When Joanne Corneau was growing up in the countryside of Quebec, her father, a religious man used to buy heavy art books from Paris and hide them in a walking closet so that his daughter couldn’t find them. “He didn’t want me to see nudes by Paul Cézanne or Van Gogh,” she says in her soft accent. When he left for town, the seven year-old would study the masterpieces. “By then, I understood I would become an artist.”
Changing her surname to “Corno,” the young artist settled in Montreal and 20 years later, moved to New York City, staying for 20 more. “I always knew I would end up in the city,” Corno tells me inside her white spacious studio in Soho, in which paintings rest on the ground against the walls, facing close to a hundred cans of paint horded in the middle. “I like to have everything right in front of me,” she smiles, her curls bouncing lightly on the slender shoulders whenever she moves her hands.
Corno is hip and youthful in heeled sneakers and matching Pilates outfit, “I like Pilates, not yoga. My wrists are now finished and I need to wear wristbands.” Humble and apologetic, she reveals that a filming crew has stopped by to document her life and left a mess behind. The French-Canadian journalist in charge of digital archiving has taken the kitchen for an office- paint splats decorate floor tiles, only sparing matching cabinets and leather seating.
For over 40 years, Corno has explored the visual language of abstract art. Her figurative paintings burst with vibrant and daring colours against lush textures to represent forceful gestural movements. Borrowing fluorescent colours from Pop artists and balancing her own neutral hues, Corno’s nude figures are playful in many ways. “I like contrast,” says the contemporary artist, as seen in the compositional energy of her feminine portraits, both luscious and audacious. “I used to think my art represented new expressionism,” she describes, but over the years it became “urban expressionism,” influenced by the graffiti street culture of big cities in the 1980s, when Neo-expressionists like Julian Schnabel portrayed the human body in a violently emotional way.
Her paintings are being showcased in esteemed galleries in major cities globally including Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Miami, Paris, Dubai, and Singapore. The gallery show last January sold the entire series of portraits, some 20 feet long.
“I was surprised, but then again, people relate to the same set of emotions and desires,” she claims, adding that her receptiveness to culture wouldn’t allow for the display of controversial nudes, recently showcased at the Opera Gallery in New York, a stone’s throw away from her studio. Next is Beirut and Berlin, where she dreams of taking her art, which will most likely include nudity.
To prepare for shows, Corno paints alone in series for months. Her day begins at 10am after the garbage trucks have made their morning rounds, and ends after happy hour, when dinner invitations with friends have settled plans for the evenings. In her airy studio, she lays half a dozen canvases flat the ground. Using acrylic paint thinned out with glaze to create a subtle wash of colour, she applies several layers with wide brushes. Dipping spatulas in water-based acrylics she coats her surfaces simultaneously and adds acrylic gel and varnish, “brand Clear Touch Up, which is ‘impeccable.’”
New York forced her to stop using oil; it takes too long and it’s toxic. A massive, noisy fan she calls, “the monster,” sucks out most of the chemical particles from the air while a gigantic plastic sheet covering the wooden floorboard protects the polish from dust and smears. Sometimes the artist vacuums, but her habits include meditating, drawing and listening to Hip Hop music from her iPod. Only recently has she been able to use stereo speakers that don’t always drone out street noise. “I get easily distracted,” she says, adopting a rigid work ethic as a result.
Corno’s body of work act not only as an emotional confrontation but a plea to resolve conflicts. “Paintings are a big disappointment,” since they have a mind of their own, their own karma, she claims, making the artist lose control of the process. She argues that paintings develop on their own and make decisions in the final stages. She draws examples from childbirth to make her point: “It’s like wanting to have the baby out, but the baby is not ready.” Like babies, paintings decide when to face the world.
By channeling her energy towards specific ideas and goals, Corno has become confident, comfortable, and accepting once the piece is finished. “When you are younger your energy works in sparks, bouncing in many directions and as you get older the energy punches you,” she jokes, her approach, direct and simple as she works in one shot, preferably on larger surfaces for total freedom of expression. Occasionally “bad ghosts,” or negative vibes disrupt workflow and in that case, “I kill the painting,” splitting the canvas into two with a knife. She has become more cautious about trash disposal after a street vendor sold her drawings for $100 a piece while the building superintendent stored a few in his apartment.
On the fire escape, Corno points in the direction of West Broadway, the artistic and commercial artery of Soho, and the location of her spacious apartment. The walls are white, absent of her artwork. “I can make things cozy out of a cold colour,” she quips, fixing her eyes on the white building façade across the street. “That building caught fire two years ago, when I first moved into the studio.” Renovation has been a nightmare and the digging down the street continues. “There is so much digging, if not here then somewhere else…and that’s when I ask myself, why me?” Shaking her head, she announces: “Deal with the noise; it’s New York, where I was meant to end up.”
Full featured article in RagMag February 2013
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