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Artists at Work: Monique Prieto

Monique Prieto, Burnt by a Bullet, 2006, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4cm. Courtesy the artist
Monique Prieto in conversation with Thomas Lawson
Monique Prieto, Burnt by a Bullet, 2006, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4cm. Courtesy the artist

This is a new series of interviews with artists aimed at exploring the realities of studio practice. Inspired by the long sequence of interviews with writers, Writers at Work, that has been a feature of The Paris Review since George Plimpton first persuaded E.M. Forster to talk about the way he went about his work, these interviews will seek to examine the particular kinds of decision-making that artists confront on a daily basis. This first interview, with painter Monique Prieto, was conducted in her studio on 5 May 2006. The entry point to discussion was a new group of paintings that Prieto had shown the previous year in New York, London and Los Angeles.

THOMAS LAWSON: Let’s talk about the change that has come about in your painting these past few years. When you started, how you moved from the more abstract shapes of your earlier work to this new use of language as an image.

MONIQUE PRIETO: Right. A lot of it was a direct result of things shifting in the world; the invasion of Iraq was a real moment of crisis for me. I had already been slowly resigning myself, or giving myself permission to let things evolve for other reasons, bigger art reasons. But the whole movement towards war and my feeling unheard and ignored in the political process made it seem all that much more important. I decided I wanted to take a flying leap, just take a real risk. So part of the whole shift is actually a gesture of pure change, just saying, ‘how about change?’ Then once I had decided that I was going to say, ‘how about change?’ I wanted the change to make sense in the thread of the work.

TL: I must say that politics didn’t seem like an obvious component of your art thinking before.

MP: No, it was never an obvious component in the way that we know it can be. But politics have always been a part of how I relate to the world. I’ve always been conscious of things, and even more since bringing up little people. In the earlier work I had made some attempts to introduce that kind of content in a very sly or tricky way. Whether it gets there or not, I don’t know. But at least putting it there made me feel better. And I think it was the frustration of knowing that this was an impulse of mine and feeling that maybe this was not the right time to squash that because that impulse was being squashed so broadly. You know, I have my tiny little soapbox in the studio, and so why not let myself say something? Even though the new work isn’t overtly political in its text, just using language differently from the way I felt it was being used against us seemed like a good move.

TL: So how does that work? I think I understand how language has been used against us. I think the expectation would be that, if you’re going to speak back, you would somehow speak back in the here and now.

MP: Yes.

TL: But you went back to the 17th century to find this language. And it’s very personal source: a diary.

MP: Yeah. Well, I guess there are some layers to that. There are so many ways to be political and to act politically. And if you don’t have enough time or enough motivation to join the DNC or whatever, there are things on a personal level. Sometimes just sharing the personal is an option. But because I’m a painter, I knew I didn’t want to go so far as to share my actual personal diaries, if I had them. I didn’t want it to be confessional. I knew I was going to use words, and I wanted to keep it personal, because that seemed a way to open up our shared experiences. Then I came to realize that what I was going to do was bring someone else into it. And then Samuel Pepys popped up in front for me.

TL: Tell me how that happened.

MP: I knew of the diaries and had tried to read them when I was 21 or something. I just didn’t have the time, and I didn’t have access to all of them. I was working in a library, so I’d flip through them. But I never really sat down and read them from beginning to end. I’d really pretty much forgotten about them. But one day I walked into my local used bookstore, and there was a whole set of nine volumes on the table. It was just one of those things, a coincidence. I was looking for something personal, but outside of myself, to reference. I picked up a volume, opened it up, and that was it. I knew. Because it was so banal. At the same time it was completely charged with what was going on at the moment. And it was deeply personal. It seemed like everybody’s experience. And the language was attractive because it was so up for grabs. Spellings had not yet been agreed upon, you know, and there was the lovely, quaint use of turn of phrase, the floweriness that seemed like bravado. I liked it.

