For the last five years, Albert Contreras has been making two kinds of paintings: Xs and O's. Plenty of artists have similarly stripped their works down to the basics, especially since Minimalism made art safe for less-is-more thinking.
But no other painter has managed to pack so much punch — and good old joie de vivre — into a couple of letters.
At Peter Mendenhall Gallery, Contreras' new paintings are the most sculptural he has made. They're also the strongest.
Contreras' Xs couldn't be simpler. Each begins as a square panel that he paints as a single color. Laying the panel flat on his kitchen table, he then dumps a couple of puddles of acrylic paint on its face. Sometimes he dumps differently colored puddles atop the first ones. Some puddles have glitter mixed into them. Others are translucent. All have the consistency of pudding. And each runs from corner to corner. The biggest measure more than 3 inches deep.
The O's proceed similarly, except that Contreras piles on even more paint. Creamy mounds of viscous liquid nearly cover each panel.
That's when the 81-year-old painter starts sculpting. Using homemade palette knives and customized trowels, he makes whiplash Xs and perfectly circular O's. Each of Contreras' swift, sometimes reckless gestures scrapes paint away by the pound. He tosses it out, chalking it up to the cost of doing this sort of materially intensive business.
More important, he doesn't fuss with the results of his split-second gestures: He leaves the paint that remains on the panels right where it falls. No fudging the results. No dressing up the designs.
The Xs sometimes recall the wakes made by boats as they pass through the ocean — except that Contreras' quickly carved wakes are rainbow-tinted, glitter-saturated and out of this world. His O's, especially those made of concentric rings, recall waves, particularly as their colors shift from dark to light as they curl and break.
Like a school kid practicing his penmanship, Contreras sticks to the task of making the same letters over and over. But none of his Xs looks like another. The same goes for his O's. That's where his genius as a colorist comes in: Finding nuance in crudeness, or sophistication in simplicity, Contreras makes every square inch a pleasure to behold.