Alice Grenier Nebout
Earth, Paint and Fire
« My work is my shield. It protects my world of enchantment »
Through painting, French artist Alice Grenier Nebout reconnects with the natural elements and our primal instincts. Like Alice in Wonderland, she immerses herself in large canvases that give life to her fantasized worlds, where human and animal merge with nature in a passionate urge. Carried by her colors, working with her fingers, the artist seeks to touch the essence of man and woman in an almost Fauvist approach inspired by the cinema, poetry and fantastic tales. This outburst of inspiration and paint gives her paintings a volcanic power. In a disconcerting contrast, she welcomed us at POUSH, in her temporary studio on the twelfth floor of an office building transformed by the Manifesto agency into an artist incubator. On the roofs of Paris, Alice Grenier Nebout is reaching deep into the Earth.
Let’s start with POUSH, the artists’ incubator created by Manifesto in an office building undergoing rehabilitation. How did you join the project?
This artist incubator project by Manifesto started two years ago, and I have been part of it for a year and a half. Some artist friends told me about it, and I sent my application to Yvannoé Kruger, the artistic director. I was selected, and then I moved to the 12th floor of the building! I was very excited because there was finally an artist residency in Paris. There were 150 of us when I joined and it was very stimulating, a bit like Andy Warhol’s Factory. It’s something that we hadn’t have before. Today we are 250 artists in total, and it feels like a village. Everyone has their own studio, each floor has its own atmosphere, and we also have exhibition rooms. The building where we are now is going to be entirely renovated and we will be relocating in a former perfume factory in Aubervilliers soon.
When did you start painting and considering art as your livelihood?
During my last year at Central Saint Martins in London, I started doing a lot of film – I grew up close to the cinema industry – and I had this idea of doing video art. At some point, painting called me. I started to get into its materiality, I kept creating. I created a three meter high painting for my final show in school, which was called “The Garden of Delights”. That’s when my love affair with painting began.
As a child you were already painting!
I’ve always been drawing a lot because I was waiting for my parents on their film sets. I still remember sitting there with my chalks. It was my way of passing time, creating my own world. Being on a film set is like being out of time, it’s beautiful. In the end, I was never truly in the real world. I always thought it was great to be able to express yourself with colors and create the world you want to live in. As children, we all draw, some are more sensitive to music, some are immersed in books… I was immersed in color compositions.
You say that painting called you. Can you explain how you had this revelation?
I felt that painting and the colors cured me. The color compositions allowed me to escape from reality, it was almost a necessity to live in these phantasmagorical worlds. I needed it to be alive. Plus, my personality totally adapts to this spirituality. I am not someone who lives in the real world, I am more about dreaming. It is beautiful to live in this way, to be out of the world while being in the world. In spite of that, sometimes I try to approach important and latest events through my work.
Like nature, a recurring theme in your work.
Nature is the main subject of my work. I approach the living world, the living matter. Meaning us, the homo sapiens, our feelings, our sensations, the elements… I have never had this desire to paint what man has built, I paint what is there since the dawn of time, and I paint these landscapes so that we can lose ourselves and find our essence.
A man and a woman are often in the center of your paintings, in a carnal relationship with nature.
What I tried to create with my latest series is a fusion between the elements of the earth, the animal and the human. I like to mix these three subjects to make one, to create a very tactile matter. I work my backgrounds with my fingers, I look for sensuality in the finish of my colors. When I speak of fusion, it is a loving fusion, an embrace. These days, I want to speak about love, and I try to speak about it like a metamorphose – a woman with a deer, a young ephebe with a doe… It’s always an outburst of colors. There is something very passionate about it. I often talk about passion in my work. There is an explosion in the way I spread the material. It’s the volcanic power of color.
The color blue is also recurrent. Is it a coincidence or an obsession?
It might be temporary. Blue is the Earth, and it immediately gives a depth to the painting, which I don’t find when I try to make yellow or red backgrounds. Blue brings a fullness, an escape. At the moment, I am moving more and more towards green colors, I mix my blue base because I sometimes can’t see it anymore. I always create in series, and several paintings at the same time. I start them together, they mature together, it’s a slow process. Each painting has its own personality and temporality. Sometimes I have flashes of inspiration and I can finish a painting in two weeks. Sometimes I struggle before finding what the work will be…
How do you know that a painting is finished?