Pepys has been a good source, for me. You’ve got to read his diary. There are nine volumes, and I’m on volume six. He’s riveting in that he’s, you know, it’s entertaining. He has a lot of bad habits.

TL: And he’s willing to share them.

MP: Yes. In detail. And surprisingly enough, across the centuries, across the genders, across all kinds of barriers, we have lots of things in common.

TL: When the time comes to have a survey of the work, will there be a narrative arc to it?

MP: It would appear so. This I’m noticing as things unfold. And that’s just how art is. You’re making choices all day long, and your choices are reflected. I am picking some things and not others. There are a few narratives that run through; there’s a personal narrative, there’s an art world narrative, and there’s a political narrative. I think those three layers keep kind of flowing through the whole thing. I try not to really think about it, now that I’ve become conscious of it, because I don’t want to work on the narrative. Happily, it just takes care of itself. It’s just how people are.

TL: Right, you’re attracted to particular sets of phrases and pieces of information, and over time it turns out that they are cumulatively what they are.

MP: Exactly. In the previous work with the abstract shapes of color, I often felt that I was setting out to make a very particular picture of something. And many times I was pleased to find that I had made a very particular picture about something completely different, something that was actually very important to me, which I wasn’t acknowledging. And the same thing happens in these paintings – I think I’m choosing a phrase because it really says something about this, but in fact it also says something about that other thing that I can’t get at so easily or clearly.

TL: So I want to go back with a question first, and then go forward. How had you decided that you were going to use words?

MP: Right. Like I’ve said, ten years ago I would have told you to shut up if someone had said, you’re going to be making text paintings someday. I would never have believed it. But when I had decided that I was going to really give myself room to make a change in the work, taking two years off from commitments, no shows, not working towards anything leaving the studio. I started working on a very small scale, and set myself a few goals. I wanted to bring black back into the paintings, which was a color I had completely left out for the previous ten years. That was the first thing that just kind of got me going. And then I wanted to reflect the historical moment, I wanted to let my very conscious awareness of the times be reflected in the work.

Leading up to this decision I had been in Madrid, and had spent some time in the Prado. I’d looked at all the great Goya paintings – he is so important. You know I just saw that show of Goya’s last work, when I was in New York. I hadn’t seen those paintings before, they weren’t at the Prado – I guess they were being packed to go to New York. They were devastating. They’re really amazing paintings. They’re hardly there. It’s almost as if he couldn’t have been bothered to do them, but he did. And there’s something about that kind of ambivalence that really sits on a surface. And that just makes you feel so much better about completely losing it in the studio, doing strange things, or feeling it’s time to take a new turn.

At the Prado I also found a lot of other great things, and one painting in particular, a Rogier van der Weyden painting of Christ being lowered from the cross, really caught my attention. What worked about it for me was the way the information in the painting just spilled out into your lap in a very generous way. Back in the studio I was trying to make sense of these things, of Goya and Van der Weyden. I did a series of drawings, black and white drawings with words that I think had something to do with thinking about Goya.

Looking at these drawing I began to feel that the black was a really strong element. I had taken it out of the paintings originally because it can be very graphic, and because it has an angst to it that at the time was not at all useful to me. But it seemed right to let it do its thing again, to bring it back for exactly those reasons, to kind of be blunt and…

TL: When you say ‘graphic’, is it because it in some way it suggests printers’ ink, and text…

MP: Yes, in the way it works outlining things or making things look posterish. I did a lot of what seemed to me like unsuccessful small series on paper.

TL: Was it difficult to work for two years without a commitment to show them, without that kind of outcome? I mean, just… free-range working?

MP: Well, I didn’t say to myself I’m absolutely going to come up with something new, and I will never turn back. I knew that there was a possibility that I would get nowhere. And it wasn’t really until the very end of my two-year period that I got anything fruitful from the whole endeavor. It was a really terrifying two years because I had let myself break completely from the work that everybody that I knew, already knew. And you know there had been no problem with that work, I could have continued with it. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore. But to make that break, and then not get someplace else immediately was really terrifying. I had the support of my husband, Michael, but I missed the response of others coming in, showing enthusiasm, giving feedback.

