Cutting Out the Tongue: The Ontology of Silence

Lary Timewell Bremner  

O tell us, poet, what you do. –– I praise.
–– Rainer Maria Rilke [i]

“Make way for objective mysteries!” declared Paul-Émile Borduas, in the pivotal manifesto of dissident Québecois artists in 1948, Le refus global. [ii] And if the work of Pierre Coupey could not exist, as such, without Borduas, Joan Mitchell, Cy Twombly, or any number of predecessors, it has intermittently retraced its own automatiste roots back to Jean-Paul Riopelle, himself a student of Borduas. In our era, this kind of deep connection should perhaps not be thought of as an exclusive or privileged lineage, but as a living web, a timeless skein, a conversation that traverses time and culture. In the same way, it is clear that Coupey’s proprioceptive process feeds upon the still-emanating energy of a grid of poetic tradition that links the matrices of Homer, Dante, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser. Souls departed, present, all. Pound speaks of being “among the masters of those who know,” [iii] citing Dante’s “fra i maestri di color che sanno” in his Cantos.


The vibrant Notations cluster (1993-1995/1996-1997/1998-2002), to all appearances an expression of confidence, vision, and technique, was actually the product of two painstaking years spent learning various paint handling techniques, a period marking Coupey’s return from acrylic to oil painting. As a result, each of the Notations paintings ‘quotes’ (in brushstroke genres) a plethora of painters whose methods Coupey was trying to discover, trying to reveal to himself. They are, in every sense but the tentative, notations. Of prime importance in any consideration of this cluster is Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series of 135 paintings, and in turn, the tremendous influence that Matisse’s French Window at Collioure, and View of Notre-Dame had on Diebenkorn’s own work. The aerial landscapes viewed from a Santa Monica studio become the more lyrical (clearly northern) valences of Coupey’s series from Sentinel Hill, and with each successive painting the Notations begin to transform from the too-easy reading of abstract as ‘landscape’ (a kind of concession to the figurative) to a synthetic and architectural territory composed of cross-fertilizing references, form, and technique, quoting Matisse’s shapes, de Kooning’s strokes, the unique and transfiguring west coast light. Some works in the Notations cluster are encaustics on paper, a medium calling for decisiveness and speed, with no time for the cumulative pentimenti of regret. If there exists no Notations 1 (except as a canvas in the storage space of Coupey’s studio) it is because the series was done in slow, serious study that their sequential epiphanies disguise and dissolve.

Notations 24 / Notations 25, installation shot, Cutting Out the Tongue: Selected Work 1976-2012,
West Vancouver Museum, 2013


With the work in the Tangle group (2001-2005), Coupey reinvestigates the compounding warp and weft of earthbound, autumnal colour that may have begun with Painting the Lion from a Claw (for DMcN) (1976), from the Wedge series (1980-1988). Characterized by simple, rounded, uncial strokes that recall those favored by Latin scribes in the development of the codex form of book in the 2nd Century, these painting are at once leafy receptors, caudex "trunks of trees," and/ or “blocks of beech wood,” books. In Archer (2005) and Ramp (After CL) (2003), the drips and trails of paint, admitting ascenders and descenders, may be seen as operating in a looser, more cursive manner not unlike shakuhachi scores, while sharper angles might attest to cuneiform, to language carved into clay. And, just as the concertina style square books replaced the continuous scroll, Coupey’s diptychs present le mode recto verso, "two sides of the page" of process, near equivalencies alive precisely by their very difference. Thickets at the vellum edge; codices of the vegetal angels of weather; book, access random, anywhere.

Coupey’s One More Once (for JPR) (2002) speaks directly to and with Riopelle, extending a contrapuntal conversation that marks a significant opening of the expressive field. Where much of Riopelle’s work suggests a metallurgical landscape of almost architectural calcification, with the sharp definition that typifies his non-objective technique, Coupey comes far closer to achieving the stated automatiste goal of a “spontaneity of the sub-conscious” without any sense of the imitative –– intermediary or hybrid.

