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Albert Contreras, “Albert”
Peter Mendenhall Gallery, Pasadena, California
Review by Andy Brumer

Albert Contreras, “Untitled,” acrylic on panel, 36 x 36”


Continuing through November 18, 2023


While painter Albert Contreras (1933-2017) isn’t often associated with the “Light and Space” movement, this slim and salutary selection of Contreras’s paintings reveals interesting links with that legendary Southern California movement and group. At once chthonic and ethereal, aesthetically ambitious and, in his use of industrial acrylic lacquer paint, quotidian and plain, Contreras’s works here indeed echo Light and Space practices.


Born in Los Angeles, Contreras developed his art as a young man living in Spain and Sweden. However, after failing to break through with a gallery in New York during the 1960’s and 70’s, he gave up painting altogether for the following quarter century. During that time, he worked as a Sanitation Engineer (garbage truck driver) for the City of Santa Monica. As his gallerist and friend Peter Mendenhall relates, Contreras entered psychotherapy, which freed him to paint again. From the late 1990’s until his death he produced art of consistently high quality.


Optically tricky, painterly plush, and cosmically compelling in equal measures, this group of acrylics on wood panel paintings (all 36 by 36 inches) eschews the artist’s well-known manipulations of Euclidian geometry in favor of more a lyrically gestural style and more organically rendered forms. In all of these untitled works Contreras built up thick relief-like surfaces of acrylic paint into impasto-like reveries suggestive of another California legend, Jay DeFeo and her mythic painting, “The Rose.”


Contreras infused several of these pieces with a healthy dose of gossamer-like, almost immaterial glitter that dilutes the paintings’ opaquely textured surfaces. They instantly, alchemically change their colors into swarming kaleidoscopes as we move from side to side. Several of the paintings present a simple image of a curvaceous cross, voluminous like two fat intersecting paper clips. Set against their deep, black-painted wood panels, these “X marks no spot” indicators tie the spaces they occupy together into knot-like engines of spiritualized energy. Concurrently, more washy halos of glitter-speckled paint line the inner edges of these figures, like the sinews of living creatures.


Several of the pieces assume a Mandala configuration defined as a circle within a square, with the edges of the wood panels themselves providing the square border that contains Contreras’ painted circular images. Yet Contreras slyly subverts the qualities of focus and psychic balance that often accompany a discussion of Mandalas in both the Buddhist and Western psychoanalytic traditions (first deeply explored by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung). This is the result of built-up areas of paint molded into what looks like the minute- or second-hands of a clock. Protruding from their circumferences and vectored toward the centers of their spheres, these palette-like sticks stir Contreras’s brightly colored (in these instances) palette into a mischievous, decisively secular stew. 


Dominated by dreamy, almost ghostly white arcs of angular motion, others in this circular series of works take a step further beyond the spiritual border and enter into more silent, perhaps even religious zones, giving us plenty of transient feeling to hold on to.

Peter Mendenhall Gallery

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