MARIA PRATTS

The town sign of ‘Sad City’ is bubblegum pink construction foam, sprayed onto an uneven yellow backdrop. Placed opposite the entrance to Maria Pratts’ homonymous solo exhibition organised by the L&B Contemporary Art Gallery, and with its 3-D graffiti letters evoking the association of highly processed meat, it proclaims the entrance into a technicolour world filled with dancing hamburgers, distorted Mickey Mouse characters and shakily drawn smiley faces.

From ceramic sculptures covered with dripping paint to videos animated from crayon drawings, Pratts’ ‘Sad City’ works all have a certain roughness and dirtiness to them. Art critic David G. Torres once attributed this quality to Pratts placing the ‘what’ above the ‘how’ when creating her work: “She is the type of artist for whom it is most important to have something to say, and to look for ways to say it.”

The central piece of the show is an installation named Dos Caps De Cera, consisting of two large colourful paintings guarded by perturbingly smiling police officers holding guns. The words “Everything Very Good” are scribbled across the right painting, which shows a smiley-faced figure giving the viewer a thumbs up, from within a landscape of trash bags and dark skyscrapers. The characters in Pratts’ work  – policemen, skaters, homeless people – are inspired by the urban surroundings of downtown Barcelona, where the artist’s gallery and studio are situated. “I love to observe people in the street, and I love to paint them”, she explains. “For me, that’s a huge part of living life as an artist – constantly observing one’s surroundings”.

“In ‘Andrew’s World’, a faceless protagonist is interrogated after having been caught in a bush, ketamine-infused and mid-masturbation, by his mother, ex-wife, her new boyfriend and pretty much everyone else he knows.”

 

In addition to everyday street life, Pratts draws inspiration from expressionist painters such as George Grosz. Her work approaches reality, with an emphasis on its emotional repercussions, and deals with themes that were popular with the expressionists: money, acceleration, hedonism and the absurdities of everyday life in the city. Add the distress caused by self-optimisation and surveillance, and you are presented with the many modern anxieties that Pratts touches upon in her work. By presenting them in a hyperbolic, comical way, she gives us the feeling of being in on the joke that modern-day reality can often feel like. In ‘Andrew’s World’, a faceless protagonist is interrogated after having been caught in a bush, ketamine-infused and mid-masturbation, by his mother, ex-wife, her new boyfriend and pretty much everyone else he knows. The situation is absurd and disturbing, whilst also remaining extremely comical. Rather than a condescending lecture on the pitfalls of contemporary society, we are provided with a moment of comic relief.

When I return to the L&B gallery a few weeks later, the atmosphere in the room has changed entirely. The playlist of punk-inspired songs Pratts wrote to accompany Dos Caps De Cera has been turned off, and two large tables have replaced the crowd of young creatives in their frayed leather jackets, holding red beer cans in their hands. Pratts is standing at one of the tables, her hands covered in clay, surrounded by a group of people engaged in creating ceramic sculptures.

They are preparing works for an exhibition, Plagi, which will take place at L&B as soon as Pratts’ show has ended. Plagi is a collaboration between Pratts and La Casa De Carlota, a creative studio whose team is predominantly made up of people with cognitive disabilities. The purpose of the project is to create a second Sad City, filled with works inspired by the original exhibition, through collaboration and human exchange. Pratts, who has previously worked as an art educator for children in New York, obviously enjoys her mentoring role, occasionally pausing in our conversation to give a high-five or some advice to the men and women surrounding her.

The genuine warmth and tenderness that surrounds Pratts is palpable in the space-related works she created on a journey along the American West Coast with photographer and art director, Pol Agusti, and fellow Spanish artist, Regina San Martino. During the trip, she coloured patches of snow with tender, pastel tones and decorated the landscape with her signature graffiti, the latter appearing to reflect the mythologies and customs she encountered on her way along the West Coast. Collaborative projects like this are a reoccurring motif in Pratts’ work, mirroring Barcelona’s artistic scene, which is characterised by communal artworks and exhibitions held in charmingly dilapidated shared studios. Within these surroundings, Pratts creates work that gives a childlike but, nevertheless, critical view of a present that is becoming increasingly incomprehensible. Proving, elegantly, that artistic demand for social change can be delivered in a brightly coloured, uncynical form.

Words by Donna Schons.