Belem Lett’s glowing expressions of light and colour

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The confident, broad brushstrokes of Belem Lett’s new paintings seem to literally zoom around the picture plane, conveying a sense of speed and momentum as they slide across the works’ sleek aluminium surfaces. Brushstrokes loaded with an array of colours push against the edges of the composition before veering off in another direction. Other forms seem to slide off the edge of the picture plane, creating a sense of endlessness, as if we are only experiencing a ‘slice’ of the image as the forms continue to move into space, ad infinitum.

Created in luscious colour combinations ranging from soft gelatos to vibrant candy hues, the works’ exuberant abstract forms have an immediate and palpable effect—we feel the drag and pull of each brushstroke. They also powerfully convey the sense of an artist in command of his materials and process. There are no second chances with these paintings. If something isn’t quite right, the picture is sanded back, and the work begins again.

“I wanted to give myself a set of unforgiving parameters to work within,” Lett explains. “I wanted the process to be laid bare in a way which left nothing to hide.”

Belem Lett, Collapse Into Me, 2021, oil, gesso, marble dust on aluminium composite panel, 152 x 154 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie pompom. Photograph by Robin Hearfield.

After graduating from the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales in 2008, followed by a Masters in 2013, Lett has established a reputation for his buoyant, high-keyed works and for his ability to push and innovate within the genre of abstraction. Previous bodies of work have referenced the excessive forms of the Rococo and Baroque decoration, their colour and gesture able to be read as flora or fauna, or the mirroring of Rorschach ink blots (rendered by hand by the artist on both sides of the composition), whose patterns were interpreted by patients in early psychological testing. In these works, Lett knowingly plays with the effect of pareidolia—the experience of seeing images in visual patterns, animals and faces in clouds, for example. He uses their crude symmetry to highlight the futility of our very human quest for perfection, and instead celebrates the happy inconsistencies that are to be found in the handmade.

“Working with symmetry and asymmetry was again a way of setting up parameters to make work within,” the artist says. “Constraints often open up a larger world of enquiry.”

As a parameter in a literal sense, Lett is also interested in the way in which an artwork’s frame both contains and constrains, clearly defining the field of representation. His paintings have sported deliberately clunky, bulbous, and often brightly coloured handmade frames that become an integral part of the work, formally denoting the edge of the composition. He has also made use of panels in different geometric shapes, which allows the mark-making to respond to the shape of its substrate, rather than working within a conventional square or rectangle.

The title of Lett’s new body of work, Burnouts, reflects the parallel between the distinct movement of the brush across the work’s surface and the trace that a car leaves as it travels a road at speed. However, there is another more prosaic and current inflection to this title—the sense of psychological exhaustion experienced by many in the wake of the pandemic. “I guess I’ve been feeling a little bit weird over the last year,” the artist explains. “For me, these paintings bring a lot more light and colour and a sort of simplicity into the work. They’re bringing some of that sunshine or light back inside because we’ve been quite closed off from the world. I hope they convey a sense of hope.”

Belem Lett, Sunflower 1, 2021 , oil on aluminium composite panel, 72 x 72 cm.

The paintings in Burnouts are motivated, at this moment in time, by a desire to distil things; to pare them back. Unusually for Lett, this new body of work began with works on paper—a medium the artist hadn’t worked with for a while. Although they began as experiments in light and colour, Lett has since come to consider these pieces as standalone works worthy of exhibition, rather than simply as process-based exercises.

Lett has previously worked in layers of translucent colour, where the paintings are effectively ‘built’ over time. This process meant that much of the work beneath the surface was inaccessible to the viewer, with their layers of different colour only revealed by small apertures (or ‘windows’) created within the composition. However, in this new body of work Lett finds joy in the obvious ‘stops’ and ‘starts’ of the brushwork that is now proudly on display, the fragmented nature creating a multitude of individual colour field works across the composition. “They have their own middle space happening,” he says, “and become part of a broader patchwork of different experiences that unfold across each painting.”

Speaking of the “conversations that happen between me, the paint and the surface,” Lett says: “In the end, I feel that using words to articulate a painting often seems like trying to butter a piece of toast with a shovel. I prefer to speak in colours.”

Burnouts
Belem Lett
Galerie pompom (online)
8 September—10 October

Please note that Galerie pompom is currently closed in line with COVID-19 restrictions. Belem Lett’s exhibition Burnouts is available to view online in full here.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Kelly Gellatly