Like Los Angeles, the city that is its subject, Pentti Monkkonen’s ‘Mur Murs’ wears its purpose on the outside. Hung in an enclosed walkway leading to the gallery entrance is the painting Gentrifiers Rebuked (all works 2016): a horizontal rectangle, ‘stuccoed’ with sand and slathered in vomit-hued smears and drips of paint. Its surface is sculpted like the side of a little shop, complete with vents and a terracotta ‘roof’. Nearby, is the gallery’s window; hanging inside, visible through its muntins and transoms, is the likewise cruciform stretcher of a canvas (Hair Nails (pink)), which itself bears a small window, inset in the cloth, painted with the kind of manicured hand that might appear on a beauty-salon sign. In a seemingly banal but charged coincidence of art and site, the two windows overlap enough to allow passers-by a glimpse of the show within. Monkkonen’s work wraps the insular pretensions of fine art in an homage to the beauticians of the street, lending a sharply sweet Angeleno flavour to the staid dichotomy between high and vernacular culture.
The walls of LA buildings, after all, are not virginal white, but a more or less arbitrary palimpsest of grime, graffiti and house paint. (The chunky purple façade of Jenny’s own low-slung office suite is no exception). In five identically sized works, building-shaped canvases rephrase the tension between urban decay and renewal as an aesthetic problem; the ubiquitous alley-facing wall becomes a form sarcastically emptied of function (that is, of people). Within this model, it’s possible to propose an uneasy congruency between two of the city’s main ‘mural districts’: the lysergic pastel vibes of Venice Beach inform T.R.E.A.M., a mural of Death in a drug rug, holding life in an hourglass like so much Pacific sand. Over on LA’s east side is Estrada Courts, a housing project in Boyle Heights known for its murals, from which Monkkonen draws the faithfully miniaturized Honeycomb Light by Charles Felix. Partly shading T.R.E.A.M. is Billboard (Shot on iPhone 6), a tattered, small-scale replica of a giant ad; it’s still possible to make out, in a photo of a hipster posing on a red brick wall, a hi-res cliché of urbanity. Venice, once a slum, has long been recolonized; Boyle Heights is the new front of gentrification.
The paintings’ building-like format insists on another painterly dialectic – between abstraction and representation, escape and engagement. If Monkkonen’s ‘murals’ seem stylized and abstract, the works’ materiality cites a world exterior to the discourse of modernist art. Armchair Socialism is patterned with vines and birds from wallpaper designed by the 19th-century socialist William Morris. Here, the abstract politics of betterment-by-design feel far indeed from the dire stakes of gang tags. 50 Shades of Mauve depicts a wall patchily painted and repainted as if to cover graffiti; yet, the piece manages to be as compositionally and chromatically seductive as any abstract painting. Where many have failed, Monkkonen successfully transplants a particular element of found aesthetics – the graffiti cover-ups that deck Los Angeles like bristly, mismatched Mark Rothko paintings – into a formalized, white-walled setting. This works by keeping his citations firmly in context, confining a post-painterly preoccupation with surface to funny, wall-shaped canvases. This, he seems to say with a wink, is maybe the best art can do. And why try to cheat the world out of what the world does better? It’s enough, Monkkonen suggests, for art to have its model city, its toy urbanism, its problem of painting – which, if ‘Mur Murs’ doesn’t exactly ‘solve’, it comes pretty close to naming.
First published in Issue 181