interested to learn that what I saw as a transition was, to Marie-Louise, a continuation. “Memories stick with you. The world around me is always there, so the landscape is part of my visual memory. The colors and lines come not from observation but from bits of memory. Sometimes they are recognizable. There are lots of verticals lately. I’m surrounded by trees.”

This concept is difficult for me to understand. I can write a story knowing only that it’s a story about an artist, having no idea what I will say or how the story will develop. But my paintings have a subject, a landscape or a combination of objects, a person wearing a wonderfully colored sweater, that I look at and think, “That would make a painting.” They have many of the abstract qualities that paintings need to have, and of course I have no way of knowing how it will turn out, just that there is something. The idea of beginning a painting with no idea at all totally confounds me. I am hoping that writing about different artists’ processes will teach me to understand. The idea fascinates me.

Marie-Louise and Paul took their last big road trip in the spring of 2009, driving from California back to the Vineyard. They had come for a short visit in February to look for a house: “If we can be fine in February, we can move back here.” They came for dinner then, and I made two paintings from their visit and that dinner party. They bought a house across from Ghost Island Farm, a house with an outbuilding that could become a studio. Marie-Louise began showing her work at Shaw Cramer Gallery. When that gallery closed last year, she had a sign painted and hung out on the road, sent out invitations to her studio. People can come to the studio, meet the artist, see her work, and marvel at what she has done. It has all worked out.

Marie-Louise Rouff’s studio/gallery is at 150 Field View Lane, West Tisbury. It is open on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 o’clock, and by appointment at 508-693-2072. Her show at the West Tisbury library will continue through August 30, the work at Gay Head Gallery through the season.

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