A balmy southern California breeze streams through the large loft windows of Monique Mouton’s industrial studio space in downtown Los Angeles. Noise from nearby freeway traffic filters in, and the ubiquitous, hazy horizon of palms wavers in the distance. Then my vision focuses on a collection of unusual shapes, sharp angles and vivid, luminous brushstrokes. Half a dozen small, irregularly shaped abstract paintings are displayed along Mouton’s studio wall: oil painted on thin wood that has been cut into uneven shapes with a jigsaw. Mouton’s surfaces are so matte they look almost raw. In many places, the base layer of gesso is visible through the light washes of colour.
An icy-blue-and-black composition stands out, a would-be rectangle disrupted by an inverted triangular peak that juts out from the bottom of the panel. Untitled (Banff) (2010) is actually the most figurative of Mouton’s work to date. She relates that this was her first use of a referential starting point; while she was in residence at the Banff Centre, the sublime mountain landscape crept into her iconography. Indeed, it’s not a huge leap to visualize a mountain slope and the deep, striated basin of a glacier lake within the otherwise abstract composition. But abstraction flops in and out of focus. Cast another eye and Untitled (Banff) is once more a deceptively simple composition of textures and shapes. Look longer still, and the picture becomes gradually more dynamic, revealing Mouton’s playful, subtle variations of shape and colour. In the centre of the piece, a large black field floats atop more fluid, watery strokes of blue, appearing momentarily at rest before butting up against a sheer ribbon of pale lavender that veils a darker shape beneath. Mouton’s paintings ask you to take your time, to approach each image slowly, even cautiously, if only to match the degree of thoughtfulness the artist invests in her work. In other words, she asks for the undivided attention of her audience.
It’s early autumn and Mouton is fresh from her first semester in the prestigious Bard College MFA program, which runs over three consecutive summers with independent study periods in between. She shows me some of her new work, paintings have begun to break away from the wall. Hinge (2011) could almost be a deconstructed version of one of her earlier works. Literally sliced into pieces, extracted and pivoted sideways, it comprises two incongruous pieces that lean precariously against the wall: the larger, whitewashed trapezoidal shape balances delicately en pointe; behind it stands a wobbly concave rectangle, lent dimension by means of an incomplete edging of contour lines. This foray into sculpture is at once a natural progression and a radical departure for the young artist, a contradiction that speaks to a compelling tension, inherent to her practice, between what painting is and what it could be. The surface texture of Mouton’s paintings is flat, barely there—she applies just the thinnest layers of colour. Yet upon closer inspection they possess an incredible physicality and dynamism. Outer and inner contours begin to disassemble; it suddenly becomes difficult to distinguish between concave and convex forms, and the layers and planes of colour appear poised to shift, or to slip into the areas of blank space.
Born in Fort Collins, Colorado, Mouton was trained in Vancouver. She attended the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, where, like other artists of her generation, she encountered the instructor and abstract painter Elizabeth McIntosh, whose fresh and expansive approach to abstract painting has played a critical role in Mouton’s art. (McIntosh would later include Mouton in “Working Title,” the group exhibition she curated for Toronto’s Diaz Contemporary in 2008.) McIntosh’s influence should not be overlooked here. Given Vancouver’s dominant lineage of conceptual and post-conceptual art practice, McIntosh became somewhat of an alternative model of success, one that indirectly gave a young generation of artists (Arabella Campbell, Jeremy Hof, Eli Bornowsky and Rebecca Brewer, among others) permission to take up painting as a so-called serious contemporary art form. In 2009, Mouton was included in “Enacting Abstraction,” an important show at the Vancouver Art Gallery that traced the strategies of Canadian and American abstract art from the early decades of the 20th century to the present, and, significantly, placed young painters in dialogue with this tradition.
I’m repeatedly compelled by the desire to ask young painters why they chose their medium. What is left to see in a painting that we haven’t already seen? More than any other type of artist, painters have been assigned the dubious task of innovation; they are challenged to propel the medium forward to a mythological, projected endpoint that has been continually asserted by art historians, critics and curators alike. (Of course, when the end of painting inevitably fails to materialize, it is always announced that painting is possible once again). Painting is forever in some kind of competition—with itself (its own lengthy history and ever-morphing historiography), as well as with a virtual culture that is already completely saturated with flattened images.
Given this cumbersome context, painters grapple with a vast obstacle when attempting to achieve the goal of all great artists: to put forward a new perspective. Gallery-goers continue to ponder what abstraction is really about; a fair question, especially for the uninitiated, as abstract paintings neither relay narrative nor contain obvious subject matter. Painting in particular exists beyond language—its subject always seems to elude easy explication, being much more suited to the realms of experience and phenomenology. So what about looking at something and just looking? Having it reflect itself and the present moment instead of referring to something outside of itself? Rather than asking what an abstract painting is about, we may want to consider instead what it does.