The black, yellow, white, and red script-like markings of One More Once appear to foreground themselves alternately; do they operate as the beginnings of a language we have not yet found, or as the vestiges of a language that we feel we once knew? Coupey’s post-cursive and prehistoric radicals are memes painted directly out of the silence and rapidly dissolve back into it. They point to the calligraphic ‘scores’ of the Songbook series (2009-2010), and on to the semi-phonetic fragments, stems, and shoots that speak with elegiac eloquence in the works of Between Memory and Perception (2009-2012) and of Field Work (2010-2012). Coupey thinks and works in series as “clusters,” and while the groupings from Counterpoint / Komyo (2007-2008) forward share an increasingly tighter time frame indicative of the artist’s maturity, confidence, and direction, the clusters are not necessarily or merely chronological, but always explorative.

One More Once is an emergence that is verbal and verdant; it is, as Joyce wrote in Ulysses, the “ineluctable modality of the visible,” [iv] but a visible tethered to the invisible, entangled in the aggregates of conditioned existence, but refusing to be trapped in the axioms of subject ‘Art.’ All seeming discontinuity is continuity in the scale of things; ‘to paint’ is a verb, and a brushed or incised ‘v’ is verb, is life.

Another of the large diptychs in this series is Tangle (for JM) (2002-2003), a work dedicated to Joan Mitchell, Riopelle’s sometime partner and lifelong co-respondent in painting. In a similar way, this work is both a tribute to Mitchell and a deeper exploration, a wider dispersion. Here, Coupey’s demarcations and amalgams have been deliberately reduced to something like a fused chronology of weather. Atmospheric black and grey tones: Li Po may come to mind, or Pound’s Vorticist emphasis on “pure form.” “The artist is a part of nature and therefore he never imitates nature” (author’s strikethrough), to borrow Nietzsche’s Zen-like observation. [v]

Tangle (for JM), installation shot, Cutting Out the Tongue: Selected Work 1976-2012,
West Vancouver Museum, 2013


With the advent of Coupey’s remarkable series, Komyo I-X (2007-2008), there is a marked shift to an increased emphasis on flux, to an "interdependent co-arising” of the complex phenomena that signify the impermanence of conditioned existence (無常 mujō). Influenced by the locus of his 1998 show in Tokyo, and by a second trip to Japan in 2003, Coupey returned to his ongoing investigations into Kamakura period semi-cursive calligraphy style of the Zen priesthood – a style as expressive as it is semiotic. And Coupey chose the ‘native’ abstraction Komyo over the concrete-noun titles he has more consistently preferred, distancing this work somewhat from the vagaries of its nearest English equivalent, illumination.

As a corollary to the Buddhist maxim that nothing exists as a singular, independent entity, these towering paintings each form a kind of abstract mandala of presence. The singularity of each painting’s being is divided into the dualities of light and darkness, which are in turn divided by compass-mark glyphs (appendages) into four gates or four noble truths. The arising of these appearances is ordered, rhythmic, and vitally logarithmic. The illumination here is everything from the light behind the eyes in meditation, the Logos of phenomena dancing on the screen of the eyelids, to the original firelight flickering off the walls of the caves at Lascaux.

We can trace the gestural roots of the brushstrokes of the Komyo series back to any number of clusters of proprioceptive investigation in Coupey’s work. The ‘inscrutable’ marks that are at once elaborate and sparse, post-modern and prehistorical, are taken up later in the Songbook series. These ink drawings, studies in the beginnings of cursive sosho style of Kamakura-era Japanese calligraphy, are synonymous with a shift in Coupey’s iconography. Script (Songbook I) (2009) initiates an inkbrush-on-paper exercise that employs quick, impulsive versions of phonetic kana script, done in what appears to be traditional top-to-bottom, right-to-left scroll (albeit in this case, panel) style. Some can be sounded; some can be ‘read’ for trace-meaning. But, by the time Coupey reaches Constant Craving (Songbook VII) (2010)) the kana script has become layered and dispersed, has taken on a silent meaning-life of its own.

