In May, I Skyped with New York-based painter Monique Mouton for the fifth Phone Tag interview. Monique makes abstract shaped panels and drawings whose tactile, uneven surfaces feel deliberate and off-the-cuff at the same time. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver and a Master of Fine Arts from Bard College–the same graduate school as the previous Phone Tag participant Ezra Tessler, who introduced us. Monique and I talk about making, introspection, and the usefulness of boredom, among other things, in this Phone Tag interview.
Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.
LW: What are you working on now?
MM: Right now, I am working on a piece that I hadn’t finished before a show I had recently at Bridget Donahue Gallery. After a show I feel like it always takes a little while to get started again in the studio. There’s so much build up and so much mental, physical, emotional energy that goes into making it that there’s always this lag time. But I had a piece that I hadn’t finished, so I’ve been working on that, very slowly. It’s a big watercolor. So far it’s watercolor, ink, and chalk pastel on paper.
LW: Is it something that originally you thought you would include in the show, or is it different from that body of work?
MM: I was thinking about including it in the show, but I felt like it needed more work and more time in the studio. So I just kind of dropped it and kept it around, which has been a nice way to have a thread to pick up on.
LW: Who has influenced your practice?
MM: That is a question that I always find difficult because for me it’s a wide net. Everybody influences it in one way or another, whether it’s subtle or more obvious. But I think I’ve resisted answering that question to myself. Maybe part of my resistance to having a list of artists who have been influences is that it is a particular way of constructing a narrative around the work, and a lineage. That is something that, when I first felt like I was onto my long-term project – however long I am making art, I see it as a continuous practice – and when I was first discovering what that was, I was consciously avoiding narrative in the work. It was really important for me to remove any obvious clues to a story, because I wanted it to have a less linear effect in the way that a person viewing it would be able to take it in. So, unconsciously, that got into the part of me that thinks about influences.
That said, a way I’ve come to think about it relates to something that Charline von Heyl said in a talk she gave out in LA. She was talking about how when she’s making paintings, she has a cloud of images that she might draw from. Rather than there being this linear structure, it’s more like there’s this field of things floating around that she then picks from and pulls into her painting. For her I think she has actual folders of things that she’ll group together and then might destroy after completing a particular project (if my memory serves me). All the teachers that I’ve had, and the places that I’ve lived, and my family even, could be in my version of the cloud. They come forward and recede.
LW: And them as much as any particular artists or works that you’ve seen?
MM: Yes. Sometimes it surprises me when an influence comes to the forefront that I didn’t know that I was thinking about. One example is my dad’s side of the family. They’re Cajun. He has 15 siblings. He was born in New Orleans. When I was young and throughout my life I would go to these giant parties down in Texas, in Galveston, that were just kind of whatever in terms of sleeping arrangements. Like pieces of foam on the floor and random sheets and people just sleeping wherever. Everything was sort of cobbled together. After I had been working on my art for a while, I went back to this beach house in Galveston, which my dad built with his siblings and my grandpa out of a lot of salvaged materials. There was this aesthetic of things that just did the job—that maybe was not the first or most obvious choice. Like a piece of cloth covering the card table with a corner that didn’t quite make it that was fine because it worked well enough. These odd little edges to things. Everything functioned, but in this way that was precarious. I think my art is sometimes like this. It’s like it’s almost a painting and you’re not sure if it’s doing it or not, or where it came from, but it stays and it works.
LW: For you, is art making a very introspective process?
MM: Yes, I think that is true for me. I’m interested in how something that is very internal or introspective materializes for an unknown audience and what that action could possibly affect or mean in our present culture. That’s the most broad way of thinking about it.
LW: There is something about your work that seems kind of removed from present culture as such, like they are separate things.
MM: That’s interesting. What do you mean?
LW: Well, that they don’t seem to have a specific referent, certainly. But not just because they are abstract—abstract paintings can certainly evoke very particular places and times and styles. There is something essentialist about them. They seem very much themselves.
MM: Maybe that is part of what a very introspective process produces. …You know, sometimes there will be something in my paintings that is not abstract. There is one that I think of—the first one after many years of only totally abstract paintings—a painting with a fish in it. Sort of a memory of a fish, that is, I didn’t base it off of a picture of a fish. For me, occasionally, putting these things in like a fish, which is so generic but could also relate to so many things, where there’s a lot of symbolism that could be attached to it or it could be just a very common animal in the world… I think I’m making these paintings that feel very stripped down, yet somehow there’s an accumulation of time in them or maybe there’s a mark or a color that reminds you of something from somewhere but doesn’t quite reference it. You’re right—there are no particular reference points.
