Monique Prieto

Robert Prime

Stronger and more various than those in her 1996 New York show, each of Monique Prieto’s new paintings consists of a limited number of self-contained shapes or lines of high-key acrylic color cavorting amid broad fields of unpainted canvas, not unlike Morris Louis’ “Omegas,” 1959–60, or one of Helen Frankenthaler’s relatively clear, open works of the late ’60s. Per Dr. Greenberg’s prescription, Prieto’s are paintings about shape and color—but in what a different way.

The much-bruited reflux or rehabilitation of “formalism” involves two distinct components: among critics and theorists, a renewal of interest in Greenbergian thought; and among artists, a wary but playful curiosity about the styles of painting to which his ideas—or others derived from them—were once attached. But the intersection of that thought and those styles remains a Devil’s Triangle from which all steer clear.

So this Angeleno’s color has not been stained into the canvas, absorbed into its weave to fabricate an unbroken unity. Instead, it sits, thin though it may be, atop the surface, its crisp edges describing a clear demarcation. It’s almost as though the shapes have been lifted off another work (perhaps a Pop painting by, say, John Wesley) and applied like decals. Each shape or line is a figure on a ground—formalist heresy! And then look at the forms those figures take. Blobby, irregular, animated, they assume stances whose narrative implications cannot be ignored: the big orange shape in Proverb (all works 1998) leans against the ultramarine line to its left like a drunkard against a lamppost; the figure on the right of High Rolling bends over the forest green one nearby as if it were a basketball player addressing a toddler.

Color is shape, in these paintings, and each shape a figure—or, it might be said, a character, in the graphic as well as the narrative sense of the word. For Prieto’s coloristic entities occupy a completely deflated space, with no recession, no atmosphere or modeling, no planar overlay; and in most of the canvases they arc deployed in friezelike left-to-right succession. They inhabit the space of writing, where color doesn’t belong.

Eschewing the allover image, Prieto narrates relations among colors. Frankenthaler or Louis always aim for a single complex but synthetic structure, an architecture of colors; for Prieto, however, each hue remains a distinct entity, so each painting becomes a discursive sequence of intensities. There is a connection here to the self-contained chunks of unmixed color that make up children’s drawings—where the sky is always a detached band of blue at the top of the paper and a tree trunk is a brown column on top of (never within) the green of the ground. This kind of depiction by means of contiguous colored signs precedes the distillation of writing from other forms of graphic activity. For all the intelligence manifested in Prieto’s new paintings—and an almost fearsome degree of control—their shadowless transparency and brightness suggests a disturbing innocence: in a color-world without transitions or admixtures, nothing yearns to be anything but what it is.

Barry Schwabsky