The Ronald Tutor Campus Center’s Ellis Family Lounge recently installed 15 new paintings by artist Albert Contreras, adding to the 14 previously displayed there.
“I love symmetry, and I love color, and I am trying to express as much of that as I can,” Contreras said during a visit to USC.
Contreras has donated approximately 140 paintings to the university, which can be seen in the USC Fisher Museum of Art, as well as the conference room of the Student Life and Involvement office on the fourth floor of the campus center. Additional paintings are set for installation in the Student Union.
“I have always been fascinated with this type of art – the geometric, hard-edged abstraction,” said the prolific painter. “The way I did them was putting a lot of masking tape down and pulling the tape off so you get this thickness and these straight lines.”
Contreras’ connection to USC dates back to 2000, when the museum hosted his first exhibition in 31 years.
“It reignited his career,” said Selma Holo, director of the USC Fisher Museum. Max Schulz, the museum’s curator of exhibitions at the time, came across Contreras’ work while scouting for interesting artists.
“Max called me and said, ‘This guy is really terrific, and we need to give him a show,’ ” Holo said. “So we gave him a show in a tiny little room, and the show was a hit.”
Los Angeles Times art critic David Pagel wrote an article about the 23-painting exhibition that “really got everyone’s attention,” Holo said. “He got a gallery immediately, and then the gallery show sold out. It was just one of those remarkable things that happened.”
His affiliation with USC “has grown into a nice relationship,” Contreras said.
Now 78, Contreras initially found success as a painter in Stockholm, Sweden in the 1960s. His art then was focused on circles. “They were very serious,” he said. The circles he painted became smaller and smaller until the canvas became, in his words, “blank.”
He stopped painting in 1972, returned to Los Angeles and worked for the city as a trash truck driver for 25 years. Depressed, he sought therapy, got inspired again and returned to art.
“My art has changed since Sweden and has become more optimistic. And now it has been an explosion of colors and different forms and geometric abstracts,” Contreras said. “I was trying to make up for 25 years of lost painting. That is what all of this is about. You are seeing 25 years of life.”
The future, Contreras said, is all about painting the X.
“With the X paintings, I feel this from my heart of hearts, I have reached my holy grail,” he said. “I feel that I have reached the end of the line. And here is what I do: I paint nine paintings, separately, all six inches square. Then I let them dry for five days. Then I peel the paint off and glue nine of these Xs together.”
Contreras works on his Xs daily in his Santa Monica studio, using quarts of gel paint, various sizes of spatulas and putty knives, and approximately three-foot-square panels.
Using a tool crafted by his brother-in-law, he demonstrates his technique in a video posted on YouTube. He pulls the tool, which consists of a piece of Plexiglas with sawtooth grooves screwed onto a wood handle, through the thick paint with what he called “energy and determination.”
“I have reached my final ideas, so I want to do 1,000, I want to do a million Xs! I want to do what men have been doing, and women probably, since early cave paintings – hatch marks,” Contreras said. “So I am carrying on a tradition that goes back 50,000 years, presenting it in a new and interesting way.”