What I’m thinking about in terms of all of that in relation to it being viewed in the present moment is that removal, where it doesn’t feel like it is quite present, actually causes friction. Because then you’re thinking about ‘OK, what is going on here? Because it’s not directing me in the usual ways in terms of how to look at it.’ But it’s also not totally hermetic. I do think that there are cues in the work that help place it in relation to other things that are happening now. I think I try to twist it or put things in sort of an awkward balance where it doesn’t quite hit you in the same way.
All of that is to say: I want to make art that works on you in that way because looking at art is a very specific activity. It’s somewhat odd and specific, especially if you pull out the whole commercial consumer aspect of it, which I like to do when I’m in my studio and when I’m looking at art. Outside of that, what does art do for us as a society? Painting especially, which has gone through various periods of death and irrelevance without every truly becoming irrelevant. There’s something about it that is special. I think it’s mysterious. It’s mysterious to me even as a painter. I’m kind of interested in that idea: That something that doesn’t really make sense manages to live on and change and hold our attention even despite everything that’s going on in the world, you know?
LW: Speaking as a painter, maybe you could walk me through your process. An ideal day in the studio—what does that look like? Do you ever have one?
MM: An ideal day is probably rare. Days in the studio tend to always have their ups and downs. I’m a morning person and I like being in the studio early in the morning, just because it’s quieter and I have fewer distractions at that time. So, in an ideal day, I’d probably come to my studio early and do some reading or just look around, at whatever I’m working on and then go from there.
I often nap in my studio, which I’ve decided is ideal. I think the best naps are not too long and maybe have some dreams, whether I remember them or not. It’s like an altered state. Just waking up from a nap is a shift that is useful. Definitely lunch and lots of snacks. Spending a lot of time.
I like to leave my studio before dark. I don’t all the time—I will spend late nights. But for me I like to end my day earlier so that I have a timeframe to work within, which makes me more productive, and it gives me some space before coming back the next day.
LW: Are you in your studio now? Can I see?
MM: I’ve been rearranging it since my show so it’s kind of messy. That’s the door.
LW: Cool. Do you work on the wall?
MM: On the floor.
LW: Oh, on the floor. I see now. That’s awesome. Have you always had a studio since you’ve been living in New York?
MM: Yeah, I got this studio about 6 months after I moved to New York, so since late 2012. I’ve left town during that time and sublet it. Like when I was teaching in Richmond, Virginia for 9 months I was able to sublet. So I’ve had this space for a while.
LW: Final question: Is it better, do you think, as an artist, to be in a place like New York where it has a big art scene but it’s crazy, or to be in a smaller place, like Richmond, where there’s a slower pace of life and you can focus on making?
MM: I don’t know. That question is one that I think about because I have a tendency to want to do both things. For me the ideal is maybe to do both. Because it’s definitely helpful to live in a community where there’s enough happening to see other people’s work and show your work and talk about it.
New York is so hard. It’s hard physically. There’s so much coming at you all the time; there’s no personal space. That can be energizing and it can also wear me out. Sometimes it’s hard to even know where I’m coming from in the city, because there’s so much going on. I feel like it can be really helpful to be outside of that, because then you can be not as distracted. I find getting bored helpful to working sometimes. I feel like boredom is really useful for creativity. Because you get to a point where you’re so exasperated that you have to do something of your own initiative; it can be a real spark. The most breakthroughs that I’ve had in my work is when I’ve have that kind of space, of boredom. Where I just had to figure it out. It’s really hard to have that in the city.
One thing I do want to say about New York: it is like no other place. But I also find it problematic that New York thinks that it is the only place. I’m sure people would say, ‘No, that’s not true.’ But I think it does, there’s a feeling here. It’s a bubble. It is its own world. I think that other places in the world, big and small, are really important to everything, including art.
LW: Everyone has a different answer to that question.
MM: It’s very individual. It depends what kind of artist you are. I feel like being here has definitely helped me grow a lot as an artist in ways that I wouldn’t elsewhere. That’s true of everywhere I’ve lived though.
LW: Well, thank you so much for participating. Those are all my questions.
MM: OK, great. It was nice meeting you!