Mouton speaks of her paintings as “unfinished,” of using “just enough” material (designations that Bornowsky has also used in an eloquent essay on Mouton’s work produced for a 2007 solo exhibition at The Bodgers’ and Kludgers’ Co-operative Art Parlour in Vancouver and later published in Pyramid Power magazine). Mouton employs the bare minimum of material: a thin subsistence of translucent layers, washes and traces of paint. Within this bareness, though, her hand manifests ever so slightly, giving us a glimpse into her process of layering by leaving visible the various brushstroke textures on the panel’s gesso base. Gesture is only hinted at in the squiggly strokes of a painting such as U (2011), an enclosed U-shaped purple panel whose form also suggests a heraldic shield. Here, a thick black contour line is scratchy in parts where only a few bristles were sufficiently laden with paint, and stops just short of the top right-hand corner of the “U.”
The impression of incompleteness also extends to Mouton’s sense of geometry—her shapes are rough and imperfect, defying any notion of idealized form or modernist quotation. It is this very character of unfinishedness that lends her paintings their potency. They hold a mystery of form that impedes instantaneous recognition; they decelerate the ever-quickening speed at which we perceive, negotiate and understand visual stimuli. With familiar or recognizable forms (this designation of the familiar, I believe, extends to painting) our synapses fire even faster; conversely, “unfinished” things are not immediately recognizable and thus don’t accord with our daily modes of perception. Mouton’s paintings not only appear unfinished, but in their simplicity and subtlety, they are also decidedly quiet. Their challenge is slowness; their reward is the pleasure of focused attention. Her paintings thus become antidotes—or prescriptions, perhaps—to the speed and distraction that characterizes contemporaneity. To appreciate the subtlety of her gestures requires the development of careful focus and sensitivity—a specific type of attention that seems to be rapidly diminishing in our daily lives. In this way, Mouton’s paintings are about the awareness of time: time as experienced by the artist, evident within her visible process of mark-making, as well as time in the subjective sense, experienced by the viewer through the act of looking.
Inquiry into the subjective act of looking is paramount to Mouton’s practice. She says that she often considers what is asked of the viewer: “What kind of experience can one have that doesn’t require special knowledge?” Indeed, abstraction has long been couched in a connoisseurs’ language, but what abstraction might actually provide is more akin to an inclusive perceptual and optical experience. Far from seeking a universal aesthetic—and her practice is perhaps closer to ethics than aesthetics—she is interested in the intuitive experience of looking at art. In conversation, she often makes reference to the various psychological and physiological responses that are triggered by perceiving shapes. “New Shapes,” her 2009 solo show at Blanket Contemporary Art, comprised a small selection of paintings, each roughly the size and shape of a traditional portrait. The works were deliberately hung lower than the standard 56-inches-on-centre height; this reinforced the sense of intimacy already at work in the shape of her panels. When Mouton’s works are installed as an exhibition, the visual relationships between the shapes of the individual paintings become apparent. As when looking at single puzzle pieces, the eye inevitably attempts to assemble the pieces into a whole.
When I ask Mouton which artists have inspired or influenced her, she answers tellingly that Agnes Martin’s ability to glean so much from simplicity has been an ongoing fascination. By the early 1960s, Martin had established her painting style, which was to remain consistent throughout her life: elegant abstract canvases composed of pencil-drawn lines or grids and uniform washes of pale colour. Martin used the minimalist grid as a means to explore her profoundly spiritual ideas about art, which she wrote about lucidly and poetically throughout her life. She believed that the purpose of art was to provide a glimpse of a transcendent reality, and her contemplative visual language sought to evoke what she termed “moments of perfection” in which one experiences beauty, happiness and joy. For the 21st-century cynic, to whom even the act of trading multi- for mono-tasking might seem utterly unfeasible, speaking of transcendence through art sounds beyond lofty. Yet art does hold a singular ability to displace our faculties of perception and observation so that, if even in the slightest flash of recognition, we might be leant a new way of seeing. Mouton’s insistence on creating sensitivity to the present moment—via economical but remarkably beautiful means—is an ethical proposition that increasingly warrants our close attention.
Leah Turner is a Toronto-based writer and curator. She holds an MA in art history from York University and recently completed the Gwangju Biennial International Curator Course. Her writing has appeared in Canadian Art and C Magazine. She is currently working as an associate at Jessica Bradley Art + Projects.