Monique Prieto’s abstract paintings are lots of things, and until I sat down in her in her high-ceilinged studio (which isn’t much wider than it is tall), I hadn’t really considered that each carefully painted and even more carefully composed canvas tells a specific story, relating a detailed narrative in exactly the same manner as a representational picture would. As we talked, it became clear that a huge gap separates what Prieto sees in her works from what viewers see. This doesn’t distinguish her from most artists, who usually see things differently than the rest of us. What’s remarkable is that the 37-year-old painter, who lives in Los Angeles’s Silverlake with her husband and three children both expects and welcomes the divergence. Treating viewers with laissez-faire equanimity, Prieto goes out of her way to stay out of the way. Her animated abstractions invite all comers to go with their responses, giving full play to whatever intuitions and hunches spring up in front of them. As a kid, I loved looking at a freshly opened box of Crayola crayons and a pristine sheet of paper almost as much as I enjoyed coloring—inevitably dulling the crayons’ tips as I did my best to make a picture whose contours and shapes matched the sharp lines, clean edges, and evenly shaped spaces in my mind’s eye. When I finished—and adults lavished supportive comments on my efforts—I thought they were nuts. How could I take anyone seriously who couldn’t see that the faded shades and imprecise edges of my drawings were not merely as beautiful as the new pack of crayons, which I also managed to mess up! In their own way, Prieto’s paintings redeem childhood ideals, carrying the sense of possibility and perfection embodied by a new pack of crayons into the world, where none of their glory is lost in translation.
David Pagel How does your use of the computer affect the way your paintings look?
Monique Prieto In the beginning, using the computer was more like using a pencil or a pastel—it was a timesaving device. But over the years I’ve changed the way that I use the computer. I still use it like a tool, but differently from what we’re used to imagining as a tool—it’s more like the way a new kind of paint might affect the way you paint, or a new saw the way you cut. It’s had an effect on the way I draw.
DP But you’ve never been interested in computer-generated images per se?
MP It’s a mistake to think that because I use the computer, some of the brainpower and some of the magic come from the computer. That’s not the case at all. The computer is like a pencil, a typewriter, a keyboard, or a pen; it doesn’t affect the content of the work. But had I, for instance, been fooling around with pastels, which I used to do—I don’t know if they would’ve gotten me to this kind of drawing, exactly. So in that way, the computer is particular to its age. It’s the tool that’s available now. I didn’t mean to explore it, but it made its way into my world.
DP You started using it in school?
MP No, I started using it after my first baby was born, when I realized that I had less than half the time I used to have in the studio. I was grumbling about this and my husband, Michael Webster, said, “Draw on the computer while you’re nursing, at least you’ve got your thoughts and you can work with them without them slipping away before you get a chance to duck into the studio.” So I got a stylus and a pad and it was really fun.
DP This was after your first show at ACME just after you graduated from CalArts?
MP Yeah, the fall of ’94.
DP The work in that show was much more gridded and flat than anything you’ve made since.
MP They were based on the grid and were more handmade. They were very quiet paintings.
DP I remember that show fairly clearly—large expanses of color, in housepaint-type tones. I thought, There’s something going on here, but it’s not its own thing yet. And when I saw the next group of paintings, I couldn’t believe what had happened—a huge jump in terms of color, clarity, buoyancy, ambition.
MP A big leap happened in my life. I couldn’t help but reflect it in my work, and that was a good thing.
DP So it wasn’t just the computer that caused the transfer transformation?
MP No, it wasn’t. The first baby, Guillermo, did, and Emmet and Rose followed along soon after. The kids brought on lots of changes and part of that was trying to manage continuing to make art with kids; and then what the kids brought to our lives and to our understanding of our lives and our creativity. That all started to sharpen into focus for both of us, for me and my painting, and for Michael and his music. It made making art a lot easier, in a strange and ironic way. You’d think it would make it harder.
DP Yeah, people tend to think you can only do one thing and that you have to make a choice between a family and a career.
MP Being a mom has definitely made making art easier for me. Sometimes art is hard to make because you get caught up thinking about it too much. The kids helped me focus on what was really important. Art is really important, but when you weigh it against children and your loved ones and your life and your health, then making decisions about whether it should be this medium or that start weighing less on you. You feel a lot more freedom to follow an impulse and go with something, rather than suffer over a decision endlessly.
DP So the little decisions within the process get easier.
MP A lot easier.
DP But the big one—whether to do it or not—remains fundamental?
MP Whether to do it or not? I actually haven’t had that thought in a long time. Child rearing also keeps me from falling into grooves. After graduate school, and having four years of cynicism ground into me, the kids were a great source of optimism. Their presence forced me to see the world as a place of possibilities rather than as a wall that prevents you from acting.
DP You cut down the time you spend torturing yourself over decisions, and as a result you actually gained clarity.
