As I now recall it, sunlight flooded my field of vision as I drew aside the bare canvas curtain that separated the two semi-private painting studios of Rowan Howe, a first-year graduate student at the University of Texas, and her colleague Alexandre Pépin.
When I visited him in May, Pépin was a (rare!) third-year MFA student. The north-facing wall of his studio was an expanse of tall, unobstructed windows on the top floor of UT’s Art Building.
“It’s a big studio for an emerging artist,” he acknowledged. “I’ve been lucky; you choose the best you can. When I leave, the studio is going to be up for grabs, and the second-years will have priority [in choosing their workspaces].” (Since my visit, he has graduated.)
Pépin, 29, is French Canadian, from Montréal. He moved to Austin to attend UT in fall 2019, and by March 2020, COVID-19 had already disrupted his two-year degree plan. Following university-wide policy that halted students’ use of in-person laboratory and research spaces, the Department of Art and Art History were forced to deny studio art graduate students access to their own studios for a period of roughly four months in the spring and summer semesters of 2020.
Pépin took advantage of the opportunities offered by this unexpected derailment — a chance to stay for a third year in the program, and the chance to experiment with landscape painting out of the studio, en plein air.
Originally Pépin chose the program at UT, at least in part, to expose his artistic practice, his body, and his psyche to a climate and natural environment previously alien to him.
“I was thinking of the landscape,” he says. “I wanted to be in the heat, and in the dryness, in the scorching sun.”
Overall, his project here has been one of opening himself to new sensations, experiences, and influences. So, when campus closed, he gathered his paints and canvas and traveled to Pace Bend Park to paint his impression of the Texas Hill Country.
“I met the limit of the romantic vision of being a painter,” he recounts. “After half an hour [I was] so submerged in allergies that I couldn’t see. My whole body was secreting mucus. There’s mucus on the canvas. It’s disgusting, but [I had made] the commitment to go there, drive 45 minutes at least, carry [my] easel, and set up.”
Under those punishing conditions, he nevertheless managed to complete “Wildflowers (Fleurs sauvages)” (2020). His staccato, almost pointillist, brushstrokes occur at a quick tempo, but their quantity and density attest to how long he must have withstood a searing and pollen-dense atmosphere.
“I kept going until I was totally blind. But this kind of experience of the landscape shapes you and the painting, and it is so different from the studio. It made me understand Impressionism through the lens of experience.”
And at that point it became essential to Pépin to recognize that the quickness of the Impressionists’ paintings, “also has to do with the body’s tolerance to being outside.”
Returning to the studio in Fall 2021, he used “Wildflowers” as a reference for determining the colors and textures that would appear in his larger five-by-six-foot, canvas titled “Aftercare with Wildflowers” (2021). The term “aftercare,” he explains, belongs to the lexicons of both medicine and BDSM. It refers to gestures of healing compassion extended to one who has undergone a physically or emotionally intense experience. “Tenderness,” and “tender” were words that recurred several times, like a mantra, throughout our conversation.
Pépin’s latest canvases, though painted indoors, carry too a sense of a breathing porosity to their natural environment.
Air quite literally passes through the warp and weft of the stretched burlap fabric of his painting “Bowl” (2022). On this small, low-resolution surface, he has centered simple, universally recognizable, imagery — a cupped hand — in prudent earth tones.
Rust and shades of washy indigo establish the chromatic range for “Observing M57” (2022). The earthy pigments help establish a terrestrial setting for imagery that has metaphysical implications for Pépin. The inspiration for the piece came to him during a summer fellowship at the Ox-bow School of Art in Saugatuck, Michigan, when a guest instructor brought a telescope to share with the artists in residence.
He describes having the revelation that, as he bent to look into the telescope, millennia-old light was “hitting my retina.” It was a kind of visual time travel.
“There are relics of the world from that time, like paintings that are that old. It was so beautiful. It was a total aesthetic experience of beauty,” he marveled. “My priorities were totally up for grabs in this world. It felt humbling, and I wanted to make a painting about it.”
Perhaps Pépin’s account of plein-air painting had piqued my own histamine response, but I couldn’t help but see the nebulae depicted in “Observing M57” as clouds of pollen, fertile dust, spewing from the telescope’s lens. The figures resemble semi-melted sugar loaves.
Pépin’s figuration allows for this kind of associative departure.
“I want it to be in that space,” he says, “where it’s texture first, weird shapes, then possibly something else.”
Pépin will take part in the exhibition “Distant Sirens,” opening 6 to 9 p.m. July 22, at Shed Show, 100 E. 30th St.