The smell of fresh cut grass in the summertime, wet soil underfoot, big blue sky unfurling overhead. With a Proustian sensibility towards memory and the ways it bubbles up across space and time, the work of French painter Juliette Sturlèse (b. 1989 in Paris) deftly manipulates colour and light to channel subconscious sensory experience. In A little mouse was running through the grass at Annka Kultys Gallery, the artist’s first solo presentation in the UK, viewers find themselves gently enveloped by ten luminous works that behave like portals between inner and outer worlds.
Sturlèse is based between Berlin and Sheffield, a city in the north of England that’s cradled by the ever-rolling hills of the Peak District. As spring showers give way to summer sun, these gentle undulations in the landscape turn a shade of emerald green that’s almost fluorescent, finding a ready match in Sturlèse’s rich colour fields. Buttery swatches of sun, misty strokes of sky, the subtle strata of soil and green earth: in Sturlèse’s scenes, these natural elements are rendered through abstract forms and mental landscapes, brought to life through colour associations. Building on the French iteration of Abstract Expressionism, where inscrutable symbolism gives way to lyricism and a sense of poetry in motion, Sturlèse’s paintings are both seductive and enigmatic, coaxing the viewer into a state of unconscious thought.
The artist was a dancer when she was young; her body remembers these movements, and the canvas keeps the score. A penchant for working at a large scale gives Sturlèse’s work an immediate impact, revealing for the viewer both the physical motions and the almost trance-like state that the artist enters into to create each painting. Yet in their size, her paintings resist the macho tropes of American Abstract Expressionism—splodgy, frenetic, dark, edgy—instead working through a focused precision that hones the vibrations and relationships between colours. Influenced by the American painter Joan Mitchell, whose work Sturlèse first encountered in the Centre Pompidou at age 17, Sturlèse’s work possesses a similar magnetism that veers into the cosmic. Working with a combination of oil paint and beeswax, which isolates each pigment and gives Sturlèse’s canvases an uncanny luminosity, each painting contains its own ecosystem of colour, shape, texture, and light, where symbolic connections are revealed through a kind of synesthesia.
There is also a feminine sensuality to Sturlèse’s paintings, which bear traces of both Georgia O’Keeffe’s playful, richly hued symbolism, and Hilma af Klint’s mystic, large-scale scenes. But in Sturlèse’s work, both the appearance of recognizable forms and the sacred geometry of triangles and circles are swapped out for blobby, atmospheric shapes that swirl, amoeba like, in the painter’s colour fields. Vaguely embryonic, her compositions appear to exist on both micro and macro scales: each scene could be spied beneath the plates of a microscope, or the expanded vista captured by a space telescope. Sturlèse’s multiscalar canvases are a kind of world-building, a delicate interpolation of memory, landscape, and feeling. “Trying to hold together the inside and outside of a world,” the artist shares, “I begin with how it appears and move into how it feels.”
In Sturlèse’s most recent series completed in 2023, A little mouse was running through the grass, the artist’s playful layering of colour and meaning finds a new material outlet: astroturf, discovered in a bin near her studio. The spongy, bristly texture of this synthetic slice of nature is somehow reminiscent of public hair; thrown into the matrix of the canvas’s other inhabitants, the plasticky interloper is both a cheeky and sensual feminine presence. Free range, the astroturf chunks are loosely attached to canvas with magnets; they can be moved around to morph a composition, creating new meaning in the process. In the sunny expanse of Pelouse au soleil, the fake grass hovers above a sapphire blue rectangle like a peninsula or boomerang; meanwhile, manifesting in the mash-mash landscaping of Jardin, chaise et coccinelle, the turf appears to hover between blue and green islands, facing off against a Francophilic blob bedecked with red-and-white stripes. A small, light pink orb—which Sturlèse affectionately terms as her own presence in each painting—hovers alongside a magenta swatch, as if watching the bigger shapes hash things out on the lawn.
Within this series, colour differences signify Sturlèse’s different environments, or worlds. With its yellowy backdrop that’s flanked in blue, Pelouse au soleil is an homage to the sun, while the paler pink-blue backdrop of dans le ciel embodies the sky. The large-scale trio of canvases, Limaçons dans le gazon, Mon chien Figaro dans le jardin, and Jardin, chaise et coccinelle, all feature an emerald green backdrop that’s tinged with blue undertones, representing the Earth, soil, and the fluctuating cycles of decay, death, rebirth, and life that take shape beneath our feet. The garden theme is continued in the smaller-scale works, which are rendered in lush shades of blue and green.
