In Beth Letain’s painting Ocean Floor (2021), a blocky, orange geometric form butts up against the right side of the canvas and touches the top edge, indicating, perhaps, an expanded picture plane outside the confines of the stretcher. For Art Antwerp, the artist has developed this particular disposition into a series. Replicating, repositioning, and repurposing the form, she takes a playful approach to adaptation, allowing for an appraisal of the underlying ideas of progress and process. In an exercise in extrapolation, she assesses the semblance of similitude, probing at the parameters of comparability whilst still implying a certain interconnection or resultant interrelationship.
Letain’s compositions all begin life as small drawings, the products of a daily meditative practice in which she works rapidly, often using wet media such as watercolour and gouache. Drawing in this way, she says, allows her mind to wander and her subconscious to take the wheel. When a particular colour or composition pleases her, she might scale it up a hundredfold on a canvas. However, in the painting process she avoids direct one-to-one translation, instead embracing intuition and improvisation. She prefers to solve problems in the moment, responding as much to the act of painting as to the preliminary sketch. Aware that the pursuit of painterly perfection is fundamentally futile, she accepts imperfection—or, rather, she embraces the human perfect, the momentary perfect, perfection at the point of painting.
Letain’s practice is defined both by an avid, ongoing experimentation into the potential of paint and by a minimalism that extends to medium as well as image. The artist’s essential forms are crafted from the most elementary materials; they are sleek and sexy in their simplicity. Because she makes each painting in a single session, the surface of the canvas has an outsize effect on the qualities of the finished work. Over the years, she has tried different techniques in an effort to better bridge the gap between drawing and painting—whether sanding the prepared canvas to create a velvety finish or selecting a gesso that allows for a watercolour effect. On occasion, she adds pure pigment to her commercial oil paints, increasing their saturation and introducing a matte finish. After she arrives at an appealing arrangement of forms, her selection of colour is intuitive; like someone with synaesthesia might associate a certain number or sound with a particular hue, she knows instinctively which colour should be married to each motif.
Eight years ago, after moving to Berlin (where she now lives and works), Letain began studying German. This process has had a lingering effect on her written English, introducing a peculiar error—the unknowing substitution of common words with their homophones: right for write, way for weigh, whole for hole. In this way, the artist has noted, language revealed itself as a system of interchangeable modules that the mind can recombine at will. Given her interest in this phenomenon, it is unsurprising that much of Letain’s work has a perceptible linguistic leaning. Taken together, her angular arrangements in single colours have a syntax, their areas of negative space around swathes of monochrome paint echoing the pauses that punctuate speech and written language.
Like language, Letain’s painting is an exercise in the use of a finite range of forms, combined to create sense and manifest meaning. You could approach her work as a puzzle waiting for a solution, a coded cypher anticipating a key—but you would be unlikely to find one. Ultimately, her works reflect the thoughts and feelings that we do not have words for, that we cannot adequately express with language, filling the linguistic gap with an idiosyncratic visual vernacular all her own.