As in the anti-conceptual notion of Mu (“Be nothing, and become everything!”) this is a going back to one’s nature by forgetting the forms of the material world. Coupey has created, in a sense, a set of what is known in calligraphic terms as “symbolic radicals,” the indispensable elements that comprise kanji script but which have no pronunciation. Such radicals cannot stand alone but carry an echo/ghost (or a life-spark of semantic value, if you will), and in Songbook Coupey continues to work out his own set of ‘silent’ universal glyphs that will grow in communicative power, and which so recently appeared to ‘speak’ in such pieces/places as Isola San Michele I-IV (2008-2009) and others.

Coupey’s radicals resonate. Phenomena when understood as 'appearances' involve qualia, individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. In the unfolding fields of the Komyo paintings is the pungency of fertile loam, the taste of wine, the grey underbelly of westcoast winter sky, scarlet salmon spawned out and dying in the rivers of Haida Gwaii, tracks of ionizing radiation in a cloud chamber (particles of thick, short alpha and long, thin beta), the nascent alphabet of any and all things that exist and do not exist, there.

In the field of each of these works, Kant’s noumenon (that which is not directly accessible to observation) dances with the Sanskrit seed-syllables of sūnyatā, the suchness/emptiness of inherent existence in all phenomena. Just as the aura of painting itself has not been made obsolete by technology, the calligraphic gesture’s expressiveness, its openness to multiple meanings, extends back past pre-Gutenberg bibles or ahead, in a timeless present, to quantum physics, string theory, the unknown. In the harmony and conflict of the Komyo series are the made-present multiplicities that refuse reductive interpretation. Coupey quotes Matisse, “He who would dedicate himself to painting should start by cutting out his tongue,” [vi] a motivational dictum (as it proved to be) that addresses the impossibility of language to articulate the unspeakable. In demonstrable presence that is the Komyo series, in the invisible and the phenomenal worlds that become more complex over time, what is error and what is accuracy?

Painting the Lion from a Claw (for DMcN) / Archer / Komyo IV & Komyo VIII, installation shot, Cutting Out the Tongue: Selected Work 1976-2012, West Vancouver Museum, 2013


In the general, holistic appreciation of the exploratory overlaps in Coupey’s atemporal groupings, it is the robust, multilingual aspect of his work that one finds most astonishing. The Counterpoint / Lebanon, Lebanon series (2006-2007), clearly the most overtly political of his work, employs everything from poster-like stencil letters in post-incursion decay, through angular or uncial strokes amid always-present strife, to the ashen blur that is any war’s inevitable aftermath. Lebanon, Lebanon (2006) has the power to evoke Picasso’s Guernica, or the fiery shower of arrows in Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō), Akira Kurosawa’s famous adaptation of Macbeth. Banners in tatters, visual re-inscription upon destroyed inscription, the feudal in modern times. In a multi- techné diversity of desperation, works like White Chair (reminiscent of Roy Kiyooka’s Hoarfrost series), Ash, Rig, Site, and the stunning, deep scoring of Postscript: Rendition (2006-2007) present Coupey’s full range to (that) date. I think it is from this point on that his glyphs / gestures / marks become memes entering the bloodstream of another, continually widening, repertoire of clusters and systems.


With something of the molten clarity of Egyptian encaustic, and much of the glow of Byzantine mosaic, the works in the cluster A Book of Days I-XII (1987-1988) explore negative space in a discovered arrangement of ‘modernist’ European shapes and kanji-like fragments. Kandinsky anticipating Jack Shadbolt, Malevich dreaming of the future outlines of Jerry Pethick sculptures, these paintings are the more hard-edged agents of their era, but evidence of the nascent impulse that would give birth to a proto-language in later works. A Book of Days IV (Scroll) (1987) is balanced, is as much eastern as it is western. And if not yet an instance of Walter Benjamin’s now-time (Jetztzeit), neither does it display the kind of overt “mysticism in a posture opposed to mysticism” that the more socially pragmatic Brecht warned about. [vii] The Chair sequence, A Book of Days IX-XII, after Pablo Neruda, is about as representationally symbolic as Coupey ever gets, but its in situ solidity of form manages to convey so much: the condition of Godot, the horrible knowledge of mortality, life, and its interminable execution (is Lorca seated there?) and, in its square, quartered fields, the Japanese notion of gen-ba, of base and origin.

