Art Flying Colors: Beth Letain on Her Electrifying

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The clarity and integrity of Beth Letain’s pure, punchy abstractions are desperately needed relief in our relentlessly overstimulating world. Her massive paintings are just gestural expression of strong color on clean white yet they are also much more. The velvetiness of her textures and the vibrancy of her colors pull you in and then calm you down. Although her brushwork is complex and physical, it has no gimmicks or frivolity. It is direct and confident, like the artist, while feeling kind and charming. Letain likes a purple that is, definitely, purple and a pink that shocks. Her shapes are not flawless but feel sincere, with a timeless simplicity.

Letain grew up in Canada, studied at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax and University in Montreal, and now lives in Berlin. As an artist based in places not known for natural light, the intense colors of her paintings evoke a special gratitude. She had her first major solo show at Berlin’s Open Forum, followed by “The Company She Keeps,” at Peres Projects in the city the same year. Her latest show, “ultrapath,” is now on view at Peres. We met for coffee, on a typically gray Berlin day, to talk about how her paintings need no explanation.

Beth Letain: White is very prominent. I’d always been more a drawing person than a painting person. I realise that over time I am making surfaces that mimic my drawing paper. I draw on white or cream paper. The drawings have a sensibility that I love and I want to not just replicate that but convey a similar sentiment to the looseness and freedom of drawing. I am less obsessed with the white canvas than trying to correlate it with the drawing process.

AFH: The white is not a nothing. It feels more complex. It is physically more there. It is not the negation of something but a presence.

BL: It is. I do not buy pre-prepared canvases. There is something slightly perverse about spending two to three days building up this primer, and the paintings themselves, the actual act itself, when it really falls together, can take 20 minutes. I invest all this in a surface and then walk!

I like the nonchalance, but it’s ballsy with such strong colors.

I know that, for some people, my colors are too astringent. There is all this white, but it’s bouncing off a heavy blue or bright red.

What motivates that and what does that mean to you
I do a lot of drawing. That is the fundamental base for everything that I do. It’s on a really small scale, the size of your phone, index-card size. And I make loads of these drawings with gouache and watercolour. I am reaching around with form and colour in these drawings. I usually produce a lot of these drawings. I am trying to find the ones that buzz.

There is something in it that makes me want to make a painting. I’ve come to realize while doing it that I don’t know whether the colour or form come first. The form is what I am interested in and then I need to figure out what color belongs to it. I can’t make it in any color.

I am realizing no. I’ve been producing more in the last couple of years than recently. I have more shows and more deadlines. It’s been great because it’s helped me clarify a lot of things. I was happy with the way I was working before, but having these outside demands forces me to make decisions about what I am doing. It’s making me see that I definitely prefer some colors to others.