MP I have because I’ve had to. I have less time.
DP Like those old Nike commercials: “Just do it.” It would be nice to have another day, but . . .
MP You don’t get one. (laughter)
DP And even if you did, the task expands to fill the time. Do the kids have any affect on the imagery in your work?
MP I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from my experiences—being pregnant, giving birth to my first baby.
DP All those big bulbous shapes?
MP I know they seem to go hand in hand, babies and bulbous shapes and bellies, but that was a strange coincidence. If you look back to the first show at ACME, you can see where those things were coming from, and it wasn’t from child rearing.
DP Looking at those pictures, I thought the shapes had a lot to do with food—big plates of fluffy pancakes dripping with syrup, ice cream sundaes smothered with chocolate syrup, whipped cream, and cherries.
MP Well, I did have food on my mind, a nursing mother always does. But, since I’ve always used colors symbolically, a lot of that work came from what was going on in my life. But in those earlier paintings, such as the more exuberant work from that first show, I was also thinking about where the work came from historically, referencing other paintings, and making formal choices. They were a mix of my grappling with how I could make this kind of painting, coming from where I’m coming from, and also trying to represent where I’m coming from.
DP Who were some of the artists you were thinking of?
MP At the time, I had Ellsworth Kelly and Andy Warhol on my mind. There were a couple of other people, but Kelly was most prominent. I spent a lot of time thinking about him.
DP In terms of his use of color and shape?
MP How shapes represent themselves and interact with each other, and how he did that.
DP You mean you actually based some of your compositions on some of his?
MP No, his works served as a means, just like the content I now use to begin a painting serves as a means. Almost everything in my canvases has an actual story to it. Those stories are a means to make the images. I’m not just flinging something on the canvas, hoping that it will all work nicely together; I’m trying to represent a feeling or a scenario.
DP A pretty specific narrative, one that comes out of the days experience?
MP Yes, or trying to grasp some understanding of something. In my early work, I was trying to represent ideas. I was trying to imagine how someone else—another artist—might think of them. What color would they use? And then sometimes would come up with an idea and do just the opposite. I wasn’t trying to be clever. I’ve always just tried to figure out what others are doing, what I am doing, and how they are different, or the same. It was one way of working things out. But I do a lot less of that now.
DP Have the narratives grown and the historical references fallen away?
MP Yes. I feel more confident to rely on myself now.
DP Do you think of the shapes in your paintings as characters or landscape elements or both?
MP Each shape represents a character, a feeling, or an object, or some element that has a definite purpose for being there.
DP But how important is it to you for a viewer to . . .
MP To know what those things are?
MP Not important at all. I try to give something in the way that they’re rendered, but indirectly. And I try to put something in the titles, but I feel that that could limit the work by giving away too much. Painting has such a great ability to give a lot on its own, and so I play with that, its generosity, and try not to stifle it by imposing too much of my own little narratives. Though I most definitely need them in the paintings—they give me a purpose.
DP As a set of parameters? Criteria against which you judge degrees of success or failure?
MP Yeah. Although I’ve always been random with parameters.
DP But once you set some up, they give you a toehold, or some traction?
MP Yeah, they formalize you.
DP Would you care to outline any of these scenarios?
MP Hmmm . . . Well, one painting I am currently working on represents a reaction to an unjust law that was passed in the March elections, Proposition 21. It’s a sweeping law that enables cops to round up gangsters and suspected gangsters just because they look suspicious, not because they have actually done anything suspicious. Around here it’s basically an excuse to arrest any young Latino. In the painting, there are figures representing the persecutors and the people persecuted, and how someday they might fight back. There is an undeniable element of wish fulfillment to it. But it’s also about the powers that would help them get justice, and the dignity and righteousness that would go along with it. Another painting I made awhile back is an allegorical narrative about nature’s comeuppance. In it, I asked, “What if the earth could assert itself against our terrible forces of destruction and set things right?” A big beautiful looming figure that is hopefully crushing the unrespectful human element appears in that painting. And in contrast to such heavy subjects, a third painting, also from awhile back, is about a day we spent with some fine people, five friends, and what we saw in the desert and how I imagined we should regard our experiences of that day.
DP Your imagery changes a great deal from one body of work to the next.
MP I hope it’s all holding together.
DP It makes sense in retrospect.
MP I take great lapses between showing the work in order to support my family—but also because I put a lot of thought into the work, and it takes me down a path. I work things out, and luckily they start to evolve because I really can’t afford to start over. My husband always comments on that, how the work changes as it goes along.
DP Well, I think if it doesn’t—
MP You’re doomed.
DP What are some of the biggest changes?
