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Review: Monique Prieto at ACME Gallery

January 15, 2009 | 10:57 am

Yesterday and Today

Fifteen years ago, Monique Prieto burst onto the scene with a series of squeaky-clean canvases that changed the way people thought about abstract painting in Los Angeles.

Five years ago, she turned her back on the crisply composed monochrome blobs that had become her signature, ditched acrylics for oils and began painting pictures of phrases borrowed from the nine-volume diary of 17th century Englishman Samuel Pepys, in a style best described as caveman-graffiti.

That stunning shift from hard-edge abstraction to messy image-and-text Conceptualism pales in comparison to the changes that have taken place between Prieto’s earliest word paintings and her new ones at ACME Gallery.

The 13 works in “A Boatfull of Spaniards Singing” are the best canvases Prieto has painted. Richer, subtler and more complex, they are also more wide-ranging, ambitious and psychologically charged than the works she has exhibited since 1994 in 11 consistently terrific L.A. solo shows.

Everything in Prieto’s new paintings is more sophisticated: more seasoned and more sensitive yet less precious, pointed and eager to please. Confidence and sweetness commingle in ways rarely seen in art or in life. This makes for paintings that invite the best from viewers and embody a type of interactive optimism that is anything but naive.

Repent! Repent!
The phrases Prieto picks from Pepys’ down-to-earth diaries are shorter and more open. Most include only two or three words: “Mad in Love,” “Yesterday and Today,” “Humility and Gravity,” “Looking Another Way” and “Repent! Repent!” Even those with more words, such as “Smoke in the Ruins,” “As Much as We Could” and “It Was Done in the Street by Strangers,” are pretty generic, applicable to different situations and evocative of diverse story lines.

Prieto’s palette mostly consists of washed-out colors. Sun-faded passages look as if they have endured extreme temperatures. Turpentine-thinned sections suggest scarce resources, serious frugality and stubborn determination.

Yet supersaturated pinks, blues and golds add electrifying jolts to the overall mellowness of Prieto’s scuffed-up surfaces. This emphasizes that inconsistency is the lifeblood of idiosyncrasy and the heart and soul of these stirring paintings.

The most significant changes to Prieto’s art are compositional. The suggestion of 3-D space enters the picture as never before, as does a sense of swirling, vertiginous movement. Both recall such early 20th century American masters as Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe, along with such incompatible influences as Robert Delaunay, Milton Avery, Philip Guston and Pierre Bonnard.

Prieto makes the madcap mélange look not just sensible but strangely beautiful, a mix-and-match patchwork that partakes in the make-do adaptability of crazy quilts and the polyglot cacophony of suave cosmopolitanism.

Profoundly generous and deeply satisfying, her new paintings are among the most free-spirited works being made today. Looking at them never gets old. It gets better.

ACME Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-5942, through Feb. 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

— David Pagel

Top: Monique Prieto's "Yesterday and Today," (2007), oil on canvas; bottom: "Repent! Repent!" (2008), oil on canvas. Credit: ACME