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Monique Rebelle

The visual art I practice is a means I developed to probe intellectually the phenomena of existence. The original motivation for the investigation was not intellectual; it was instinctual, emotional, and that passion remains at the heart of my probe, a restless desire to find something out, to understand. The spark that sets this process in motion is a need to learn from looking and creating. Both looking and creating can be done in many ways, but I have found art to be my natural way.

I have always had a great desire to create and learn from art – more than a desire, it has been a necessity. My motivations have always been tremendous, even overwhelming. Many years of practice have helped me to sharpen my ability to look and focus. It took many years for my paintings to begin responding to my quest, and when it actually happened I found that response exceeding my imagination.

The intellectual function in the process is to observe and to draw conclusions, and not to constrict the creative process with dogmas or limitations. My visual conclusions are not derived in any logical way; they do not result from any sort of thesis that might have a specific outcome. Rather, process and outcome are both instinctively oriented. Every time a painting is painted there is the chance of a new discovery, a new statement, a new observation and a new energy that reaffirms the existence of something superseding the physical universe. The values revealed are secrets of life that cannot simply be told but have to be experienced.

A painting that allows such a chance for discovery contains energy made visible, at least to the degree to which a viewer can perceive it. But that energy exists regardless of the viewer's acumen. Many will not notice it at all; others will experience it on a subconscious level; and some will be certain of it, intellectually and even intuitively.

Monique Rebelle \ September 2015

I decided to become a painter at the age of 14. As I got more involved in creating visual art I came to realize that painting is a philosophical search and in some ways is also related to scientific search. Both science and art use the investigative force to find answers, but I chose art because it allowed instant inquiry, right there on the canvas. There was no need for tedious preparation. At the same time, the direction of my search was very vague, I simply did not know what exactly I was looking for. Still, the urge to visualize in front of me was most compelling. At first, intuition, combined with emotional need, served as my primary guide. As years went by the process became more complex. Between 1975 and 1988 I painted a lot, had individual shows, participated in group shows, and sold paintings. I was inspired to work most of the time, and was very prolific. First I worked in Warsaw, where I grew up, then in London, Paris and, out of the European cities, the longest time I worked as a professional artist was in Amsterdam (5 years), until I finally moved to United States.

Over the years my painting style went from surrealist to expressionist to abstract expressionist to neo-expressionist. I enjoyed a lot of success in Amsterdam in the early 80s, working in a more-or-less neo-expressionist vein while influenced by the (seemingly) raw energy of a German post-modern group based in Cologne. Before leaving Amsterdam I had a one person show of abstract paintings, produced after I tired of superficiality in the post-modern sensibility, of basing my expression on the reaction to social and cultural phenomena. I started to feel a need for depth in my vision, to go inwards and try to bring out something I sensed was inside. The paintings were quite large, painted on loose sheets stapled to the wall of my Amsterdam studio. I used acrylics and oils and other mixed media. Those paintings, as much as my neo-expressionist works, were well received by the Dutch art world, and it felt as if I could establish myself successfully in Holland.

But I was not ready to settle down. I needed to explore a new territory, and the United States had the right allure. I knew nobody in Los Angeles when I first got there in 1987, but I got a job and a bit later was able to rent a studio to live and paint in. Before I found my studio and got it ready for work I came up with over thirty titles of potential poems which would reflect my impressions of Los Angeles and other subjects of contemplation. Once I had a space to paint I started to use these titles to create a series of small acrylic paintings. I liked the process of looking through many different titles and finding one that I wanted to “illustrate” instead of writing a poem. Some of the new paintings resembled surrealist style, but they still kept to a post-modernist tradition. I think I had 6 or 7 little paintings done when I picked one of the titles to start a new one. The title was Understanding Understatement. Up until that day – October 13th 1988 – I used my ability to observe, imitate nature, imagine, feel, conclude, react, compose, mix, add, subtract, etc. All of my paintings up until then were made of ingredients I could consciously relate to, as I was aware I was including them all in the painting. The results could be new and surprising, but I could always trace their origin to some known element that I considered part of the process. If I wanted to I could always explain (at least to myself) why my choices were what they were, even if they were purely intuitive rather than logical. Each of my paintings included a vision created with my understanding of it, and the final result was a totality of all the elements I put into it. Even if not all of the parts were visible, the conceptual process was something I had under control. The incentives to make a painting could come from anyplace, and other artists and artworks could clearly influence my style(s); but ultimately I justifiably considered myself the sole author of my creations.

