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Albert Contreras, “Untitled” (1971), acrylic on canvas (click to enlarge; all photos by Magnus Stark, courtesy Peter Mendenhall Gallery)

                  pours down. —Michael O’Brien

It is hard to resist the temptation to mythologize Albert Contreras’s adult life, to not see it take shape as a movie script or imagine who might get the starring role. But if you stop to think about it, the only reason Contreras’ life story could be turned into a movie is because of his paintings. That’s what it boils down to.  We shouldn’t want it any other way.

Now in his late seventies, Contreras seems to have taken a long quaff from the Fountain of Youth when he was in his sixties. He may be in the autumn of his life, but you wouldn’t know it. During the past fifteen years, he has become a young, single-minded painter full of unrestrained exuberance, undeterred by anything that life might throw at him now. After all, he has already lived two complete lives; and he is in the middle of his third, painting every day. This is the dream — to be possessed the way Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke or Rumi were, when poetry poured out of them.

In his first life, Contreras graduated from L.A. City College and lived in Mexico and Spain before settling in Stockholm in 1960. In a short time, he gained serious attention for his monochrome paintings with a disc in the center. The disc soon became an ethereal orb. The orb became a dot. You know where the story is going. This was the ’60s, when the art world believed in pure painting unencumbered by worldly cares.

Eventually, the reductive impulse won out. Contreras began stripping his paintings down to the core. He was following the implications of his work, and ended up painting monochromes. He wondered how they would hold up, and in the late 1960s he moved from Stockholm to New York, where artists were engaged with the dematerialization of the object. Within three years Contreras stopped painting altogether.

Albert Contreras’s studio

In 1972, Contreras moved back to Los Angeles to begin his second, very different life. He got a job working for the city of Los Angeles. He drove garbage trucks, resurfaced asphalt streets and operated heavy equipment. If he thought about painting, he kept it to himself. He retired in 1992, twenty years after he stopped painting. That’s when he started his third life. He went into therapy for five years. In 1997, he quit seeing a therapist and started painting again. He picked up where he had left off, but not exactly. Before, he had painted himself into a corner. This time there would be no stopping him.

Contreras was incredibly efficient once he made up his mind. Everything he did was in the service of his painting. He turned his modest apartment into a live/work situation. He started buying acrylic paints by the bucketful. He fashioned homemade tools to make his marks. He hired professionals to stretch canvas over a square wood panel, which he could attach to other similarly sized units. By working modularly he could configure the paintings any way he pleased.

Albert Contreras, “Untitled” (2012), acrylic on panel, 18 x 18 inches (click to enlarge)

Basically, Contreras gave himself a modest-sized surface to work on, the choice of any color and the possibility of assembling the finished paintings into a grid or frieze-like row. This is the opposite of being reductive; it’s incremental. Everything is added; nothing is removed. There’s no looking back, no second guessing.

Contreras wanted a hard, resistant surface, which is why he had the canvas stretched over wood. This allowed him the maximum freedom to manipulate the thicknesses of viscous acrylic paint with the tools he designed and made. Some of them cut through the gel-like acrylic, leaving trowel-like grooves. Others are like something a plasterer or baker would use, slathering on the paint in wide swaths.

Contreras transformed his years of resurfacing asphalt streets into an unexpected set of painterly possibilities. The impasto can recall the tough, metal-raked surfaces of the streets, but also cake frosting, hair gel, stucco, plastic and glue. The glutinous acrylic’s glossy materiality is both visceral and sensuous.

Contreras’ assembled grids remind us that a painting is a constructed thing. Instead trying to end painting, as he once did, he is building it up, one step at a time. Over the past fifteen years, he has explored checkerboard patterns, plaids, pools of paint arranged in a grid of diamonds and, most recently, X’s made of two layered colors. He has never gotten bored or stuck, moving always on to another motif.

Contreras’s colors seem inspired from custom car shops, cosmetics counters and cupcake bakeries. You have the feeling that he’s never met a red, yellow or blue that he didn’t like. He has used glitter and metal flake.

Albert Contreras, “Untitled” (2009), acrylic on panel, 12 x 14 inches (click to enlarge)

Contreras’s process is very direct, almost like he is making a pizza. In his recent paintings, he will lay down a palpable X of thick green paint on, say, a blue ground. The firm shape, with its rounded edges, goes from corner to corner. On that colored shape he will often make another, smaller X in a contrasting color. Once he has stacked the two X’s, he uses a pronged instrument to scratch another X in the still-wet painting. This final action binds the ground — now visible in the grooves — to the layers of paint, while calling attention to the edges and interstices between the elements. Our gaze shifts from the overall form to its component parts, back to the overall interaction and back again to the parts. Our experience is animated by the bold colors mixed with the pleasure of materiality. He knows how to layer different colors on top of each other and have them sing, both as a group and individually.

An X both crosses out and inscribes a spot. It is a denial and an assertion. With his X’s, Contreras is crossing out his past. He is also marking time. He knows he can’t get out of time, so he cheerfully succumbs to it by painting, making one or more of his marks every day. In doing so, he embraces time’s pressure on him as well as celebrates its passing. Unlike Rilke, he can endure the feelings of terror that beauty ignites in one’s consciousness, turning them into the paintings we see before us.

Contreras’ work conveys the pleasure of making, which is a rare phenomenon. He doesn’t seem tormented. In so many ways, his X’s cross out commonplace assumptions about the artist and the purpose of painting. Bliss, his work tells us, can come from doing the same thing day and day out, from sticking to a routine. For him, every day is a good day, as the Zen monk Yunmen Wenyan (864–949) declared. About this, he is unapologetic.

Along with their audacity, Contreras’s paintings convey vulnerability. Recalling the sweet, gooey interiors of éclairs and cream pies, the pillowy surfaces appear as if any touch would leave a mark. (Do you remember the joke: How do you know if an elephant has been in your refrigerator? Answer: By the footprints it left in the chocolate pudding). Contreras’s paintings invite viewers to touch them, but underscore their susceptibility. It’s a paradox that speaks volumes.

Contreras isn’t afraid of using one, two, three, four or even a dozen colors in a grid of paintings. From glittering to saturated, from solid to radiant and from changing to unchanging, he seems to want to use every color he can find in a can or a tube, no matter how weird or wacky. There is something fearless about this ambition. As evidenced by the paintings, his desire is to celebrate the physical and optical sensations of color, the lovely dance between its materiality and immateriality.

Albert Contreras, “Untitled” (2011), acrylic on panel, 20 x 40 inches

David Pagel has described Contreras’s paintings as “obscenely edible,” and he is absolutely right. Their thick, creamy surfaces are measured X’s of yummy goop. That collision between the lusciously physical and the vibrantly visual is at the core of these paintings. They stop just short of being lurid. They can be gaudy, bright, even garish — like a wrist full of costume jewelry — but they never cross the line, never stop being eye-catching and straightforward in their beauty. They are resilient and scarred, intrepid and exposed.  No one else makes paintings like these.

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