Monica Pierce builds a lot of history into her small abstract paintings on wood panels.
You can sense if not actually see the evidence of one or two other paintings beneath the surface of the work on the wall. But the color and traces of images in the under painting are used too effectively to represent merely false starts. They are part of the process that ends with an impastoed monochrome surface created by a brush heavily loaded with thick, sticky oil paint. Pierce scratches or rubs away at that surface, creating sophisticated color effects by revealing peach under lime green, blue under brown, cerise under blue — there is no shortage of invention in this work. Her images that adorn these surfaces and remain visibly buried beneath them are drawn from a personal bank of decorative motifs. In this exhibition there are several floral images reminiscent of wrought iron, and running throughout the work is a kind of freehand geometry that refers to tilework and other more rigidly organized patterns.
The assertive color, heavy paint, and the solidity of the wood give the works a strong physical presence, and Pierce works on a scale that encourages if not forces close examination. The largest painting here, not counting a diptych of two twelve-inch-square panels, was 15 x 16 inches. Although I am accustomed to railing against big overblown paintings, I came away from this show feeling that these may be a little underblown. Moment by moment in each work there is much to enjoy, but if they are striving for a sense of intimacy they still at times comes off as merely slight.
Pierce’s real accomplishment occurs in her works on paper. For several years she has been showing works on vellum and tracing paper that involve either multiple sheets or single sheets folded over onto themselves. These processes duplicate the layering of the paintings with an immediacy and an improvisational sense that is hinted at but does not survive the elaborate reworking of the paintings. For this exhibition she showed three untitled works on multiple sheets of 18 x 12 inch tracing paper (all 2002) that carry the work into, for Pierce, an unexpectedly monumental scale.
These new works are based on an ongoing project begun in 1996 called The Pattern Book. For the book, Pierce has bound sheets of tracing paper half the size of those she uses on the wall into a leather volume. She draws and paints on the paper in a variety of media, logging the various motifs and ideas that catch her interest. Some sheets are worked on both sides, and as you leaf through the book the constantly changing images may incorporate patterns from two to four levels of paper.
In the exhibition, the wall works range from two to five feet in length, but if the hinged sheets of paper were completely unfurled the works would be many times those sizes. Pierce has mounted them so that in one case you see a single sheet against the wall, but at other times the folds place four and five sheets on top of one another. You can see, with decreasing levels of clarity, patterns from maybe three sheets that may have been painted on one or two sides. There is almost always a sense of something unrevealed.
The patterns that rise and cross one another on the different levels give the works a restlessness, and by pinning the works unframed to the wall, Pierce emphasizes their fragility and provisional nature. She or anyone could rearrange them to create perhaps radically different effects, and as engaging as what we see on the wall may be, there is not the sense that this is a definitive, final reading of the material. These three works showcase Pierce’s visual invention and embody the spirit that has informed her work from the past decade.
All images courtesy the artist and Mulcahy Modern Gallery.
Charles Dee Mitchell lives in Dallas, Texas.