Last Thursday the French New York-based artist Anne-Lise Coste visited toomer labzda to give a talk about m, l, e, her latest body of work on display at the young Lower East Side gallery. For the exhibition, forty-eight small and medium-sized canvases filled two walls of the gallery space from floor to ceiling. Each canvas presented a loose portrait of one of the three letters in black spray paint on a white ground, in a balance of severity and airiness. Taken together, the paintings developed a meditative rhythm, resembling a tapestry of interlocking loops and curves, or perhaps a body of text.
That night, the image of Coste—a soft-spoken slender woman in slim black clothes with pale hair—curled into a chair amid the black and white paintings, seemed fitting. Before she began reading from the essay she prepared, titled “the freedom of the artist,” she took a moment to excuse herself for her French pronunciation. The charmingly unnecessary disclaimer recalled an earlier moment in the evening when she spoke to one guest about her choice of subjects for m, l, e, one of which was that “these letters sound good to say. Like ‘me’ in English and ‘le’ in French.” It was a pleasant moment in which the artist, the pieces, and the spoken sounds all aligned.
The talk itself was a narrative of her own creative liberation through using text in art, punctuated by personal anecdotes dating back to her teenage years. For Coste, painting the letters as the units of words allowed her to bypass the strict rules of language and convention: “when i write m i feel free exactly because of that beyond. i write what i want, the way i want, no more grammar, syntax, coherence or logic of a raisoning [sic] or meaning diktat.” It was within this exercise in linguistic anarchy that she ultimately found her conviction in the power of words and her responsibility as an artist to say what others are not always able to.
Artists like Coste help us re-evaluate the conventions we have come to take for granted, but she approaches the subject with a refreshing light-heartedness. After the talk, a guest asked Coste if she considered herself primarily a painter by profession. She replied “a painter, a drawer,” adding after a pause, “and a writer.” Then she smiled mischievously, “and a president. Or a queen.”
In case you missed her the first time, Anne-Lise Coste will be holding a second reading on Friday, April 13, at 7:00 p.m. m, l, e is on view at toomer labzda (100a Forsyth St., New York, NY 10002) through April 22.