Erin O’Brien lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been shown at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, New York; LaMama Galleria, New York; Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago; Green Street Gallery, Boston; Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham; and Vox Populi, Philadelphia; among others. Her drawings were included in the FlipFile at Regina Rex and the Flatfile at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, and featured in the online journal Sixth Finch. Her work has been reviewed in Art Practical, Artslant Chicago, and the Boston Globe, and an interview with her will appear in a forthcoming volume from Soberscove Press. O’Brien is the recipient of residency fellowships from Weir Farm National Historic Site, the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, and Anderson Ranch Arts Center. She holds an MFA from Bard College and a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art.
My paintings arise from a feeling of intimacy with a place or another person, or often, both. Their oscillating compositions are built from shapes I observe in the world and in turn combine and reconfigure to form spatial conundrums that explore, but don’t resolve, the dualities of figure and ground, location and dislocation. What at first glance may appear to be an absence may shift with longer looking to be a presence. Where the ground once seemed steady we now find it’s unstable.
Interview with Erin O'Brien
Questions by Beatrice Helman
What leads to you to begin a new painting? Do they arise from a feeling, an experience, or something more physical? Do you plan out the painting spatially beforehand?
The paintings start a few different ways: from experiences, in response to other paintings, and from the physical act of shuffling through drawings and photos on my work table. I make small pencil sketches of compositions, just line drawings on white paper. The bones pretty much stay the same when I start painting, though things can still shift. Whatever problem I think I’ve solved in the line sketch becomes something totally different in paint, in color, with solid shapes.
Where do you find inspiration for the shapes you use in your work? How do you find that your personal relationship with the natural world finds space and resonance in your paintings? The shapes in your work do seem to be abstract, but after spending time with them, they also are reminiscent of shapes and objects found in our own environments.
The shapes in my work are rooted in the world. Some are composites of many different shapes and evolve through a collage-like drawing process. Others are direct quotes of fragments of things, or the negative spaces between things.
Years ago, when I was dealing with a physical injury (repetitive strain) that kept me from painting, I started taking photographs. It was a way to keep composing, to keep thinking about color and space. At first, I just shot anything that caught my eye, from a pile of cobblestones to a pink wall. Gradually, I started to photograph spaces that had more personal meaning to me: my bedroom, my studio, my parents’ house, moments with friends in different places. I took photos as I lay on the floor doing physical therapy exercises, or when I sat in my father’s favorite chair on the back porch. I’d snap a pic of the negative space between a friend’s shoulder and the wall.
When I finally got back to painting, I realized I couldn’t work with found images as I once had. I was making work about experiencing space through architecture, landscape, and painting itself, and I was only interested in pulling from images that held some kind of personal charge, some sense of intimacy, for me. I need that specificity to get started. Today, I pull from both my photos and from my older sketches when I make a drawing for a new painting. The images feed on each other and generate new connections.
Color seems to be hugely important in your work, an essential part of your paintings. Can you talk about a little bit more about your use of color, and touch on where your love of color came from?
Someone once described my color as closer to that of a landscape painter. I don’t plan the color palette of a painting beforehand. I usually have one specific color I want to incorporate, whether from one of my photos or from another painting (e.g. a Fra Angelico fresco). I don’t always succeed in perfectly matching that color but it gets the ball rolling. I choose the rest of the colors intuitively, in conversation with the painting as I discover what the different shapes want to do (e.g. flicker with a neighbor, open up to be a portal, push outward, be a barrier, etc.).
I have no idea where my love of color comes from. I am an only child and spent a lot of time zoning out while the adults talked. I’d be half listening and noticing the pattern of colors in a carpet. My hunch is its equal parts nature and nurture.
What is the physical process like in terms of creating different colors?
A little bonkers. I work in acrylic, so the value of the wet paint is different from that of the dry paint. I mix in jars. I don’t do tests when I do a washy stain, I just go for it. But for areas that need to really hum, I mix, apply a little paint and blow dry it (yes, with a blow drier) to see what it looks like in context. And I repeat that process until I get the result I want. For better or worse, I don’t write down recipes for particular colors. I make it all up as I go along.
Do you find yourself drawn to different colors in different moments or mood, and have you seen that relationship evolve over time?
No. My mood at the moment of mixing doesn’t come in to play. The feelings associated with the various sources for a painting can affect the palette, but not always. I used to work only with lighter, closely valued colors, so if you took a black and white photo of a painting, it would appear as a light gray field. That kind of color relationship is still important but now I also want a wider spectrum of values and intensities. I want a little whisper of terror in the beauty. Incorporating the color of the raw linen is one reason for this shift. The other is simply that I’ve experienced a lot of loss in the past decade and it has affected everything in the work.
How is the decision to work with paint related to your feelings about color? Does it, as a medium, allow you to develop that relationship a specific way and a different way than other materials might?
You nailed it. Yes: I’m a painter because I love color, I love fine-tuning the relationship among colors, I love that color can make space, I love that a flat plane with color on it can invite you in and push you out all at the same time. I drank the Kool-Aid, all hail the cult of painting!