The work based on the playful title Understanding Understatement was an inviting challenge, because it was hard to imagine what it could look like. I took a small canvas, maybe 12 x18 inches. I began by trying to envision the meaning of “understanding.” I made a straight line, initially to symbolize a decisive thought. Then I added other straight lines which crossed each other at various angles, in order to picture “understanding” as a group of thoughts comprising a finalized thought process. I extended colored shading out of each line, making it transparent enough so that many lines and shades were still visible to various degrees. The shading could have several meanings, but to me at that point it embodied the perceived emotional content of the thoughts as different grades and colors. These premises were not final conclusions in any way; they simply allowed me to get into the painting and see where it lead me. In this manner the general sketch of the painting appeared on canvas.

I was deeply into generating the painting, watching it grow as I was still adding lines and shades, when something most extraordinary took place. Fully aware, I watched the painting become something else. Suddenly, it escaped the full, attentive scope of my vision, also leaving behind the title and its meaning. What I was looking at outgrew it all. In no time it outgrew me and my knowledge. The image was there and I was there looking at it, but the insight I had was not of my individual creation. It was of an abstract realm of intelligence. It contained the totality of all existing phenomena in the form of non-objective imagery. That imagery superimposed itself, aligned, and completely took over the imagery I had created, swallowing it up and giving it back to my eyes as an omniscient code of perception. The imagery itself was not most important at that point; the importance lay in the appearance of the dimension, with its extraordinary enlightening energy, and in my discovery of its existence. My mind entered it and dwelled in it until saturated with the information. All was perfectly clear.

Under certain circumstances the mind can enter the abstract dimension of perception, a field of intellectual content. It is a sphere of consciousness in which all things have their conceptual beginnings. In its space our minds unite with a universal essence which exists on a certain vibrational level. That essence is pure brilliance, as it perceives through all existing phenomena and spontaneously creates new ones as well. It is an ever-active sphere of creation with thoughts being its vehicle. The profound, inspiration-laden dimension I visited through the painting was beyond what I ever thought possible. Throughout many years of working on paintings and staring at them, I have made many discoveries and had revelations of all kinds. Often I was also desperate and lost; nothing could help in those times of desperation but just working at the painting (or paintings) over and over, even if it felt really dull and stupid. Now, however, all my perseverance, all my previous attempts and successes, seemed significant only as means to this particular discovery. This time, I had tapped into the creative force behind all that exists. From my experience viewing art, old or new, I knew you could feel that specific energy in great works. There is never one particular part of a masterpiece that is the “great” part, but, rather, the whole entity exudes the force of creation. My own experience making art had not been about creating something great, but about learning and reaching new levels of discovery. This time, it was about breaking through to the normally invisible dimension of perception and grasping it.

By the time this happened I had studied modernism and abstract art and knew it dealt with other dimensions of perception; but I had had no idea it was something that exists as an energy field one can tap into, just as I did that day. The incredibly powerful paintings and constructions of Kazimir Malevich dating from the mid- and late1910s I intuitively identified with a pure spiritual force, but after my experience with Understanding Understatement I realized the scope of Malevich’s discovery was so much greater. Another pioneer of abstraction to attract my attention was Piet Mondrian, whose first completely abstract compositions date from about the same time as Malevich’s. Abstraction had been introduced into art a few years before, but at first was based on solid reference to the outside world (as with Picasso) or symbolized inner states of mind (as with Kandinsky). Mondrian step by step “dissolved” the outside world and arrived at a formula of simple lines and colors which, just as with Malevich, did not depend on anything else at all, transcending the known world.

While Mondrian acknowledged the spiritual content of his work, Malevich did not even want to label it as “spiritual.” He freed art from any baggage, even from the notion of God. Similarly, my own experience manifested not as a spiritual message, but as an intellectual expansion through visual-perceptual transcendence into a territory of another dimension. I was able to see that the intellectual power we operate with exists regardless of our ability to perceive it. We can tap into it after exercising our minds in specific ways – and it is helpful to have the predisposition for that kind of effort.

