As Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still once said, “The best works are often those with the fewest and simplest elements . . . until you look at them a little more, and things start to happen.”
He was referring, of course, to his fellow AbExes—William DeKooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock. Were he still around today, though, Still might’ve said as much about Charlotte Foust, whose works also have plenty going on inside them, especially the ones the incorporate elements of collage into them—as seen in several of the pieces in her current Hunter Kirkland show, “Counterbalance.”
Despite Foust claiming that her paintings are really more about mark-making and line drawing. Anyone who’s seen her work, even people normally averse to abstract art, sense pretty much immediately a sophistication and an allure. Foust, a longtime fan of the Abstract Expressionists, may say, “I don’t have anything in mind when I start. It’s very stream-of-consciousness,” but in the end her sense of balance and composition, both in terms of colors and images, show her to be an artist very much in tune with, well, whatever the opposite of mindless stream-of-consciousness might be. Mindfulness? Order? Beauty?
Depending on the painting, her work recalls aspects of Georges Braque (particularly the brownish-gray pre-Cubist works he did that used bits of newspapers and focused on guitars, wine bottles, and violins), Marc Chagall (in the muted washiness of her colors), Wassily Kandinsky (whose loud, jagged color juxtapositions seem so at odds with the first two artists mentioned here but with whom Foust shares in energy and boldness), deKooning (one of her favorites), Joan Mitchell (a more recent favorite), and even someone as contemporary as Jean-Michel Basquiat (for that occasional Art Brut quality).
Born and raised in North Carolina, Foust still lives there. An only child, her father worked as a locksmith (and painted realistic oils) and her mother worked in a beauty salon (and sewed). Most telling, though, Foust spent many hours in her room just drawing. “It’s always been a place,” she says, “I go to.” A place she went to often enough that she probably hit that Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hour mark, the number he claims (in Outliers: The Story of Success) is the key to achieving world-class expertise, by the time she left home for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, from which she received her bachelor’s in fine arts.
After college, she segued into art crawls and local shows, showing regional for about 15 years. “In Charlotte, I got to know my clients really well,” says Foust. When she transitioned to galleries, her work took off, leading to shows in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Santa Fe, but the notoriety came with a price. “I lost that connection with the person buying the work.”
It’s a telling remark. And not just an idiosyncratic aside or a show of false humility. Because what really comes across in Foust’s work—what all that compositional sophistication and sense of color and movement add up to—is something deeper, more personal: a connection. An energy. A kind of language. It’s Foust communicating, or trying to communicate, the ineffable.
“I don’t have an agenda,” she says. “I don’t even want people to come away from my work with a certain feeling of happiness or I love the color red there.”
It’s an effect that’s borne out of her process, too. The one that starts without any agenda, without some preconceived notion either of where she wants to go or where she wants to take the viewer.
Once she makes that first line or mark, “I add more acrylic layers and draw,” she explains. “It’s a back-and-forth between the drawings and the markmaking, and the painting and the collage.”
The collage tends to be more blocky. And the blockiness tends to give more shape to her work. And depth. “But the more you work on it, the more minimal it becomes. It’s sort of like your mark or your signature gets woven back into the work. With each piece I let it all just happen. It’s a mix between markmaking and blocky collage. So it’s not all one or the other. It’s a balance of two things.”
Again, though, the results, and likely even her process, is not as freewheeling or extemporaneous as she makes it sound. Even videos of her in action reveal someone with too much knowledge, too much art-life experience (that 10,000-hours deal) to ever get the impression that it’s so simplistic as to believe that she’s really just scribbling unthought-out lines and curves onto a surface.
And it’s important, and conscious, that the viewer feel her in the painting. “I prefer work with thick paint, where you can see the mark,” says Foust. “Every painting, you can see the work in my painting. You can see a gesture in a paint mark. You can feel that person’s energy.”
You can connect to Foust.
“When I’m painting, I just let the energy flow through me,” says Foust. “It’s very freeing, and it’s unknown, and that freedom and that unknown comes through. You don’t get that in everyday life. It’s something to do with expression and creativity and the process of painting.”
Or her process.
“When you’re working in the abstract, it’s a soul language, it’s very hard to describe,” says Foust. “It’s not explainable or knowable. It just is. But I’m really comfortable there.”