MP Everything has gotten sharper and more realistic. When I was doing those first big blobbies with the stylized drips, part of how the work evolved was that I had to consider what I was doing with those drips. What were they all about? The drips started to be what was most interesting in the paintings. The paintings I’m making now look as if I have zeroed in on the drips from those earlier paintings. As if I saw what they were up to, and had peeped at them every now and then. Now the drips seem more complicated and more interesting, and have more edges and more possibilities. The forms have more meander. They’re getting more and more like what things are really like out there. They’re complicated and imperfect, and have all kinds of surfaces.
DP Whereas earlier they were very colorful birthday party moments?
MP Yeah, perfect little bubbles, which was how I was feeling at the time.
DP In many of the earlier works you get the sense that all the parts are floating. They’re having fun.
MP They are having fun, but they are also pushing to get one another, and some of them are taking up more space than others—
DP Big brother is crowding out little brother?
MP And some were bearing more weight than they needed to, and I decided to just let them represent themselves that way.
DP So it is about focusing on a detail and understanding its relationship to its surroundings?
DP Around 1997, it seems that the drips got fatter, and the blobs got skinnier.
MP Yes. Another thing that happened is I did my first batch of prints. I approached the printmaking process like painting where I had made the drawings on the computer—and I was going to translate those drawings to a copper plate. But on a copper plate you have to paint with a very fine brush. And because I hadn’t done that before, I had to do a test plate and kind of wing it. I had so much fun using the brush on the little copper plate—and I came up with an image I really liked. It made me feel that it was okay how my hand used the brush and it was okay to translate that to the painting, even though they are now representations of the drawings, and there’s no spontaneous painting going on the canvas. Before, I would get a drawing out of a printer, and I would draw it on the canvas. I would often change edges to smooth them out. The printing process got me excited about how interesting the actual edges and lines were. I’ve always loved drawing, so printmaking got me back to that.
DP Does much happen in the translation from an 8×10 inch computer print to an 8×10 foot painting? You don’t just project the image . . .
MP Oh, I don’t project it. There are not a lot of changes, but a lot of decisions get made in the translation, and it’s really important that I make them, and not somebody else because it’s not inch-for-inch or milli-inch-for-milli-inch. I make a lot of decisions about this lump or that lump, whatever. And what’s really important too, in making these things is how each form sits with the other form in the negative spaces they create. All of that has to be carefully considered because the computer drawing is often just too loose to get all those shapes as they end up.
DP Your work hasn’t been talked about in terms of being dark and menacing.
MP No, never. (laughter)
DP But there’s a little more of that going on in some of the ones you’re working on now.
MP In the last three years, the gloom has been rising. You’ve got these little people and you’re thinking about your life and about the world and that stuff gets into the paintings. And yeah, there are struggles going on in there, and sorrows . . .
DP And accidents . . .
MP Accidents, it’s really more like life than a birthday party.
DP But the earlier works had much more of a party atmosphere?
MP They did, kind of. I guess when you think about it, it was like a birthday party.
DP To me, it felt like each shape was cuddling and snuggling up with others—or at least cooperating with others to get some job done. And then something changed. Some shapes seemed to be working against others. Many began to look a little beat up, a little worse for wear. Some of the air seemed to have been let out of the balloon. Skin got wrinkled.
MP I’m getting a little more shriveled and wrinkled. The paintings are getting shriveled and wrinkled in an accelerated way and I’m not sure where I’m going to be in 10 years with these things. They’re going to have to obliterate themselves and I’ll start with a new germ. I’ll have to figure that one out.
DP But your work isn’t talked about in terms of that sort of realism.
MP No, it’s not. I don’t know why. (laughter)
DP Well there is something really buoyant about them.
MP I love making paintings and part of what I try to do is be generous with each painting. I try to give people something, for them to have an experience. But it’s just not possible for one to make paintings which fully represent the completely heavy, serious thoughts I’m having. I think that’s just the way paintings like mine work. Because you don’t really want to hear how awful some of these scenarios are, that would just bore people to death. So it’s like getting a spoonful of medicine with a spoonful of sugar; it’s expressing and conveying some serious feelings in a way that doesn’t scare viewers away.
DP In the recent past, art was supposed to either look good or be serious—not both. But that sort of either/or-ism is fading away.
MP That could be it. But I think it’s because of all that abstract painting before mine, people are suspicious. They feel like maybe I’m trying to trick them into just having a gleeful moment. I really do want people to have a good experience, anyone that’s open to it. A lot of people aren’t. And that’s fine as far as I’m concerned. But I’m not trying to trick anybody into anything.
DP Abstract painting often makes people uncomfortable because it works on more than one level. It’s not strictly rational.
MP There are a lot of people out there and a lot of ways to look at the world; a lot of ways to do what you feel is right and helpful and important. It can’t be narrowed down, and that’s part of the problem that people will have to deal with. If the genre doesn’t pointedly help somebody or do something about a very serious problem then it’s considered a waste. But it’s more complicated than that. There are a lot of choices and people find a lot of ways to get through linings, and sometimes looking at a painting makes a person feel good for a moment. And that sets other things into motion. And that has consequences.
