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Deceptively casual and casually deceptive, Monique Mouton’s abstract paintings at Bridget Donahue on the Lower East Side are simple statements wrought from a density of decision-making, starting with the often irregular shape she chooses as a surface.
In More Near, which is the title of Mouton’s solo exhibition as well as the series that includes most of the works in the show, the paintings are on either wood or paper. The ones on wood are shaped and can be found on the floor just as easily as on the wall, and the ones on paper — hand-cut sheets that are, for the most part, fairly large, fairly thin, and frequently distressed — compensate for their ramshackle state with formidable shadow-box frames.
I mention the frames because in many ways they complete the work: where the sheet of paper is irregularly cut, usually into a quasi-trapezoidal shape, the frame either distracts you from noticing the atypical format, or, once you realize that the support is off-kilter, it encases the painting like a natural history specimen, lending it a fetchingly organic feel.
The shape of the paper and how the artist incorporates it into her imagery serve as markers in the progression of the works in the More Near series (all of which were done in 2015 in various combinations of watercolor, chalk pastel, charcoal, gesso, tempera, and pencil). In “More Near (I),” the paper reaches all four edges of the frame, making it the most conventionally presented piece in the show. It is also the only one that brought to mind another artist, namely Joan Miró, with its washes of sky blue interrupted by an off-center orb made from white sgraffito lines incised into a dark, nebulous circle.
The orb seems to exert a gravitational pull on the array of broad, pinkish, horizontal swipes surrounding it, while rust-colored squiggles appear to escape their orbit and float off the painting’s surface, like pieces of collage. These seemingly independent scraps are in fact surface abrasions, areas of the paper that have been scraped off and then caked with pastel — a clever inversion of expectations.
With “More Near (II)” the artist anchors the field’s brushy grays, blues and greens, and the streams of maroon and light blue lines traversing them, inside of a black border edged in yellow. The weightiness of the dark colors belies the lightness of the paper, while the black border disappears into the frame’s black mounting board, which extends an inch beyond the edge of the sheet. You have to look very closely to discern where one ends and the other begins.
The next two paintings in the sequence are the first to feature irregular sheets. “More Near (III)” is a two-part composition with an orange field on top and a curved, washy blue section underneath, as if it were the ocean viewed from the stratosphere, while three white zigzags dominate “More Near (IV),” hovering like stylized thunderbolts above layers of violet-pink, chalky blue, and orange-red. In these two works, the picture plane is squared off and the trapezoidal edges are left blank.
Blank, but not empty. In “More Near (IV),” the irregular border is stained by drips and fingerprints, pushing the painting process to the foreground and prompting the impression that the works on display are peeled-off stages of the artist’s thought. The formal ideas, wrangled from improvised splashes of pigment, confound abstract flatness with spatial illusion, simultaneously playing it straight and fooling the eye. The thinness of the support raises the stakes on how much can be done to the surface before it falls apart.
“More Near (V),” a blue-toned field encircled by diagonal strokes resembling black sunbeams, fully embraces its trapezoidal format, the paint reaching all four edges of the quirkily cut sheet. In an interesting twist, the next painting in the series, “More Near (VI)” reverts to the squared-off presentation and blank edges of “More Near (III)” and “(IV).” However, it is mounted on a black board that complements the Suprematist-looking horizontal and vertical black bands comprising the composition. The mounting board and the paper’s blank, white edges are thereby transformed into additional formal elements, and the painting and the frame become indistinguishable as aesthetic objects. Clearly the show’s standout, “More Near (VI)” is a rigorous, crisply realized work that consolidates the freewheeling figure/ground relationships of the preceding works into a balanced, geometric classicism.
This sense of balance is carried into “More Near (VII),” the final work of the series, in which the picture plane is squared off but the uneven edges are colored green at the top and gray on the three remaining sides. Within this border, clouds of orange paint billow over a yellow and pink field.
While there are no other “More Near” paintings in the show, the remaining works on paper — the yellow, four-part grid, “Sun Window” (2015), and the black-on-violet “Black Diamond” (2016), both hanging in the gallery’s back room — are also made on irregularly cut sheets, keeping the continuity alive, as well as the impulse toward simplicity and geometry.
Although I said earlier that “More Near (I)” was the only painting that reminded me of another artist, Mouton’s works emerge from a lineage that can be traced from Helen Frankenthaler’s spills to Mary Heilmann’s blocks of color. But there is another, more unlikely artist who came to mind while looking at these works, and that was Philip Guston, and not simply due to the funkiness their paintings share.
Guston’s late works exude a sense of fecundity, of dipping into a well that would never run dry; similarly, it is easy to imagine Mouton reconfiguring this particular formal vocabulary indefinitely, if she so chooses. Her decisions feel both unexpected and grounded; her restrained set of factors results not in incremental development but imaginative leaps — a motley mix of off-beat imagery that, in each instance, generates its own conclusions but never ties off debate.
Monique Mouton: More Near continues at Bridget Donahue (99 Bowery, 2nd Floor, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 20.