Ever since there's been abstract art, people have been looking at it for tangible clues—for what's familiar and recognizable, real and relatable. It's like trying to see a man in the moon, or rabbits in the clouds overhead. (Try this next time you're in the contemporary galleries at the Museum of Modern Art.) That intersection between pure abstract forms and representational landscapes is at the root of 's vivid, lyrical paintings. Her luscious blocks of color evoke cloudless skies and mountain peaks, manicured lawns and sunny days.
Frequently, garden hedges capture her interest, populating canvases that Belcourt describes as "paintings of sculptures of landscapes." Those hedges, by the way, are very much grounded in reality. Belcourt, who was born in Montreal, spends summers in Métis-sur-Mer, a remote Canadian village in northeastern Quebec on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. The hedges there are monumental, and as a child Belcourt played in the ones on her family's property. She got the artistic bug from her grandfather, a businessman who dabbled in painting during summers in the country. "His attitude was, You can do what you want," Belcourt recalls. "It felt good hanging around him."
Belcourt moved to New York in 1984—she has lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn since long before it was trendy or one could buy groceries with ease—and started to paint in earnest a decade later. "They were red, beat-up, stressed-out, scruffy paintings," she says. "My life was tough, trying to pay the rent and have time in the studio. Then I'd go to the country and see all this green." Over the summer she'd make sketches of the landscape, much like the way a pianist practices scales. When she returned to New York she'd glance at these gouaches—she has filled 18 sketchbooks so far—wondering, she says, "what they'd look like as abstracts."
Ten solo shows and countless group exhibitions later, Belcourt continues to push the boundaries between abstraction and traditional landscape painting, aiming to create something that, as she puts it, "feels like a real thing but isn't a picture of a landscape." Her recent "Mounds" series, begun in 2011, is an extension of her focus on hedges and is more abstract than ever—muscular geometric shapes piled up in her trademark cool palette. "I think Jeff Bailey [Belcourt's New York dealer] is like, Enough with all the blue and green," she says with a laugh. Sometimes there's a surreal dash of red, but it's a red far removed from those angry, early paintings.
"You sense that it's about landscape, but it's a much more complex space," says Evelyn Hankins, a curator at Washington, D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum, of Belcourt's new paintings. When Hankins worked at the Fleming Museum in Burlington, Vermont, she included Belcourt in a 2005 group show of abstracted landscapes titled "New Turf," and the Fleming went on to buy two of her pieces for its collection. "The big thing about American art is how the land defined who we were in the 19th century," Hankins continues. "Louise never loses sight of the landscape, but she expresses it in a very new way."
Each autumn, after Belcourt makes the 14 1/2-hour drive back to Brooklyn—her Chevy Astro van loaded with her dog, a black retriever mix named Finn, and the four or five paintings she's made over the summer—she keeps the curtains drawn in her studio, blocking her impeccable view of the East River and the Williamsburg Bridge. She's shielding herself from the brutal cityscape, holding on for a while to her long summer of isolation in near wilderness. "When I'm painting in the country, the colors get softer, I'm slower, and I can see more," she explains. "Once you chill out enough, there's so much to see."