Like a visual translation of Maggie Nelson’s celebrated prose-poem collection Bluets, which expands on the writer’s multifaceted relationship with the colour blue, the constellation of paintings comprising A little mouse was running through the grass are tethered together by their relationship to this colour, which appears in every work. Social scientific investigations into colour suggest that blue and green are perhaps the broadest of colour fields: humans see more shades of green than any other colour, while blue is so strong in the spectrum that even a person who is blind can almost feel it. Sturlèse likewise draws on blue and green as powerful carrier bags for multiple atmospheres, environments, and states of being.
Increasingly, the French artist has engaged with gardening and permaculture, as two activities that strengthen her relationship with the Earth, soil, and landscape: themes that appear time and again in her work. Thinking again to the question of scale in Sturlèse’s work, the capacity for each painting to exist as cell or as cosmos, one is also reminded of Daisy Hildyard’s essay, The Second Body. The writer suggests that every individual body, human or nonhuman, also makes up a larger planetary body, which may be considered a collective ecosystemic body. Every action performed by the individual body has a direct consequence to the health of this planetary body: from carbon emissions to tending a garden. The trick is to see these two bodies and their mutual survival in tandem; through its multiscalar approach, Sturlèse’s work offers us a powerful and poetic window into this more-than-human consciousness.
Sturlèse’s work is a far cry from figurative painting, but one could also argue that the paintings in A little mouse was running through the grass challenge the idea of representation itself: they may be better understood as landscapes of the mind. In the artist’s compositions, shapes appear to form themselves from colour fields, which could also be articulated as chromatic washes of feeling, non-linear access points for a mental free dive. In this series, Sturlèse aims to pare back her work to the loosest possible symbolism of the elements and cosmos—earth, water, air, sun—so as to dilate our capacity for response. In Sturlèse’s practice, painting becomes as much about accessing a state of mind as an avenue for deeper exploration of colour, memory, and landscape. Here, her canvases become sites for reflection and transportation, where internal worlds are always unraveling to meet worlds beyond.
I am here
“Nothing that we use, hear or touch can be expressed as good in words as the senses perceive it.”
Hannah Arendt, philosopher and political scientist, 1906–1975
Juliette Sturlèse’s gaze extends beyond the canvas, into the distance, onto fields and lakes, across landscapes and seas. Her abstract figuration not only manifests people and landscapes, but also describes memories, expresses longings. Through the pictures the past and the future are brought into the now and made visible. Through the colors the essence of the moment is transported to the viewers’ retinas. The expansive sceneries redeem promises of freedom which break out of the four walls of the everyday. Sturlèse perceives her environment with all her senses and powerfully visualizes the immanent emotions which smells, light or human encounters and conflicts awaken in her. Similar to the writer Marcel Proust, an important attachment figure for the painter who with In Search of Lost Time devoted a seven-part novel to memory, Sturlèse creates a visual collection of countless personal impressions with her work.
Her pictures can be seen as reflections on life. Sometimes they are imbued with the gentle light of the south of France, at others the raw beauty of England. Sturlèse moves between the two locations and captures their respective energy. The translation of the experiences into painting is also an attempt to resist digitalization. As early as 1840 the painter Paul Delaroche already announced the “Death of Painting” after seeing one of the first photographs. As it is, the monstrous flood of images we are exposed to on a daily basis appears vulgar in comparison to the immediacy of painting. It is precisely the longing for poesy, the desire for the vital surface and the engaging haptics of materiality that lends the art of painting its vigor.
In Sturlèse’s studio I am embraced by the luminous colors and the two-dimensional hue. I immediately begin to draw references to the representational in the supposedly abstract pictures, discover trees and figures, mountains and fields. But I am also imminently aware that it is my own experiences and points of reference that lead to these observations. What connections do other viewers draw?
The new group of works appears to be symbolic of inside and outside. The brightness of day is juxtaposed to the darkness of night, the visibility of the external is contrasted with the inner world of feelings. For Sturlèse, the author of the pictures, the canvas provides the necessary security to give room to both states. Every single grain of pigment is combined, like the words in a story, to form a pictorial construct. Landscapes and sceneries are carefully built up, held together by oil or bee’s wax as binding agent. In contrast to conventional painting materials, the wax does not mix the individual pigments, instead it places them next to and on top of one another. Like visible electrons around the nucleus they circle around, repel and attract each other; the intensity of every individual particle of color remains visible in its own right. For the painter her time in the studio is a part of life. Her life is painting. The urge to create, to explore, to despair of the material and to fail with a subject is an essential component of the metaphysical spirituality which an engagement with the medium holds in store.
Above all, the pictures give expression to the transience of the moment. The desire to capture the instant, permanently smoldering inside the painter, is manifested on the canvas. “I’m trying to remember what I felt about a certain cypress tree and I feel if I remember it, it will last me quite a long life,“ explained the artist Joan Mitchell. Sturlèse not only attempts to remember, but reflect that which she has perceived back to her environment. The painter generously provides us with access to her deepest inner world, shares her recordings with us, and calls on us to do the same with the help of her pictures.