By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
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By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
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In the decade following her emergence from CalArts in 1994, Monique Prieto led what can only be called a charmed career. The summer after graduation, she was one of two students recommended by CalArts for a free ride to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture’s prestigious summer program in Maine. (Laura Owens was the other.) That fall, Robert Gunderman and Randy Sommer offered her the second show at what would become one of the most respected galleries in Los Angeles, ACME. She made large, sleek, exceedingly pretty abstract paintings and had 16 more solo shows over the next 10 years, in Los Angeles, New York, London and Venice. She was reviewed widely, consistently and enthusiastically, and the work sold extremely well. One of several young, local painters to pursue what was, at the time, a broadly discouraged mode of practice, she was hailed as a key player in the long-awaited redemption of L.A. abstraction.
In 2003, however — at the top of this lucrative game — she jumped ship, went into hiding for two years and emerged with something altogether different: a series of text paintings that were as heavy, awkward and enigmatic as her previous work was clean, elegant and affable. It was a startling transition. There is a brand of shape-shifting that one takes for granted in this era of artistic dilettantism, with so many artists trying their hands at so many different things simply because they can, but this was something different: less strategic, more complete, and more resolute.
Over the course of our conversation in the spacious, sky-lit studio behind Prieto’s hilltop Echo Park home it became clear that it was a shift driven as much by moral concerns as aesthetic ones — that, indeed, Prieto drew little distinction between the two. It was also clear that it sprang from a place of uncommon integrity. Back in the mid-’90s, Prieto’s prospects were blossoming on another level as well: Recently married to longtime partner and fellow CalArts grad Michael Webster, a composer, she gave birth to their first child, Guillermo, in January 1995. A second son, Emmet, followed two years later, and a daughter, Rose, two years after that. From the moment she stepped into the game, in other words, the affairs of the art world were far from her primary concern.
“It was great,” she says of the early success, “it was a great experience. But the really great fortune is that I was already doing the love and the baby thing, and that was really important — that was very clearly important — so that what I could have very easily gotten caught up in, the ‘ooh, you’re so special, you make nice art, come to our party and be seen!’ — that was not at all enticing.”
Prieto came to the text paintings, she says, “in a roundabout kind of way that took me a while to understand,” but that stemmed largely from a growing dissatisfaction with the category in which she’d found herself situated and a desire to understand her place in the big picture. She was traveling with her family and some friends through Europe, communing with the likes of Goya and Velázquez — “It was all so moving and prescient,” she says of Goya, “and so much on the surface, like he was just there” — when the Iraq war broke out and she came home knowing she had to make a change. To make sense of who she was in the world, she says.
“When I started doing that first work, right after I got out of school, it was a very different time with a very different set of givens. It was a different time in the country, it was a different time in the art world, and for me that was break-out work because I was fighting against a different kind of current. It was lively for me at the time. But you do get to a point and things change around and the context changes and you realize that there are things that art can do that it doesn’t always try to do anymore, especially recently, and I felt like I wasn’t being responsible in that way. I had the kids and we were all out there in the streets with the protests, and I thought, I’m doing this on this level, there should be some relationship in the studio to the whole activity too. It’s easier to relate to abstract painting — I mean it’s easier to accept it and not question it.”
She pauses and then speaks slowly, careful with her words. “Abstract painting can be readily absorbed. Even if there’s content in it, there are those who will happily ignore it and just see the forms. And you know, you can accept that for only so long before it just starts to get on your nerves. I don’t go out much to see all the shows because I just find it a little hard on my psyche —” she laughs “— but you go out on one of those days and you see everything out there and you see your company and at some point I just felt bad about it.”
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