There are other, more recent artists whose work relates to the abstract dimension. It does not have to result from an experience similar as mine; artists often do simply what their drive and intuition tell them, or grow their work out of the traditions they were schooled in or inspired by. Their intellectual analysis of their own work is not always necessary, as it is already grounded in their influences. An artist is capable of growing his or her own personal belief system out of given tradition. For example, painter John McLaughlin was self-taught, but was deeply influenced by canons of Zen Buddhism. Agnes Martin, another abstract artist initially influenced by Asian culture, was quite spiritually aware and had an idea where her creative power was coming from. She made a continual effort to minimize traces of her personality so the pure abstract dimension would come forth.

I had no mentors or teachers, did not look for inspiration in Asian tradition, and cannot say modernists in general or particular artists were my influences. Still, the little painting which started the series of non-objective works in 1988 looked like some kind of cubist composition and perhaps resembled Malevich’s constructivist works. Some years later I learned that merkaba, the tetrahedron star made up of two tetrahedrons, was supposedly designed to lead into perception of other dimensions. I guess it worked in my case, but I had no idea what I was looking at could even be a tetrahedron; it was neither intentional nor really a true tetrahedron or merkaba. Maybe the angles of the crossing lines and my shading were exactly as they are supposed to be so as to evoke the realization of abstract dimension. That’s a possibility, but an accidental one. Regardless of that association, the actual effect I experienced was a hugebreakthrough in the development of my artwork – my practice and my understanding of my artmaking. The experience took my work to a new level, and there was nothing to reflect on except the path that led me to that moment. I did subsequently paint in figurative as well as abstract styles, for various reasons. But the pure investigation that was initiated with Understanding Understatement is what my art has been about ever since. Even my figurative paintings, done in any style, are executed with the experience gained that day and as part of the practice I developed accordingly.

It is not easy to talk about contemporary visual art, because in a way it can be like a kind of science and philosophy, mixed together. One needs to understand the simple equations and principles first and then deal with the more advanced ones. But such understanding does not have to come from books or teachers. It can be self-taught as well.

Peter Frank \ Los Angeles \ January 2012

Abstract art emerged as a way for artists to manifest the ineffable. The pioneer abstractionists of a century ago wanted to make visible sensations and phenomena and existential circumstances that were not otherwise visible. These things were strongly felt, perhaps even heard or tasted or touched, but until then they were not seen. Once abstraction became a distinct practice, visual artists no longer had to rely on weak and indirect metaphors to convey profound conditions; now, the conditions were visible.

Abstract art has functioned in many different ways since its inception, but there are always those artists who turn to abstraction because their urge toward the spiritual, the disembodied, the ineluctable can be realized no other way. Monique Rebelle is one such abstractionist, finding in a language of pure form a universe of meaning.

It is not enough, however, to attribute to Rebelle the noble intention of making the invisible visible. She realizes that intention convincingly and distinctively: her paintings are not simply images of the unseeable, they are paintings that make you want to look at the unseeable. They brim with visual appeal, but they clearly do not justify themselves on their visual appeal alone. Their existence makes us sense something larger, without specifying what that something is. Indeed, the peculiar ability of Rebelle’s paintings to evade our impulse to recognize mundane things in them marks them as windows onto the unknown, perhaps even the unknowable. There is no up or down, no figure or ground, no fixed perspective or arrangement of objects in these paintings, only the sensation of an infinitude gripping the surface of a plane. These paintings confound our dependency on easy labels and secure identities. They are not pictures of anything—anything, that is, but the most indescribable of feelings and ideas.

In Los Angeles, back when she was producing her first series of abstractions and painting figurally based works as well, Rebelle told me of an art dealer who wanted to sell her representational works but who dismissed the non-representational ones as “mindless abstractions.” In a funny way, the dealer was right: Rebelle’s abstractions are “mindless,” in that their forms and hues and sense of motion do not appeal to a mindful, rational state. Rather, they speak to an awareness that at once depends on sight and defies it, and the mind itself, by providing nothing to recognize, nothing to know. Instead, Rebelle’s abstractions provide stimuli towards what the mind can’t keep itself wrapped around. Hers are pictures of transcendent states, and address an intelligence the viewer’s mind has to learn, re-learn, or invent. To cite the title to Lawrence Ferlinhetti's book of Beat poems, these are “Pictures of the Gone World.”

Radio Interview with Janice Hermsen - Nov. 4th 2016 "What's the Story?"
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