Art Review: Monique Preito

Repent! Repent!, (2008), oil on canvas.

SHOULDS AND WANTS: NEEDS AND DESIRES

With a critically praised show in 1995 that launched her as a recognized artist in the gallery scene, Monique Prieto has been navigating a discursive field of critics, writers, gallerists and collectors whose role is to interpret, analyze and evaluate the objects she makes. Much has already been written on Prieto’s work in regards to the artists who have informed her work (among others, Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol) and what her debut works heralded (a reinvention of abstraction in the early 2000s). The problem is while these artworks are finished and done, the artist keeps making work, hence the narrative that builds around the artist and the work that keeps getting made does not always align over time. For Monique Prieto, the buildup of words over the years to describe what she does has not contained her practice, which in many ways allows more freedom in how we can view the work.

Rather than fully embrace the titles conferred on her by critics, Prieto sidestepped positions and has consistently put forward the idea that people just need to see the works. As she stated in an interview with David Pagel in 2000: “I love making paintings and part of what I try to do is be generous with each painting. I try to give people something, for them to have an experience.”[1] In our own conversation for this essay, Prieto asked “why do we ask so much from painting?” This question summarizes the crisis for painters in the Western paradigm dating back to the Renaissance. It asks why we demand so much in regards to how painting should function and in many ways, why it should exist. At the heart of this question is the implicit obligation put on artists that their work must somehow matter. It’s the predicament of “Shoulds” versus “Wants.” As an art object, paintings are desired, it’s a “want” but to matter, society demands that it “should” do something beyond giving us sensorial pleasure. Having gone through the modernist demand for criticality in art, the artist and art object are obligated to have a foundation based on theory from which the work can be interpreted. However, too much “shoulds” leaves us with a rather dry but critically-good-for-you artwork. Conversely, too much “wants” can fall into the realm of the empty, pure spectacle. It’s a delicate and complex stance for artists and Prieto gives us both in some measure so that they play off each other, so much so that the experience of looking is both pleasurable and substantive.

Slurpee Slurpee, (2016), acrylic on wood diptych.

Have a Slurpee!

As the titles Slurpee and Orange Julius suggest in her most recent works, Prieto plays with our senses to open other possibilities to seeing. Slurpee and Orange Julius are words that are deeply ingrained in most of us who have had the luck to indulge in junk food in our youth. Two frosty drinks that are loaded with sugar and utterly delicious, they are momentarily satisfying and always leave us desiring for more. (If you haven’t had either beverage, I’d suggest you try one now.) In describing these works, Prieto said she wanted the viewer to appreciate painting in an immediate sense, like a crunch when you bite into that crisp potato chip (or better yet, a Dorito chip.) The paintings, like the eponymous drinks, are presented as wants but by providing this framework of immediacy, there is also that critical should. She playfully and critically presents the idea that there is substance in the act of enjoying the work and the visual seduction it can offer us. The paintings, are black line drawings that hint at sets of ears which are filled with vibrant color pairings that swirl around one another, playing up the effect of the colors as they recede and move forward in the composition. With ears as a figurative framework, the abstract elements can play in meaning vacillating between the suggestion of cool, frothy drinks and cool abstract paintings. They are simultaneously both, allowing room to access meaning and hence experience in any way the viewer can “get it.” When considering her audience in relationship to her work, Prieto says:

There are a lot of people out there and a lot of ways to look at the world; a lot of ways to do what you feel is right and helpful and important. It can’t be narrowed down, and that’s part of the problem that people will have to deal with. If the genre doesn’t pointedly help somebody or do something about a very serious problem then it’s considered a waste. But it’s more complicated than that. There are a lot of choices and people find a lot of ways to get through linings, and sometimes looking at a painting makes a person feel good for a moment. And that sets other things into motion. And that has consequences.[2]