A Book of Days X (After Neruda) / A Book of Days IV (Scroll), installation shot, Cutting Out the Tongue: Selected Work 1976-2012, West Vancouver Museum, 2013


The layers of memory are revealed to us in what we perceive as ‘real time’, but we may be forgiven for forgetting this when we meditatively dwell inside the paintings of the elegiac Between Memory & Perception (2009-2012) cluster. A short distance northeast of the sestiere of Cannaregio, in the Venetian Lagoon, l’Isola di San Michele is the burial place of Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev, and Ezra Pound… among many others. The poet Duncan McNaughton asked Coupey to place pebbles on the headstones of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley in Rome, and to perform the same ritual at the gravesites of Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky at San Michele. (And, as I like to imagine that Coupey placed twelve stones on the grave of Stravinsky, let the apocryphal begin here.)

The paintings Isola San Michele I (2008) and Isola San Michele IV (2009), with the cursive alphabetic figures engraved beneath the asymmetrical ‘radicals’ Coupey had developed in Counterpoint and Tangle, present a conversation with the dead. The iconography is at once the nexus/crux of the Christian tradition and formative oaths of his own making. In the subtext of what is known / what is unknown, the incised letters are prayer, are babble cumulative of song. Coupey drawing his finger, his brush-end through the paint is the same tactile and proprioceptive act as placing stones on the graves of Pound and Stravinsky; that is how the evocation is achieved. And, to keep us mindful of the threads of all music and lineage, Isola San Michele II (2009) emerges from the four-cornered solidity of the Komyo series to join this sangha assembly, this cluster of souls.

Lorca’s Bones I (for RB) (2009), and Lorca’s Bones II (for RB) (2010), commemorate and honor the poets Federico Garcia Lorca and Robin Blaser. Perhaps the most influential poet of the modern literary life of Vancouver, and a multi-disciplinary mentor to Pierre Coupey and dozens of other writers and artists, Robin Blaser passed away in 2009, and is still sorely missed. The same year, excavation began on a remote hillside outside Grenada, in an as-yet unsuccessful attempt to trace the fate of Spain’s most celebrated modern poet and playwright, long believed to have been murdered by the fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Coupey’s stark elegies (again, an activist Picasso comes to mind) appear, quite literally, as the bones that will have to assuage until those of Federico Garcia are found.

Perhaps because Robin Blaser was a real presence in Coupey’s life—both men known for their insightful laughter and celebratory spirit— the memorial paintings Riverbank I (for RB)(2008-2009), and Riverbank II (for RB) (2009) inform us that microcosm and macrocosm are only the conceptual terms for the infinite range of the present in its blossom and decay, fertility and entropy, the evasion of stasis, definition, and death. As a pairing of diptychs (one thinks of Blaser’s poetic ‘doubling’ and ‘folding’) they seem to be two phases, one the dormant but fertile autumn/winter, the other the sudden updraught of spring, its tumble in the full cascade of summer. Even in their ephemeral transience, these paintings have a depth and distance that make it impossible to read them as elegy only.

