I have an ambiguous relationship to the paintings of Monique Mouton. There are many things I admire about them, but I haven’t always felt that way. The first show of hers I saw was Measure at the now-defunct Bodgers and Kludgers Co-operative Art Parlour in 2007. An essay by fellow painter Eli Bornowsky accompanied the exhibition, and Bornowsky had handed me a copy of his essay a few weeks before I went to see the exhibition. I had been taken by the simplicity with which Bornowky described her work, but my experience of the paintings did not match the lucidity I had admired in Bornowsky’s text. In fact, it created an expectation about what kind of experience I would have when I encountered Mouton’s work. When I finally encountered Mouton’s painting at Bodgers, I was nonplussed. I had wanted more but I had difficulty explaining what exactly that more was. Perhaps one problem was a text had prescribed what kind of experience I expected to have. The experience I had was, of course, different.
What I needed to do was live with Mouton’s paintings longer. And successive group exhibitions Making Real at the Or Gallery, an eponymous two-person show at CSA Space with Michael Morris, and Enacting Abstraction at the Vancouver Art Gallery, plus her recent solo show New Shapes at Blanket Gallery in 2009 all gave me longer. So perhaps the more that I had unfairly demanded of her paintings was nothing in the paintings themselves but simply more time. Mouton’s paintings concern themselves with time—in the time it takes to view them, because they are so subtle, and how the paintings make visible the time it took to paint them. The more time I’ve spent with Mouton’s work, the more I’ve appreciated it. So when 01 Magazine’s Nathalee Paolinelli suggested the interview, I was eager to ask Mouton a few questions.
We had begun a conversation the last time Mouton was in Vancouver (she now lives in Los Angles), and I had wanted to continue that conversation. The interview was, unfortunately, conducted via Facebook’s “Message” feature, a sort of bastardized form of email that is not conducive to the kind of lively discussion that she and I had had a few months earlier in a friend’s home (the walls of which, it must be mentioned, sported a number of Mouton’s paintings from the same period as the exhibition Measure), though Mouton’s thoughtfulness carries through in any medium.
When you last visited Vancouver, we were at a friend’s house with co-founder of 01 Magazine Nathalee Paolinelli, and you and I somehow got on to talking about your recent interest in kombucha tea. Nathalee suggested this may be an interesting topic for the interview, so I’m going to start there. How did you learn how to brew kombucha? And what got you into it?
I learned to brew kombucha while I was living in Austin. I actually think it was at someone’s studio that I first tasted it—bubbly, tart, and refreshing. I acquired a culture from a friend and started my first brew about a week before I moved to Los Angeles—just enough time to complete one batch. I think the drive through the desert made it even better as it continued to ferment in the bottles. It’s supposed to have lots of good health benefits thanks to pro-biotics and enzymes. It certainly makes me feel good, it tastes good (to me), and I kind of have the feeling for my kombucha culture that I do for my vegetable plants: excitement, gratitude, and even a bit of awe at what sustenance I can get from so little material.
Your paintings take a lot of time. They are deceptively varied, and they seem almost meditative. Is it your intention to place the viewer in a state of observation or reverie?
Neither, in a way. I’m more interested in sensitivity, an attention not just to the nuances of the paintings, but to the subjective act of looking at art. When I started making abstract paintings I thought about how much our attention is drawn away from us with the speed of information these days. I wanted to make paintings that were slow. I didn’t want the paintings to wash over the viewer or tell a story, I wanted them to be more acute yet self-reflective. All this somehow led me to the sizes, shapes, and colors I’ve worked with.
At your recent show at Blanket Gallery, I noticed that you hung your paintings about three inches lower than standard height. What led you to that choice?
I think the size and shape of my paintings give them a lightness and vertical momentum that was balanced by hanging them lower. Jill [Pritchard] was helping me install, and as we put them up we both felt they could go down a couple inches from 56. I think our intuition served the show well in that case.
The fact that you installed your paintings in that way implies that the viewing, or even installation, of your paintings is an important part of exhibiting. Do you think of your paintings as objects in space or are they pictures that can be viewed any way?
Yes, I sometimes take for granted that not all paintings or two-dimensional works are considered in terms of installation, but it is critical to me. The paintings are singular objects, and when I’m painting they are considered individually, but installing them is an opportunity for me to tone the work with another set of relationships. The show becomes a composition in itself. But it’s not just about design—the effect of each piece really changes based on what it is next to and how it is hung. When I was part of a show at the Or Gallery, the work and installation had a stillness to it. Recently at Blanket the paintings were almost like syllables—rhythmic and contained.
I’m curious about your choice of materials. Your choice of paint (oils) is very traditional, very painterly, while your choice of surface (scraps of wood) is not. What led you to choose these materials?
It’s a matter of practicality for me. It is the aesthetic quality of the materials, more than their history that suits the way I work. Painting is like tracing a thought process, so direct, and I can get a lot done with not too much material. I needed to make rounded surfaces and it was a lot easier to cut plywood than try to make shaped canvases. And it turned out that the sort of clunky nature of the wood was a good way to contain the infinity of paint. I like the way that the paint sits on the surface of the board, and the thinness and frontality of it all.
I’ve often felt that painters put themselves in one of the most difficult positions possible in contemporary art. There are only a few examples of painters in the contemporary art world (John Currin, Tomma Abts, Peter Doig, Luc Tuymans, to name a few; Hirst and Murakami don’t count as painters). The challenge not to seem reactionary or conservative in a post-studio art world, to me at least, seems daunting. One can no longer “just paint.” Or rather, we live in a world where anything can be art. To quote Jeff Wall’s formation of it, “the object from which the name art cannot logically be withheld.” And so to choose a practice such as painting seems a deliberate move because in order to seriously consider its role to contemporary art, the painter needs to confront what it means to practice painting as a contemporary form. The painting’s status in contemporary art is no longer a given. It may still be so in hobby painting but not in contemporary art. So what do you find valuable about painting in contemporary art?
While there is a tendency to more easily dismiss it, I don’t really view painting as any different than any other medium in terms of validity in contemporary art. I think that an artist of any medium has to contend with that question. It’s in the use and the context of the work that the value is revealed. Perhaps there are painters who are only concerned with painting who might fall into the traps mentioned above, but there are others whose concerns have to do with the present field of art and use the medium accordingly. Maybe the fact that painting has gone through a struggle to validate itself in contemporary art is useful to my project. That the medium no longer has an inherent value in art really forces one to be considerate of its use. But isn’t that what any artist must consider in the present? It is not easy, and I am not enamored of painting in itself, but it gives me a means to translate some small spark of the ineffable, inevitable potential of art right now. That’s just the most basic question, isn’t it? So I suppose it is only apt to use one of the most elementary mediums.
I couldn’t agree more. But I guess I should try to wrap this up. So does this, as I may think, have anything to do with kombucha?
Well it is only tea and sugar after all, with a little transmutation thanks to yeast and bacteria.