DP Have you always made paintings?
MP No, as an undergrad at UCLA they make you do everything. So I did and I had a lot of fun. I gave careful consideration to all the different media but I couldn’t not make paintings. So I just kept making paintings and after I graduated I took a break from school. I still kept making paintings. And then I went to CalArts graduate school and I didn’t understand—that’s my naïveté—that at CalArts I wasn’t supposed to do that.
DP You were steered away from painting?
MP It was rough. There was a big transition going on at the school the year I came in, at least in the art department, so a lot of things were evolving; but by the time I finished my second year, I felt a lot better. But the first two years were rough. I found some people to work with who made it okay to be painting but I met a lot of opposition from other people who made me feel like an idiot. And that was too bad because I don’t think other people are idiots for doing what they do and I like lots of work that’s not painting. I mean, I understand the critique of painting. I understand that buying paintings can be a problem, but buying anything can be a problem.
DP You can buy a hole in the desert.
MP (laughter) So it’s complicated. But people tend to simplify.
DP Who would your ideal viewer be?
MP That’s something I haven’t considered. My ideal viewer, I guess, is someone who sets out to go look at painting. Because they’re going to get a lot from the paintings if they’re already into looking at paintings.
DP What about your nightmare viewer?
MP I don’t have one.
MP I really don’t. I just put the things out there.
DP Do you have a favorite painting?
MP No, I have a host of favorites but I don’t have one in particular. I have a favorite from each show because each show shifts a little bit, and out of each group I have one that slightly embodies what that shift was or has a special little sentimental resonance for me.
DP When you said that you use color symbolically, what did you mean by that?
MP Does no one else understand why I use color for that? (laughter) It can just be a feeling. A shape would be representing green so I use the color that would, in that particular context, represent that sort of thing along with its shape. And there are some colors that recur over and over in the paintings. And some groupings of colors that recur because there are things you can’t get over; you keep trying to make pictures about them. You keep trying to represent them, or maybe it’s wishful thinking and you’re trying to make them happen.
DP When you put together an image, does it feel like you’re building an architectural structure? Do you start on the bottom and stack one thing on top of another, using some elements to support others?
MP Sometimes. I do consider how things sit on one another in such a way that if they were somehow rendered three-dimensionally, they could do what they’re doing. That’s how I try to figure it out.
DP Did you ever think of making a sculpture?
MP In fact, right after this interview, I’m going out to get my first bunch of supplies to play with. I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years; it’s just because of the last baby that . . .
DP Something big? With some kind of armature?
MP I have logistical problems that have to be worked out, but I want to model something shaped like a “Y” with wire. I’ll probably make an armature and cover it with stucco.
DP And then paint it?
MP I’m thinking of them painted but I’ll have to see what the stucco looks like dry, without the paint.
DP Do you have the software that lets you do preliminary studies on your computer?
MP No, I don’t. I knew at some point that I would become less and less dependent on the computer. Also, now that Rose is nine-months-old I’m starting to have more and more time. For the sculpture, I’ll probably be winging it. I did some of this stuff a long, long time ago and liked rendering things in three dimensions. I did it professionally; I made some giant Styrofoam cartoon figures that are still in some Melrose shops. They’re well-known cartoons, Looney Toons, or something.
DP Well, I’ve always thought of your paintings as sharing a lot of elements with cartoons.
MP Insofar as cartoons are animated and colorful and flat? Yeah. I did watch a lot of cartoons as a kid and I used to marvel at what was going on in the background, probably more than other kids did. We had a TV in every room when I was growing up so I had a fair share of TV watching in my background. But I never set out to take on the cartoon as a project. It’s probably been one of my happy resources that I’ve gotten to pull from.
DP It’s just there in the background?
MP Yeah, like a lot of things.
DP Are you thinking about tabletop sculptures or freestanding floor sculptures?
MP I see them as standing on the floor. My husband asked me what size they’d be and I said, “life-size.”
DP I’m picturing clusters of creatures.
MP I picture them as clusters, but every now and then something standing on its own. Since I’m not doing them yet I have no idea. But I picture them freestanding in a room. What’s important in the paintings is how each thing relates to the others, and so I imagine more than one figure and some relation between them. And that’s as far as I can go without actually doing it.
DP Is there anything that you’ve been dying to say that I haven’t asked you about?
MP Yeah. Stop giving your kids Prozac and Ritalin! (laughter) Babies don’t need it. It’s an awful crime and it’s a mistake, a bad, bad mistake. I think people have gotten so far from what real people are like, and what real children are like that the slightest expression of joy or glee or excitement is taken as some kind of inconvenience. I have a lot more to say about that kind of stuff than I do about painting. Painting, happily, speaks for itself.