TL: When you gave yourself this break, did you say, two years, I’m going to take two years? Or were you just going to take a break, and see how long it goes?

MP: At first I was just going to take a break. But, you know, I’ve been really fortunate and been showing regularly. So I soon decided to make no commitments for showing over a two-year period. I told people I wasn’t going to do a show.

TL: You took quite a risk, since at the end of two years you might have had nothing to show, and people who once supported you might have moved on in their interests.

MP: It was a really scary situation. And then things just changed on a dime, just turned suddenly, and within the span of a week I suddenly knew where I had gotten to. But that was after two years. It was scary.

And then I had another problem at the end of the two years, because I suddenly had this new work that I really wanted to show really fast, and everybody was saying that their calendars were full, maybe next year. That was a hard period because I was really excited to show the work. And part of it was wanting to show the paintings when they were still in a very raw, nascent stage.

TL: So let’s walk through what happens, how the new paintings come into being. How do you proceed from reading Pepys – do you start marking phrases?

MP: Yes, I take copious notes from Pepys. I select bits from his diary. What I find I’m looking for are phrases that are hard to nail down in meaning, or that open up a few different images in your mind. I don’t switch word order, but I do take things out of context.

TL: Is that an attempt to make them sound relevant or contemporary in some way?

MP: I am trying to bring them into the 21st century. Language has that amazing ability. It brings him here to me. But it is also a way to introduce another kind of abstract imagery-making resource – there are pictures being made with words.

TL: So then, so you’ve got these phrases. Now you have to make them visually available, which means a typeface.

MP: Right, right. Once I had the words, the new problem becomes, how do I let these words represent themselves? And you know the answer came within that same span of a week. It was just one of those things. I was stuck on the Santa Monica Freeway heading west, and my eye caught some graffiti on the side of the freeway. I wanted to read it, I tried to read it, I kept trying to read it. I’m stuck, completely stuck; not moving, and I can’t read it. Want to read it, can’t read it. Want to read it, can’t read it. Finally the traffic moves, and the graffiti is stuck in my head. I went back the next week to look at it again, and it was gone. It already had been obliterated. But I remembered there was something very blockish about it, something awkward about it in that way. A lot of graffiti is blockish, but this had been particularly blockish. So I just came home and started fiddling around with making my own blockish font.

TL: Did you work at it systematically, setting up all the letters?

MP: No, I didn’t sit down and do A, B, C. But as I did each drawing, I worked out and referred backwards – my E’s are going to be like this, and my W’s are going to be like that. Guess that’s how you do fonts. There were a few things I really wanted to do. I wanted it to seem kind of heavy, but I knew from the start that I just didn’t want them to be filled in. And I wanted the drop shadow element to make the words look as though they’re being illuminated from below rather than above, which for me feels more democratic. If you ever take the time to notice, with most graffiti the light is shining from above.

TL: The light from below is also theatrical, the light thrown by footlights. Which can have a populist feel unlike the divine light falling on graffiti.

MP: Yes, exactly. Which may be appropriate. But I had…

TL: So graffiti is a form of baroque painting.

MP: Yes.

TL: And you’re doing some other kind of…

MP: Something more pedestrian, more tied to the everyday.

TL: Which makes me think again of the Rogier Van der Weyden, how you were saying it is composed with an eye to the people looking at it, spilling out…

MP: That is exactly where it came from. It took me a while to realize that I was trying to digest that painting and work through it, get used to it. And that’s that – the text came out of that Van der Weyden painting more so than the graffiti. It really is dropping into your lap from somewhere else. And you ought to be there to catch it, because it’s an offering. So that’s probably a better answer to the question of where the text came from.