Riverbank I (for RB) / Ash / Isola San Michele I, installation shot, Cutting Out the Tongue: Selected Work 1976-2012, West Vancouver Museum, 2013


As Pound noted in his introduction to the Cavalcanti poems, “The perception of the intellect is given in the word; that of the emotions in the cadence.” [viii] Variations done for bpNichol 1-12 (1990) comprises a set of paintings of such muted and cadenced intensity that they convey little sense of the kind of consciously foregrounded (and, therefore, interfering) homage or derivation that they might have had in the hands of a painter less devoted to process. It is remarkable that the work of any number of Canadian hard-edged painters of the 60’s—from Roy Kiyooka and Gordon Smith on the west coast, to Guido Molinari in Montreal—reside there, quietly attendant to the honour. I take it as evidence of Coupey’s fierce vigor of engagement, that only after painting the series did he discover it was, in deed, homage to bpNichol. These are figures en majuscule, written for a whole life. The letters of the alphabet were living things to Barry Nichol (as was the entire semantic, phonetic, and visual range of all language) and the letter H was of particular significance to him.

Here, in a series of subdued poignancy, is the tragic optimism that resists death, an impetus made tangible as the passage of a force as it continues beyond the frame of existence (to take liberties with Pound’s notion of the unbounded line.) Each with a warm or cool sheen at once natural and otherworldly, the bars of organic colour can also be read as an H: the bridge and synapse, the wished-for embrace of humankind, and ¬—all too soon in the case of bpNichol¬— the homage. And if there is an echo of Rothko’s “multiforms”—that term so awkwardly and retrospectively applied—it is not so much in the great mouthful of artspeak that was “mythomorphic abstractionism.” It is as if the binary tonality of Rothko’s 1970 painting Untitled (Black on Grey) has, in Coupey, multiplied to keep enduring pace with Nichol’s life-work, The Martyology. “Every angel is terror. And yet / ah, knowing you, I invoke you,” [ix] said Rilke, and these invocations are deep and sedimentary layers, are cross-sections of light earth and dark cloud in a decidedly unsentimental tribute.


The newest of the works included in this survey are from Field Work (2010-2012 and ongoing). In After Rilke III (2012), the black and white wash of the ineffable is soon followed by the palpably tactile sequence that Field Notes VI (2012) exemplifies. (One wonders, again, if the groupings are based in time and techné, or if each exploration is always also a kind of synaptic conduit to other clusters/cultures.) Many of the paintings in this series seem to shift in scale, one panel moving in to a microscopic cross-section slice of the previous panel’s ‘reality.’ What is remarkable here, though, is how the painter’s absolute trust in direct painting reveals (creates) forms not depicted but discovered, in process, in ‘media’ res, as is all consciousness. It is this proprioceptive initiation (over even the more easily understood, but less rigorous, improvisation) that proves the verity of Duncan McNaughton’s extension of the definition of the proprioceptive process as asking “obedience past what predictive habit of mind would conceive.” [x] In Field Work, the exploration involves the skein, the sentient tissue of the canvas, as much as it does the artist’s bodily working with bent nails, sticks, scrapers, or the wooden end of the paintbrush. The traces that come into being remain to speak in a phonetic of impulse and thought that is both pre- and post-verbal. In Field IV (2010-2012), cursive bursts of letter are there, as are remnants of the katakana “ta” (タ) with its phonetic-only echo of “field” (田んぼ, tambo).

Having “cut out the tongue” in order to be rid of the culturo-semantic baggage of spoken language, the artist speaks in the forming and dissolving of graphic relations of intelligent (audible, I swear) gestures toward the Unnamable. In the radiant field(s) of these newest paintings the figures, the ‘sounds’ are nature, are pre-semantic; they tap and release and are gone. Which is why the paintings of Pierre Coupey do what poetry (his or that of any other) cannot. Even Blaser’s ‘astonishment’ and ‘laughter’ are words that, of themselves, can present no sense of astonishment, no true laughter. This is the beautiful failure of language, Rilke addressing God as “you, whom I cannot take hold of now, anywhere.” The unpretentiously titled Field Work asks for no answer but undying vitality itself, no form but as it unfolds and transforms, shifting before it can call out what its name was or is to be. Ontology of the invisible: here is the meme, and it is found, wanting. Alone, wanting; but in consort, sonorous. The words of Erìn Moure, another admired fellow poet, are not lost on Coupey; in point of fact, many of her lines appear as gestural inscriptions within the Field Work cluster:

“To enfant book and word. The word that can be lost and burned.
The word that cannot <shibboleth>. The very birth of language.” [xi]

Field VI (for EM) / Field I / Field II, installation shot, Field Work, Gallery Jones, 2013


Returning to the early Wedge cluster (1976-1988) serves to remind us that each of Coupey’s works, each cluster, is both an internal retrospective summing up of approaches and painter/poet mentor influences, and a new way of getting painting/meaning into existence. Nothing ad hoc; ad hoc nothing. Having now seen the work which has proceeded since 1976, a review of the Wedge paintings becomes an even more rewarding process: here in Studio w/ Two Figures (1988) are the figurative shapes that start their journey from Braque to the luminous grounds of the Komyo series; leading us through a wash of moonlight, Homage to Li Po (1980) casts our eyes forward to what would be the hard-won daylight of Notations. The Nitobe paintings, so named for the traditional Japanese garden at UBC where Coupey was often given special access by a kindly caretaker, are themselves as fully accomplished and mature as any work to follow. Like others of this cluster, they both acknowledge and prefigure the first tributes to Riopelle. And to return full circle, to begin again, Painting the Lion from a Claw (for DMcN) places us squarely in time at the gates of Komyo’s eruptive bloom.

Further evidence of Coupey’s ability to turn even the quotidian and semiotic-laden social into universal agents that slip time and definition can be found in his photographic work, especially in the Projects triptychs (not included in this show). Like poetry, like language, photography is burdened with the easily-read (unavoidable) signified of representation. Coupey’s photowork triptychs continue his efforts to recompose language itself, no small task for painting, let alone photography. Perhaps, in a search for presence as its own vital meaning, there is no such thing as mastery, only energy. Certainly, Gertrude Stein’s phrase, “there is no there there,” points to the centerless field of process that Coupey enters daily. There he may meet Rauschenberg, Riopelle, and Twombly — or Rilke, Lorca, and Blaser, for that matter — to rejoin in what Pound called “an epic poem which begins in the Dark Forest, crosses the Purgatory of human error, and ends in the light.” [xii]

January 2013



i Rainer Maria Rilke. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke. New York: Modern Library, 1995.

ii André-G. Bourassa. et al., eds. Refus global et ses environs: 1948-1988. Montréal: Bibliothèque nationale du Québec,1988.

iii Stephen Sicari. Pound's Epic Ambition: Dante and the Modern World. Albany, NY: SUNY, 1991.

iv James Joyce. Ulysses. New York, Penguin, 2000.

v Frederick Nietzsche. Twilight of the Idols: The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Viking, 1968.

vi Jack Flam. Matisse on Art. Berkeley/Los Angeles: U of California P, 1995.

vii Wim Tigges, ed. Moments of Moment: Aspects of the Literary Epiphany. Amsterdam/Atlanta GA: Rodopi, 1999.

viii Ezra Pound. Translations of Ezra Pound. New York: Faber, 1984.

ix Rainer Maria Rilke. Trans. Edward Snow. Duino Elegies: A Bilingual Edition. San Francisco: North Point, 2001.

x Duncan McNaughton. Preface. Pierre Coupey: Notations 1994-1998. Catalogue. Tokyo: Canadian Embassy Gallery, 1998.

xi Erìn Moure. The Unmemntioable. Toronto: Anansi, 2012

xii Ezra Pound. Selected Prose: 1909-1965. New York: New Directions, 1975.


Lary Timewell Bremner is a poet who also writes about photography and art. Founder of Tsunami Editions in the mid 1980's, he recently returned to Vancouver after 20 years in Fukushima, Japan. His current project is the print-on-demand book series, obvious epiphanies press. A book of new work, molecular hyperbole, will appear in 2013.

This essay first appeared in the catalogue for the survey show, Pierre Coupey / Cutting Out the Tongue: Selected Work 1976-2012 (West Vancouver Museum / Art Gallery at Evergreen, 2013).

Copyright ©  Lary Timewell Bremner

Installation photographs: Ted Clarke / Image This