The subjects of Ojai artist Rick Monzon’s paintings have evolved from traditional houses to landscapes to dramatic skies and abstracts and he’s not finished yet.
The Brighton Hills subdivision in the San Gabriel Valley where he grew up was an early influence on Monzon’s art.
“I was 10 when my parents started looking at homes there,” he said. “I saw renderings from the model home brochures — it was so idyllic.” Fascinated, he did his own drawings and decided right then he wanted to be an architect.
But along the way he discovered hot rods and rock ‘n’ roll.
“My attention veered, like a kid’s does,” he said, “but I always had that appreciation of that era, the sensibility of that ’50s and ’60s optimism as reflected in the architecture and lifestyle.”
Monzon attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and Academy of Art College in San Francisco. He developed a proficiency with the airbrush and worked as an illustrator and photo retoucher, playing in bands on the side.
“I had been using commercial art to support my music,” he said. “I wasn’t expressing myself as an artist. By the late ’80s, it was clear I wasn’t going to be successful in the music world.”
His wife, Lisa, suggested he start painting.
“At that point it clicked,” he said. “I started to show in galleries, meeting artists, getting a track record. By the early ’90s I was painting seriously.”
While looking for subjects to paint, Monzon saw artist Ed Ruscha’s book of photographs titled “Some Los Angeles Apartments.” It struck a memory chord.
“There were photos of the types of houses I had grown up around,” he said. “I thought, ‘I know that.’ There was an endless amount of material that was my direction. When that coalesced, I had my source.
“I was doing sort of a flat, David Hockney kind of look to the architectural paintings when I started,” he said. Then he saw the work of Kenton Nelson, which he described as having a very strong sense of light, not unlike Edward Hopper’s strong morning light.
“It was Nelson’s reinterpretation of that, that made the impact,” Monzon said. “The light became a big focus. It became a psychological kind of thing between the light and the dark. It was that drama that drew me in.”
Then he started looking at the great landscape painters: the Dutch Flemish and the Hudson River School painters, Thomas Moran.
“I started looking for houses that were part of that landscape. The landscape became more prominent and the house was just an element in it,” he said. “Then it was a natural transition to leave the house out entirely.”
As a personal illustration of this, when he and his wife bought their house in Ojai in 2003, they were most affected by the sweeping view of the Los Padres National Forest from the backyard.
“We didn’t even look at the house,” he said. “We walked right through to the backyard and said, ‘Let’s write it up.'”
Monzon started painting moodier landscapes with dramatic skies.
“Sometimes the skies became the major focus of the painting,” he said. “I still like landscapes but I like to express myself with these skies. It also allows me to veer into more abstract work.”
Monzon starts by priming Masonite panels black.
“In a sense, the black is already dramatic,” he said. “It’s almost like theater lighting. It’s the light that does the modeling and definition. I like Masonite because I paint in a blurry style and I sometimes paint very thin and the canvas nap shows through.” The panels are more conducive to his style of painting, he said.
With a nod to his background in music, many of Monzon’s paintings are titled after songs. But in music as well as art, his tastes have evolved.
“These days I am listening to ambient music, atmospheric, with almost no rhythm,” he said. “It’s less obtrusive, doesn’t demand your attention, more of a background in a sense.”
There is a correlation between music and art, he said.
“They have the same kind of structure,” he said. “You have to approach your body of work in the same way. It’s got to be cohesive. Whether it’s music or visual, the individual pieces, in songs or paintings, have to relate. It’s that kind of sensibility that establishes you as an artist.”
Looking ahead, Monzon would like to move on to figures.
“It’s a huge leap for me, but I want to bring the same drama and focus, so I sort of know what I want to say.”
Monzon has won awards and exhibited his work extensively. He will have a show in April at the Klaudia Marr Gallery in Santa Fe, N.M.