Paintings that Are Like Whispers and Secrets

Monique Mouton, “Green, blooming” (2017), watercolor, acrylic and soft pastel on paper, 63 × 66 3/4 in. (framed) (all photographs by Gregory Carideo, all images copyright Monique Mouton, courtesy of the artist and Bridget Donahue, NYC)

“The picture spoke its green,” reads the last line of a poem by Mark Doty dedicated to Joan Mitchell, a tender meditation on the immediacy of her canvases. I pondered Doty’s words as I strolled through Monique Mouton’s latest solo exhibition at Bridget Donahue, the artist’s second show at the esteemed gallery on Bowery, titled The Theme is Green.

Installation view of Monique Mouton: The Theme is Green at Bridget Donohue, New York

Approaching Mouton’s artwork from a purely formalist perspective would do it an injustice, while dwelling on the visual affinities between her work and that of the New York School artists seems redundant: from Helen Frankenthaler’s soak-stain method to the sweeping gestures of Robert Motherwell, the art historical relationship is palpable. More strikingly, what urges consideration is the inherently poetic sensibility that Mouton shares with Joan Mitchell.

“Visual poetry” is a phrase that gets thrown around quite a lot these days. Being an easy crowd-pleaser, it suggests — like instant coffee — that one can get the same experience in less time, for who wouldn’t choose looking at a picture over reading columns of obscure lines? More and more, I see those two words used as self-explanatory, and can’t help to feel a slight frustration at the implication that a comparison to poetry somehow makes an artwork more easily digestible. Poetry has its own complexities, visual or not.

Monique Mouton, “In Her Garden” (2017), watercolor, gesso, soft pastel, sanguine on paper 63 × 75 in. (framed)Monique Mouton, “Landscape” (2018), watercolor and pencil on paper, 53 × 63 in. (framed)

These complexities are exemplified by the poetic sensibility of Mouton’s aesthetic. Adorning the walls of the rectangular gallery space are large patterns of stains absorbed by an intricate paper surface, in various shades of purple, yellow, blue, and, of course, green. Some patterns appear to devour one another, while others gently bump into each other, only to part ways, like when our sleeves accidentally touch on the subway. Then there are those spaces that Mouton leaves blank, charging the surface with anticipation and evoking what is left unsaid. Once again I am reminded of Doty’s poem:

continuous field so charged

as to fill the room in which it hangs

with an inaudible humming,

as if to erase the gallery over which it triumphs

An inaudible humming, indeed. The works hover in the room like apparitions, and I catch myself suddenly feeling a rush, afraid that they might evaporate before my very eyes. In an attempt to document these apparitions, I take out my phone and snap a photograph. However, I find that all I captured is a reflection of myself absorbed by the glass frame in an expansive field of hazy colors.

Installation view of Monique Mouton: The Theme is Green at Bridget Donohue, New York

The works on view do not actually contain much green: only one work represents the color’s authority, with a bleak green shape brushed out over three quarters of its surface. Yet, as implied by the title, green is not merely a color — it’s a theme. Green is the combination of yellow and blue (both of which are amply found in the show). The color signals safety and permission, lack of experience, unripe fruit, jealousy. Mouton’s paintings embody all of this. They are not tube-fresh references to fields of grass; they do not aim to transport the viewer to sunlit places. Rather, the paintings reveal the coldness of the colors, their pallor.

Monique Mouton, “Night / Day” (2018), watercolor, soft pastel and pencil on paper, 63 × 69 3/4 in. (framed)

Soaked up by the large sheets of paper, the colors have a muted quality, reminiscent of a dimmed screen. Like whispers, the power of Mouton’s paintings lies in their subtleness; they project a sense of secrecy that makes one lean in closer to hear what they are saying. Perhaps that’s Mark Doty meant when he wrote that the picture spoke its green.

Monique Mouton: The Theme is Green continues at Bridget Donohue (99 Bowery, 2nd Floor, Manhattan) through January 13, 2019.