The consequences Prieto refers to is the sensorial echo of the aesthetic experience. The thought or feeling that lingers after the moment of experiencing a sight or sound. It’s the remainder of the artwork that stays with you, forming into part of your consciousness that inevitably reframes the way you end up seeing the world around you. Of course, we ought to consciously fill up on good or worthy experiences to inform our worldview. But as you well know with your late-night binge watching and secret midnight snacking, our desires often overwhelm our morals. Prieto’s work falls in-between these two realms of experiences. The painted black lines that suggest ears act as visual signs for the parts of us that are receptive to the world. Taking up the entire composition of the painting, these shapes on the canvas draw us into the work as they frame the dynamic colors in the center. Going back to the crunch, this sound we hear is internal rather than external and mixed with the sound is the tactility of that crunchiness as we bite into the chip, the saltiness of the flavor and the satisfaction of the total sensation. It’s a simple pleasure but complex in the way we have a total experience. Prieto’s paintings call to mind that total sensation, that it isn’t always just with our ears but with our eyes as well that we can hear and taste an object.

however unlikely However Unlikely, (2009), oil on canvas.

When viewed from this perspective, Prieto’s works relieve us of the obligation to “make sense” of the work in some disinterested gaze. She takes us in and provides the opportunity to revel in the color and composition of the work, all the while doing so with painting techniques and ideas that are critically informed by those who have gone before her in the painting canon.[3] This is not to say that the works are simple, indeed they are rather complex compositions that could be discussed from their relationship to process, appropriation and the construction of imagery. In the word paintings (Repent Repent, 2008 and However Unlikely 2009), Prieto challenges the viewer with what is seen versus what is read. The word paintings are made up of seemingly rough-hewn blocks that are stacked to form vaguely familiar phrases. As a painter, Prieto consciously lets the viewer know that there is illusion at play in the composition. The objects in the center of the picture plane are readable as text but as well, they immediately break down by the deliberateness with which Prieto makes us aware of the construction of them; the placement in the center of the composition, the obvious brushwork of the blocks. Moreover, once you know that these vaguely sensible terms are sentence fragments from the 17th century diary of a British naval administrator[4], the work expands and re-informs whatever meaning you initially take in. It’s a building up process in the comprehension of the work. That also is part of the enjoyment in these works as the artist not only plays with the intersection of the visual and sensorial but the conceptual and critical as well.

POLKA 3 Polka 3, (2014), fabric collage and india ink on paper.

One Last Dance

Painting, having gone through a history of dismantling, reinventing and resurrecting, is a difficult practice. If anything, it’s an artistic discipline that demands the artist remain unfixed and open ended in making finite objects. To make a figure while remaining abstract, to give it meaning without closing it down, these strategies mean a painter must discern how much to give without giving it all away.  In our current culture that is immediate and thrives on images that lie just above the surface, Monique Prieto’s artistic practice has maintained the complexity of image making by giving us what we want and countering that with what we need. Her 2014 painting series Polka has continuous, black, calligraphic lines against crisp white paper; the paint gently puckers against the paper and conjures up figures that come and go, edging towards representation, only to disappear into being merely a line. The lines play with representation and abstraction, filled in at times with swatches of colorful, patterned fabric. The composition acts like a shimmery field of signs that can be immediate (the colors! The shapes!) but also plays a long game in the art discourse. As the title suggests, the artist acknowledges that between the moment of making the work and viewing it is a dance that is satisfying but only because she has practiced so her partner can benefit.

 

NOTE: Monique Prieto has new works currently on view at Chimento Contemporary

 

 

 

[1] David Pagel, “Artists in Conversation,” BOMB Magazine 72, Summer (2000), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2315/monique-prieto.

[2] David Pagel, “Artists in Conversation,” BOMB Magazine 72, Summer (2000), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2315/monique-prieto.

[3] I’m reminded of Henri Matisse’s idea of offering up painting as a “comfortable armchair” to the weary worker in his essay “Notes of a Painter,” (1908).

[4] Pepys, Samuel, O. F. Morshead, and Ernest H. Shepard. 1926. Everybody’s Pepys; the diary of Samuel Pepys, 1660-1669. London: G. Bell and Sons.

 

Author: hcvalentine

Christina Valentine is an independent curator, writer and educator.

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