Now Featuring Erin Morrison
Abstract or representational? It’s an old question, but a good one to think about as painter Erin Morrison adamantly answers both. Her playful shapes skitter across heavy, plaster-crusted canvases and into weightless translucent prints, as if to invite any object, anywhere, to become part of the lexicon of painting.
To view the print collection here.
MH: Can you talk about materiality in your work? I am struck by the way some of your paintings play with being images and others really emphasize their own physical presence, with oil paint soaking fabric, or puckering off the surface.
EM: It’s funny, people tend to be either incredibly interested in knowing about materiality, or they find the conversation dull, formulaic. I have no qualms with addressing the formal nature of the work. The process of making has, in fact, started to play an important role in how the work can be experienced. A sense of play with appropriated imagery, sampling for example from art history books, combined with the more instinctive, spontaneous approach often linked to abstract expressionism or gutai, is something I love to explore. Why does a painting have to be abstract OR representational? Can a painting function successfully as both? And what would that look like; surrealism, magic realism? By piecing together a quilt and using it purely as a plaster surface to be painted on, you create a similar experience to tromp l’oeil or the faux, but it doesn’t exactly succeed in faux-ing because it was a quilt.
MH: How about process? On your website, you mention performativity as something that’s emerging in your practice. In what ways, and why do you think you’ve been employing it?
EM: When I make a painting I’m interested in building it, not just applying oil paint to canvas. The work I’m finishing up this year has come from a series of experiments with plaster, quilt making, printmaking, and mixing my own paints. I feel that being a part of every aspect of building these objects, from the stretcher bars to frame considerations, enables me to have a deeper kind of relationship to the work. Fixed procedure and chance can be ways of building a composition that can feel intuitive and a little predictable at the same time. Many of my favorite surrealists explored techniques such as frottage and fumage, while participating in a kind of gamesmanship, the exquisite corpse drawings for example. With the development of new materials just in the last decade, I think there is so much room for re- examining the possibilities of painting.
MH: I see that you’re currently in graduate school… so this is either the best or worst time for me to ask you how it’s changed your practice and the way you work.
EM: Grad school has changed everything about my work. Part of me felt I had to maintain a kind of integrity with the work I entered the program doing. I set up so many false expectations for myself, trying to make predictions in how the work would evolve. I couldn’t force an outcome. I had to make some really bizarre, terrible things first. I have had three years to pry myself away from the body of work where I had once found security. The motions became less meaningful over time. The second year for me was all about giving myself the space to make bad paintings and to waste materials. Once I am over something there is only forward movement, but it’s also important to recognize that certain tendencies will remain visible in the work. Perhaps that’s where the change has come.
MH: What artists and other makers are you excited about right now? Who has been a longtime inspiration, who are you newly discovering?
EM: Last year I became pretty excited about the wives of the modernists. I went to the Inventing Abstraction show at the MOMA and was absolutely blown away by Sonia Delaunay and Sophie Tauber Arp’s work. I had really only seen their husband’s work and had no exposure to these women working with the tradition of textile design while simultaneously employing this complex language of abstraction in their paintings. Delaunay was a truly visionary multimedia artist; she expanded into just about everything.
Also, Paul Klee has been my one long-time inspiration. There is something to his work that I can’t wrap my head around, a confidence, a vulnerability, a sense of humor. I am also pretty fascinated with the quilts from Gee’s Bend, a group of women from rural Alabama who have a tradition of making these beautiful improvisational quilts from scrap material. They were functional objects that carried this amazing design aesthetic passed down generations from their origins in Africa. I prefer one of those quilts over a Stella painting any day. A few artists that I have had the opportunity to work with the last few years who have had a profound impact on the way I produce work are Matt Mullican, Rebecca Morris, Mari Eastman, Lari Pittman, and Hirsch Perlman.
MH: What’s behind this series for LPP? I like how light and fabric-like it is, and seems like a great choice for a print series. But I’m also curious about how it relates to other work of yours that feel darker and heavier in either tone or physical presence.
EM: When I was told LPP would be doing prints, I was pretty excited. I’ve included a few pieces that are from an edition of eight etchings from this last year under the guidance of master printer Jacob Samuel. The process, chine-collé, involves a combination of line work and collage with tissue papers. They reference an ikat textile I found beautiful, and I thought I could recreate the feeling of movement that was implicit in the process of dying and weaving the object with line and colored paper. I hoped the plaster paintings would have the same sense of play, the subtle shifting of the painted “fabric” to the seams impressed by the actual quilt onto the plaster become a kind of visual game for the viewer.
What I think is most exciting about these objects is the fact that they are both incredibly heavy and incredibly delicate. They are bodily, they have a weight and a skin, there is a visible tension. I think the mood of the other works were much darker; these are more playful . . . maybe I’m compensating for the playfulness with scale and weight. I usually don’t have many answers for the work when it’s so new, I guess I have to keep making these before I figure it out. But by that time I will likely already be on to something else.
MH: What projects and ideas intimidate you? What are you excited and nervous about tackling?
EM: Performance is completely terrifying to me. I have so much admiration for artists whose work value is based so much on the witnessing of an event. The work I make is private; I can’t imagine performing it under the eye of someone else. My friend EJ Hill’s work downright scares me but I love it. I get nervous when I reach a point in making something that I realize I might totally ruin it. It’s like that moment when your about to wreck your bike and your thinking, “avoid the light pole” and you hit it anyway. This fear of finishing compounded by a fear of wasting materials (because they are expensive). After looking at a few amazing Tapies pieces from the Destroy The Picture Show at MOCA, I realized I could just start using someone else’s waste, or readymades. The chances for failure with something that’s been discarded as scrap are slim, and it doesn’t cost anything. After a while though I began to realize that most of the choices behind making these objects were reactions. To a certain degree, the waste can be pretty important; there is some kind of earnestness or intentionality behind a byproduct. I also get excited when shapes re-appear years later and take the form of other objects.
MH: Can you talk more about the idea of “building” a painting? So many artists use this term to one degree or another, and always have something new to say about it. It’s so interesting to mix in the language of sculpture/carpentry while grounding it firming within painting.
EM: The truth is, for the last couple of years I didn’t even really consider myself a “painter…” I decided that paint was a material like any other, and that the content of a painting doesn’t completely rely on the use of paint. I have had many meetings where people respond to my “decorative mark” in the pejorative, and I felt that my paintings could be much more than just ornamental. It’s not an easy thing to explain, I think Paul Klee called this conundrum the plasticity of painting. You are making an object, but this object can hold meaning. For myself, being involved in every aspect of the objects making gives me the time to deduce a central declaration in the work.