Emma Coulter

Behind the bright veneer of Emma Coulter’s abstract compositions is a deeply considered understanding of space, perception, and the interplay of colour. Coulter’s wide-ranging works, which span painting, sculpture, installation, and public art, are boundary defying explorations that expand the traditional understanding of paintings beyond self-contained works on canvas.

One of the most defining features of Emma Coulter’s work is her choice of colours, with the artist preferring to work with a limited palette of pre-determined hues and shades sourced from existing synthetic paints. Where other artists may find the limited colour palette restrictive or even repetitive, in Coulter’s hands her choice to work with “ready-made colour” (pre-mixed colours that are commercially produced) creates dynamic opportunities for exploration and experimentation. For Coulter, this considered selection of hues “connects my visual language and ideas,” and creates a harmonious dialogue across her work in different mediums. Having worked with the same palette for nearly a decade, Coulter admits that “I have not yet exhausted all options,” and that there are still more configurations to explore..

This cross-pollination of ideas across different forms is a both a central thematic and conceptual underpinning of Coulter’s work. In large part this is informed by Coulter’s desires to “break down hierarchies in my work,” both in terms of medium specificity and also audience access. For Coulter, this comes down to recognising the “democratic” value of colour as something that can be experienced with an immediacy free of theory or over-intellectualisation. While an understanding of Rosalind Krauss’s Sculpture in the Expanded Field – a key text cited by Coulter as foundational to her studies at Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) – might provide further clues to interpret her work as operating in the “expanded field” of painting, Coulter also relishes the “visceral response to colour” we might feel on encountering her work – which goes beyond “articulation or boundaries of intellect, ability, culture and age.” This is one aspect of what makes Coulter’s work instantly recognisable as her own.

Born in Northern Ireland, Coulter immigrated with her family to Melbourne in the 1980s, eventually relocating to Brisbane, where she was raised and educated. Having always held Melbourne close in her heart, Coulter speaks about her move to Melbourne in 2007 to pursue her art career, eventually culminating in a Masters in Contemporary Art at VCA in 2014 as a “career-defining point, where all of my knowledge came together. Going on to win the Linden Prize set the tone for moving forward.”

It also marked the start of the artist’s connection to the city – its urban spaces and places – which would come to inform the direction of much of her latter artistic practice. Furthermore, the opportunities afforded by the greater city of Melbourne, particularly in the realm of public art, offered Coulter viable contexts in which to create and survive as an artist. During the restrictions and lockdowns of the last few years, Coulter’s ongoing work in public art as a means to reinvigorate public space took on heightened significance as our relationship to space and the public changed irrevocably.

When I speak with Coulter via Zoom, I am struck by Coulter’s rigorous methodology and thoughtful approach to her practice. Behind the colourful exuberance of her works is an artist who is deeply committed to honing her craft and continuously testing ideas in new ways. For her upcoming exhibition at James Makin Gallery titled Infinite Systems, Coulter will be further developing works that respond to the space. The exhibition will include sculptures, paintings on canvas, as well as a site-specific painting, (a series which Coulter names spatial deconstructions), that relate to each other spatially and together form a cohesive body of work. The title of the exhibition demonstrates what Coulter considers as the infinite possibilities contained within painting, offering infinite systems or ways to arrange a pictorial field.

Coulter and I come back to painting multiple times in our conversation, as it becomes clear that the primacy of painting is central to her work and shapes her overall approach. Whereas site-specific works or public art might involve multiple steps of pre-planning and input from other parties, Coulter admits that it’s the “immediacy of painting that I love,” which allows an artist to pick up a paintbrush and go. The relationship between the artist and painting is intimate in this way, as the work can be created in an entirely self-contained manner. This strikes me as an interesting provocation, given the level of process and planning that shapes Coulter’s work. Her working process involves a great deal of spatial tests and drawing, formalising the arrangement and form of her work, which means that the physical act of painting doesn’t happen until after this stage is complete. This is perhaps one of the most striking features of Coulter’s works: that on first impressions they might appear straightforward to read, but everything is done with intention and purpose by the artist, that leaves very little up to chance. But this control is never a hindrance to the joyous exuberance of the works, nor does this prevent Coulter’s works from suggesting multiple open interpretations.

The success of Coulter’s practice comes down to this commitment to her practice, coupled with a tenacity to succeed as an artist in a way that fits the rigour and purpose of her practice. One piece of advice that Coulter offers younger artists is to challenge the “hierarchies of opportunities” available and not discriminate against potential opportunities if these paths less followed bring new chances for creative growth. Both Coulter and I speak about the idea of longevity and sustainability of an artistic practice, and what is required to survive working as an artist in today’s climate. In many regards, challenging boundaries in Coulter’s practice doesn’t just look like cross-medium experimentation, it also means recognising that art has a key role to play in our everyday experience of life – whether that be on our screens, in our streets, or in our white-cube galleries. There is something deeply admirable about an artist whose work starts from recognising this radical proposition – of art’s democratic possibility – and then invites us into this dialogue.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63

Infinite Systems
17 June – 2 July, 2023
James Makin Gallery, Melbourne 

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