How do you know when a painting is done? I was watching an interview in which you were debating whether or not a specific work was done and immediately started wondering about the process of something being ‘finished.’
It’s hard to put words to this one. If I feel like something might be done I move on. If it annoys me later, I go back into it. Time tells.
How have you seen your work change over time, both technically and content wise?
The scale has changed a lot: from medium to small, way up to large, and back down to an intimate scale again. Over the years, I've worked on paper, birch plywood panels, canvas, and linen. It was during a period of working exclusively on paper that I first began to mask shapes out and really engage the 'negative' spaces in a composition. When I tried this way of working on canvas, I found that it didn't have a strong enough contrast to the white wall, so I switched to linen. I used to do a lot of fine line work before my injury but it became painful to hold tiny brushes in the same way. I had to find a new way to paint, which actually really helped the work in the long run.
Ultimately, the content has been somewhat consistent. The figure has always been just outside the frame if not actually in it. And I've always been fascinated with the problems and opportunities of making space within a painting. The whole while, the work's been grappling with connection, uncertainty, and space as a container for memory.
Are there any themes or concepts (or feelings) you keep returning to, or have been returning to continually?
Absence as a presence. Invitation and disinterest. Revealing versus concealing. Multiple ways of seeing a single situation. Certainty and uncertainty.
What are you reading right now? Have you found language to be an influence on your work?
I just finished Ties by Domenico Starnone and started Encircling 2: Origins, the second book in a trilogy by Carl Frode Tiller. And I’m part way through Mary Beard’s SPQR. I’m an avid fiction reader—some loves include Colm Toibin, Elena Ferrante, Hilary Mantel, William Trevor, Jane Gardam, Per Petterson—and I also brake for anything by John McPhee, Rebecca Solnit, and Robert MacFarlane. That said, language doesn’t actually influence my own work. It’s extremely rare for me to title a painting while I’m still working on it. The words come later.
What is a typical day like? Do you have a routine that you follow, and how do you mentally prepare before starting to paint?
On studio days I try to arrive no later than noon. Ideally, I'd arrive much earlier but I’m a real sloth in the morning. If I am up and out early, I love to walk the hour or so up through Prospect Park to my studio. My only real routine is to make sure I’ve got lunch and snacks with me so I don’t have to leave for at least five or six hours.
Is there anything that makes or breaks your studio experience? What is essential to your environment?
Food and water! Light. Ideally it's relatively quiet, or at least there's no loud noise (my studio faces 3rd Ave. in Brooklyn so its never truly quiet; an idling tractor-trailer can really bum me out). A stockpile of podcasts and my headphones.
Do you listen to music while you work, or is there something else that sets the mood in your work space?
I used to listen to music but now it’s mostly podcasts. I need something that keeps me company and distracts me from my internal dialogue. But it has to be something I don’t mind missing, too—once I’m really into the work I sometimes realize I have no idea what the nice voices are talking about anymore.
Is there any advice anyone ever gave you that really resonated with you?
My father: At the end of the day, try to let go of whatever is troubling you; it will still be there in the morning.
A teacher: Think of the painting as if it were a body on the wall.
Another teacher: Don’t phone it in, have an experience when you are painting. The viewer can tell the difference and prefers the latter.
And experience has taught me: Is anyone’s life at stake? No? Then calm down.
What other artists have influenced your own work?
Too many to make a complete list. Here are a few: Pierre Bonnard, Giorgio Morandi, Giotto, Matisse, the Sienese painters, Piero della Francesca, Philip Guston, Josef Albers, Louise Bourgeois, Indian miniature paintings
Who are some other artists who you look to and admire at the moment?
Too many again. Here’s another wildly incomplete list: Tom Nozkowski, Gary Stephan, Peter Doig, Mamma Andersson, Tal R, Vija Celmins, Amy Sillman, Thomas Scheibitz, Arturo Herrera, Neal Tait, Patricia Treib, Roger White, Michael Berryhill, Jackie Gendel, EJ Hauser, Angelina Gualdoni, Allison Gildersleeve, Michelle Kloehn, Kelly Kaczynski, Branden Koch, Shoshana Dentz, Sue Havens, Jess Fuller, Holly Coulis, Pamela Jorden, Erin O’Keefe, Eleanor Ray.
Are there any artists of other mediums, whether it be filmmakers or writers, who have produced something that you felt changed the way you see your own work?
Probably, but nothing I can remember right now.
What is your personal relationship to social media and technology, and how do you think it’s impacted you as an artist?
Love / hate. I love that I can take photographs with my phone and how that feeds my work. But I struggle with carrying access to the internet in my pocket. And I love how Instagram has connected me to artists I didn’t know previously, but the endless stream of images can be overwhelming.
Do you turn off your phone while you work?
No, but I do use the Freedom app. It lets you disable access to apps and websites for periods of time, but allows texts and calls to come through.
What are some concepts or ideas that are at the forefront of your thinking at the moment?
The desire for certainty in a deeply uncertain time and the recognition that change is the only constant.
Do you have any projects, shows, or residencies coming up?
Nothing definite on the calendar at the moment!
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Erin and her work, check out her website.