I’ve always been partial to exhibitions with oddly self-depreciating titles, and Lester Monzon’s Fail Better is definitely a doozie. A phrase from Samuel Beckett’s novella, Worstward Ho, the original quote reads “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” which is not a piece of inspirational writing at all but an absurdist’s response to the absurdity of the living world, i.e. a call to embrace the void. The title also brings to mind the angst and struggle inherent in the artistic process, as any creative person understands — each piece is not necessarily successful, but it is the endless process of transformation, not toward any specific conclusion but more in keeping with the steady work of a brick layer, plodding along year after year, slowly building a comprehensive vision of the world, that continues to inspire. Thus the title, as with the works themselves, reflect the intense and sometimes painful process of creating anything.
The artist Cy Twombly once stated, “I work in an impatient way,” which makes sense when looking at his work, yet he also maintained that all great art is deliberate and well-conceived rather than purely visceral and spontaneous. At first, Monzon’s work might appear haphazard, yet as with Twombly’s luminously enigmatic works, Monzon’s haphazardness is purposeful and exquisitely calibrated. These paintings are as much about erasure and seclusion as they are about inclusiveness and interconnectedness. Though he employs a complicated system of graphs, the graphs are only there to be disrupted, broken and corrupted. They function as barriers to be manipulated, and this divine manipulation might serve as the theme encompassing the entirety of Monzon’s practice.
In many instances, the graph serves as a backdrop for the movement of paint, as is the case with one 60 x 48 Inch panel, simply titled “Untitled (Fail Better)” where the graph acts as a support for the elliptical movement of the foregrounded shapes. One can’t help but make connections to natural forms as these shapes could be water lilies viewed below the surface of a lake, or strangely amorphous beings keeping time with the pulse of the universe. Either way, the freedom inherent in these shapes is palpable, especially since these forms are set against the rigidity of the gridded background. The grid operates as a static, calculated space that could represent the status quo, the humdrum and familiar whereas the foregrounded shapes appear to represent the irrepressible mind, the wild, unbidden gesture. Interestingly, Monzon has built into each of these paintings a phrase that is both self-deprecating and self-referential as though he were having a private conversation with himself and we as viewers happened to walk in at the tail end of it, not knowing the entire story, but understanding enough to realize that the paintings act as residual witnesses to a private narrative, one that we all experience in some way or another during the course of our lives.
What is particularly interesting is the fact that Monzon, through the process of working and reworking the paint has completely done away with any trace of language, yet the shapes and gestures have absorbed the artist’s intentions until the forms left behind on the canvas appear almost bashful like unwitting participants in a class play, standing sheepishly on the sidelines. Still, in other paintings, the grid becomes the central focus, functioning as a kind of cage, a receptacle of longing where thoughts and ideas exist in an ever-shifting living topography. In many of the works, the grid disappears completely in places as though rubbed raw from the canvas. These erasures create a powerful interchange between the more activated space of the canvas and the surrounding colors. Perhaps these points of erasure are moments of deeper introspection, or even complete immersion in the self. Perhaps this is where Monzon creates the greatest tension — a sense of longing that is palpable throughout the entire body of work. He is fighting with something here — himself or the surrounding world, or perhaps, as with the works themselves, it is an intangible and lingering anxiety, one that is inescapable given the world we live in.
Finally, what we come away with after spending time with these paintings is the sense that within this anxiety is also a world of burgeoning possibility, where structures connect and disconnect simultaneously and the perfect order that is achieved within the grids and graphs has been gorgeously disrupted, and that these disruptions are necessary; we rely on them to keep ourselves honest and alive. Even Samuel Beckett, who spent his life attempting to comprehend the paradox of emptiness and presence, of life and death, and who was ever morbid and ever bleak in his assessments, would definitely have approved.