TL: Well, that’s great. Let’s change gears a bit and talk about materials. You’d been working with acrylic paints.

MP: Yes, for a long time. I guess I switched about fourteen years ago, now that I think about it. Somewhere while I was in school at CalArts. I had started in oil, and I switched after my first year, I think.

TL: We probably told you to, for health reasons or something like that.

MP: No, nobody told me to. I actually did it out of another… you know, I have some streaks in me. I overheard someone saying you can’t make a correct painting out of acrylic paint. So I just…

TL: So you just decided you had to.

MP: And that was that. And I feel I did make a few good paintings out of acrylic paint. And now, with the shift in imagery, it just seemed right to transition back to oil.

TL: Were there properties that you were looking for, or just that you wanted to try something different?

MP: You know, part of the reason I gave up oil painting back then was that the last big set of oil paintings I had done were a group of abstract paintings that I thought were sitting on the surface of the canvas. And yet the overwhelming response that I got at the time was from people feeling that they were being sucked in and lost in space and carried away and having some kind of psychedelic experience or something. It was completely not what I intended. That ability of oil paint to really pull you in; it can work against a person, or it can become a crutch. And I didn’t want that at the time. But now, with these very chilly and empty words – you walk into a gallery, and you see words, and you might want to just turn around and walk out. Some people would. So it seemed right to balance that effect with something maudlin or nostalgic, and I guess rich in that way.

TL: You might walk in and out of a gallery that had a bald statement on the wall that just sat there, something you could read in a second or two. But it’s quite difficult to read the words in these paintings, you insist on making us take time, to struggle with reading.

MP: Yes, they are purposefully awkward and difficult to read. That’s in the realm of my understanding of abstraction; you know, trying to push it around in the studio. First and foremost there are little black lines that could snap to a grid. I had visions of Mondrian in my head when I was working out the first bits of this whole thing. The words function in a formal way before anything else, you see them as shapes first. And then, if you’re willing to give it the time – and part of that incidental painting happening around the words is an effort to keep you there so that you might take the time – you can decipher the message and read it.

TL: You read it and understand it, and then it’s strange again because it’s this odd, archaic-seeming language. These phrases can be very disturbing because they float there – it does take a while to read them; and then you’re a little uncertain about what you just read.

MP: I think they’re like little poems, in a way. They’re open in that way.

TL: You mentioned Mondrian. I’d like to know more about what you were thinking about when you said that.

MP: Every moment in his painting seems so very deliberate. You know, breaking up the space of the picture field with blocks of color and areas of lines, the lines leading you this way and that, the very thoughtful breaking up of space. And some of his paintings have such a pedestrian, colloquial quality – Broadway Boogie-Woogie was in the air, just what people were actually interested in. That’s probably what I was hoping to carry.

TL: I think it’s interesting because I wouldn’t necessarily jump to Mondrian thinking about your painting. But when you said it, I did get what you meant; when you look at a painting by either of you it becomes clear that the work is actually being figured out on the canvas, as it is being made. There is an element of improvisation that photographic reproduction obscures.

MP: Well as far as that is concerned, an important aspect of this new work is that I got rid of the computer. I used to do all my drawings on the computer, and then with a computer sketch in hand I would start the painting. Things would diverge a little bit as the painting came along, but not that much. With these new paintings I do my notes ahead of time, I pick my phrase and then I just paint. There are no preliminary sketches or try-outs other than the notes.

TL: So when it looks as if you are running out of space…

MP: I was running out of space. I really try not to look ahead, planning how many words will fit on a line. I really just go at it. And then if I get towards the end, and I’m still in the middle of a word, then I just have to make it work. I am happy to have the opportunity to have that kind of improvisational experience in the studio again. It can be fun to be really out of control in the studio. I think I had felt really out of control in the beginning with the old work, but then you get to a point where…

TL: You just felt you knew what you were…

MP: I knew what I was doing. And, honestly, I want to stay lively.

– Thomas Lawson