New York

Monique Prieto

WALKING BOTH FORWARDS AND BACKWARDS. This phrase, which appears in one of eight new canvases exhibited recently by Los Angeles–based painter Monique Prieto at Cheim & Read, neatly encapsulates the artist’s current project. A long-time inhabitant of the interzone between allusion and depiction, Prieto has lately begun using words in an attempt to further her experimental dialogue between past, present, and future modes of address. In making the work for which she has become known over the past ten years, Prieto has often used a computer as a preparatory tool to generate idiosyncratic compositions that oscillate between latter-day biomorphism and a more self-contained, purely abstract vision. Now, in order to keep things fresh, she has turned to seventeenth-century diarist Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) for inspiration.

WITH THE GREATEST LIBERTY AND LOVE. Pepys’s words, rendered by Prieto in cartoonlike letters of wildly varying size that tumble across roiling fields of color, reflect both the turbulent richness of the famous Londoner’s life and times and the enduring, universal nature of his personal and political insights. Prieto gives each letter a ramshackle solidity, as if it were hastily assembled from homemade Lego bricks. The effect—a self-aware but uncynical naïveté reminiscent of late Philip Guston—is endearingly rough-and-ready, but this is not to say that the paintings aren’t skillfully assembled. On the contrary, Prieto’s facility for animating flat surfaces with opaque but effervescent shades of magenta and lilac, buttercup and rose, sky blue and sea green, is immediately striking and an uncomplicated pleasure. In liberty and love (all works 2005), for example, letters rendered in black outline surrounding unprimed canvas are edged by irregular halos of orange, yellow, purple, and gray as they hover over a flat pink ground.

THE TIDE BEING AGAINST US WHEN WE WERE ALMOST THROUGH. As Artforum reviewer Christopher Miles points out in an essay accompanying the show, Pepys’s life was hardly a simple one. While his journals famously document calamitous events including the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, they stop before his two Tower of London imprisonments and his role as confidant to two kings. (Pepys ceased writing in 1669 due to problems with his vision.) Tide and we broke up (the full text of which, THEN WE BROKE UP, is rendered against an appropriately downcast drool of blue and brown) remind us that public disaster and personal trials are inevitably forever intertwined. Pepys’s gift, to which Prieto pays homage, was to make both into equally compelling subjects.

OUR EYES IN PARALLEL LYNES. our eyes looking in parallel lynes. While most of the Pepys quotations that Prieto has chosen could conceivably have been written yesterday, a couple, our eyes and my owne jealousy, are dated by archaic spellings. The small variations are not immediately apparent, as the changing scale and eccentric fracturing of each “lyne” (they are rarely parallel) slows reading to a meander. But once the slight differences of orthography are identified and understood, they add both historical resonance (one that incidentally recalls Ed Ruscha’s 17th Century, 1988) and a subtle linguistic music to the work.

ALL NIGHT VERY PLEASANTLY AND AT EASE. But if Prieto’s project is a fitting tribute to a great cultural figure of the past, it has even greater value as a tribute to an ongoing creative tradition of immersion in the present moment—and also as a measure of painting’s own resilience. Thus a choice of source material that might at first seem arbitrary ultimately represents a choice that is both informed and instinctive, and thus doubly relevant. In bells, the text THE BELLS RANG EVERYWHERE peals across a swirling, psychedelic backdrop that echoes its celebratory air and, along with all night, gives an already-affirmative show a positively joyful lift.

Michael Wilson