Albert Contreras, who was born during Franklin Roosevelt’s first term as President, is a lean and cheerful man around eighty years old. He lives and works in a small apartment two blocks from the Pacific Ocean. At least once a day he walks down to the water to look at what’s going on – joggers, surfers, bicyclists, sunbathers and people walking their dogs. The rest of the time he seems to stay in his apartment, happily working.
Climbing the carpeted stairs to the second floor, I thought of Raymond Chandler, who was in his mid-forties when he lost his job and began writing detective fiction. Contreras was in his mid-60s when he took up painting again, in 1997, after a hiatus of twenty-five years. There seemed to be no hesitations the second time, no doubts or false steps; it was like he had never stopped.
Since the mid-70s, Contreras has lived in same apartment, which is about three hundred square feet. The room in which he works, sleeps, presumably eats, and keeps his paintings stacked flat while they are drying, probably takes up around two hundred square feet. He works on a series of tables that he has abutted together until they span the front of the room, by the windows. This is where Contreras pours the paint for his smooth, monochromatic grounds. Over these he subsequently applies a mixture of paint and medium with a consistency somewhere between cake frosting and putty.
Once Contreras gets the mixture down the way he wants, and finishes working back into it with his homemade tools, each capable of a particular effect, he pushes the wet painting to one side so that it can begin to dry, and, more than likely, proceeds to start another. In the adjacent room, which is a galley kitchen, he has placed another table in the breakfast nook. On the wall above adjacent to the table are color charts, tools, documents, notes, photographs and images. There isn’t an empty surface anywhere in the apartment.
Contreras’ choreographed procedure is one way to manage what seems to me a chaotic situation in which the paintings are always threatening to take over the remaining space. They are literally everywhere you look. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that he tried to give them away shortly after he first started, and that he did it in a very methodical way – he parked a car by the exit from Bergamot Station, and had the trunk open with a sign advertising “free paintings” to those driving out. Depending on your point of view, he had either more takers than one might expect, or less. For a while he wrote letters to universities and colleges all across America, offering to donate sets of twenty-four paintings to them. Albert shows me a thick three-ring binder in which he keeps copies of the correspondence and photo documentation of the installations.
On the far side of his bed, which is pushed up against the wall, there are two large paintings. They are what Albert probably looks at before falling asleep and when he wakes up. In order to get to the bed, he must navigate past three large cardboard boxes that are shoved against it, making it difficult for him to get to. The only thing to suggest that he does something other than sleep, eat and paint is a modest-sized, flat screen television on which he sometimes watches old movies. We talk about Joan Fontaine, who died a few weeks earlier, and Ellen Parker, who starred in Caesar’s Hour (1954) and Cop Hater (1958), based on an Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel.
Contreras paints on thick, square, wood supports lying fat. The largest squares measure thirty-six inches on a side, while the smallest are about the size of your palm. He is in his second career as an artist, having not painted between 1972 and 1997. In his first career, he graduated from Los Angeles. City College and lived in Mexico and Spain before settling in Sweden in 1960, where he gained attention for his monochrome paintings with a disc-like shape in the middle. Over time the disc would keep getting smaller. In the late 1960s, he moved from Stockholm to New York, because he wanted to see how his work would hold up on a larger stage. It was a time when a number of artists were interested in the dematerialization of the object, and many critics were claiming that painting had run its course.
Contreras followed his reductive impulses until he stopped painting, having gotten himself into a corner in which he didn’t see any options. In the early 1970s, he moved back to Los Angeles and got a job working for the city of Los Angeles. He drove heavy equipment and learned to resurface asphalt streets and driveways. From 1974 until 1978, he also ran the Albert Contreras Gallery on Cahuenga Blvd. in Los Angeles, where he showed only Photorealist paintings. 1992, he retired. In 1997, he started painting again.
In Contreras’ work, the glossy, opalescent paint is thick and conspicuous. When he was making paintings with a large, incised X stretching from corner to corner, he used interference colors, which flip, depending on the viewer’s angle, between a color and its complement, and different kinds of hand-customized trowels to make grooves of various widths through the paint. It is in the grooves that one sees the color flip. While looking at his recent work, which consists of a thick circle emerging from a monochromatic ground, he told me that when he laid asphalt, he had a tool that smoothed it in a small arc. If he repeated the gesture, he could get a fish scale effect. The circles in his recent paintings seem to have been partly inspired by that ability.
When Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were living in the Montmartre district of Paris, and developing what is known as Analytic Cubism, they didn’t sign their paintings and often wore overalls and workers’ clothes. Contreras comes from that ethos. At the same time, his paintings are quintessentially Los Angeles in the 21st century — glittering, sumptuous, sensuous, physical, direct, artificial and organic. His X’s and bisected circles are personal, anonymous and mysterious signs. The colors seem inspired by hair dyes, cosmetics counters, custom car shops and the designer dresses that actresses wear to outdo their rivals at red carpet affairs. I cannot think of any work that is so intensely material and weirdly immaterial, goopy and optical, gaudy and controlled, genuine and madcap.