This is the most difficult thing. I stop when I feel that there is a moment of grace, that the balance is there.
You created a mapping installation for Forest, Julien Sebbag‘s restaurant in Paris. How did this project come about?
It was Dorion who had the idea. Julien came to my studio and loved my work. I was thrilled because I had never imagined seeing my paintings come to life through a mapping projection. I started to draw more than three hundred pastel and oil drawings of all the vegetation and ecosystem of the forests that could live in this magical place that they both created. This was my first time stepping outside of the frame. I love seeing my paintings coming alive.
What are your main inspirations?
My inspirations vary greatly. I always start with a personal experience or a story. I am obviously inspired by cinema, especially French cinema (Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin…). I also read a lot of poetry and tales. Books are very important. A few months ago I re-read Racine’s “Phèdre” several times because I liked his completely desperate state of love. Poems by Éluard. In terms of painting, all the classics inspire me, and I recently went to Florence to see the works of Titian, Caravaggio, Botticelli… Among the modern painters, I admire Marc Desgrandchamps, Peter Doig, Anselm Kiefer.
Your work is also reminiscent of German expressionism, especially the group of artists Der Blaue Reiter.
Expressionism is a movement that inspired me a lot when I was a teenager, I looked at a lot of paintings from that period. I love Egon Schiele in particular. People often say that my paintings are similar to the Fauvism movement. We always have this need to detect references, but in reality, yes, I use bright colors, yes, I don’t mix colors much, but my painting is more organic. We could say that what I do is ‘Expressionist figuration’.
You also write a lot in your notebooks. Is writing a starting point for your paintings?
Absolutely, it is a starting point! Words have always been very important, I would have loved to be able to write. In the making of my works, there are sometimes poems or stories that tell the story of the painting. Sometimes I also write to understand how I’m approaching my painting. I intellectualize my work a lot, sometimes maybe too much, but I like it.
What does it mean for you, being a woman artist?
I never think about the fact that I am a woman when I paint. It just comes out naturally. But I like this incarnation. There have always been women artists, it’s just that nowadays we’re looking at it a little bit more. Women have always been a great inspiration. I talk about goddesses in my paintings, about Venus, Eve, these bewitching and powerful women. I wonder a lot about the representation of women throughout the ages. Today women have gone from being muses to women who make it happen. Now women are entrepreneurs, creators, while at the same they are great mothers, they are beautiful, inspiring and powerful…
Can we say that your painting is feminist?
Of course it is in the sense that I want to protect and glorify women. The term “sorority” also comes up often in my circle of friends. It’s something I try to represent more in my work. In fact, I had done a whole research on female pleasure in painting. I was interested in the representation of men trying to monopolize the beauty of women in the art history, often through violence. It is a subject that I try to analyze, to divert. I would like the representations of female pleasure to be totally embodied in a clear definition, not to be disguised as something else. That may be a feminist approach.
Today the world (and art!) is becoming dematerialized with the rise of the metaverse and NFTs, and it feels like we’re living in a world of nothingness. What’s your stance on that?
It’s something to get dizzy over! In reaction to that, my work acts like my shield. It is a resistance to live in this world. A way to stay in the world of enchantment, to keep on dreaming.
What are your next projects for this year?
I am presenting an exhibition this summer at the Hôtel Gallifet in Aix-en-Provence. It’s a very beautiful mansion in a garden in the center of the city. I will be exhibiting large format paintings there all summer, for three months. I will be also possibly doing an exhibition in Los Angeles… For the moment I really want to concentrate on my work. My goal is to produce about twenty strong paintings this year… I’m pretty ambitious!
Discover Alice Grenier Nebout’s new exhibition “Chambres à Part” at la Villa Kanal in Bruxelles from April 27 to May 2.
Interview: Maxime Der Nahabédian
Photos: Jean Picon