Embracing materiality and labor, Erin Washington examines themes of vulnerability and permanence. Questioning how time structures transitions in ephemera, she creates mixed-media paintings and drawings which unravel time through the performance of their belabored making, and their subsequent degradation. Using fugitive and symbolic materials (blackberries, chalk, fire, ashes, moss, bone and saliva), Washington sources imagery from the Sciences, Mythology, and Art History that represent ruptures and failures in the search for meaning and truth. Colors fade or pigments are burned: the objects emulate the cycles they describe. The artists’ actions and products are in a constant state of flux, highlighting the disharmony between meaning, beauty, and a fundamentally messy universe. However, the relative temporality of the work’s making counters ambivalence; the immediate process and present-ness the work demands eclipses uncertainty... for the moment.
Washington is currently a lecturer in the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received her MFA in 2011. Notable solo exhibitions have been held at such venues as The Riverside Art Center, Riverside Illinois and Johalla Projects, Chicago. Her work has also been included in group exhibitions at such spaces as Zolla Lieberman Gallery, Chicago; Julius Caesar, Chicago; and Columbia University in New York.
Q&A with Erin Washington
by Kaveri Raina
I am curious about how you started. How did you become interested in being an artist? Could you give an introduction to your practice please?
Drawing has always been a natural compulsion for me.
I never knew what an artist was growing up though. For the people around me, art was a thing that you did when you weren’t at your occupation or participating in “the real world.” So when I was studying science and medicine in college, and taking art classes on the side...I began to realize that all of my time was spent in art classrooms. I was failing Chemistry because I’d spend all night painting. I have thousands of drawings of bones and nerves and muscles, because drawing was the only way I could learn and digest and memorize. The answer to the question, “what shall I do?” seemed obvious after a time.
That is the biographical. Physically: I currently make abstract paintings on panels with drawings of images and diagrams on the surfaces of the painted panels. Lately, the drawings have been drawn in chalk and the overall look is one of a chalkboard (although I’ve also enjoyed experimenting with Silverpoint). The images usually come from Science or Art History and usually have a deeply personal connection to my daily life. The chalkboard surfaces could be considered palimpsests, as the previous layers are both present and not present. Often I will display these discrete two-dimensional objects within an installation or with sculptures that I make.
How is Chicago treating you as an artist? Are you satisfied? Is Chicago the ideal city for you?
Chicago is a place that I make artwork and am fortunate enough to be in dialogue with other artists that I care about. Chicago is a place where my artwork matured, and where a majority of the people I care about live. Is there such a thing as an ideal city? Probably not. I think Chicago’s identity (culturally, politically and racially) is fraught to say the least. But, I moved here from the West...we lived in Colorado for seven-ish years. I love the nature and idealism out there, but it’s very difficult for art to compete with Mountains and Western ideology. This is the first Midwestern city I’ve lived in and I very much appreciate the “big shoulders” pragmatist work-ethic.
Can you talk about the importance of process and materials in your work? I know you use a lot of fugitive materials in your work. You begin your statement with, 'Embracing materiality and labor...” I was very interested from the beginning.
Making work that deals with states of fragility and ambiguity...it made sense to me to employ ephemeral and porous materials.
The artists whose work I tend to be drawn to, such as your own, relies on a certain type of laborious making/thinking in which a repetitive act becomes a form of meditation….
Maybe the answer relates to the earlier issue of “Midwestern work ethic.”
Or maybe its something to do with my hands...getting both lost and held in repetition.
Where would you situate your work and is there a specific framework that you identify with or concepts that you’re trying to examine?
I tend to be distrustful of artists who believe they can manufacture or manipulate a specific framework/situation through which they’ve decided their work fits...I think most artists’ initial intent/reason for making that they’ve articulated for themselves rarely overlaps with what or how the end product actually operates for the viewer.
I’m interested in what it means to be calcium and meat with squishy organs and squishy thoughts and feelings within an infinite void.
One of my favorite movies, “Wings of Desire,” contains a vignette...a narrator reads a poem by Peter Handke that I always return to:
When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just the reflection of a world before the world?
Is there really such a thing as evil, and people
who really are the Bad Guys?
How can it be that the I, who I am,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, the I who I am,
will no longer be who I am?
I’m drawn to this poem because these are the questions I think about in my studio.
Do you feel that the strength of work comes when the pieces are in proximity to each other like in exhibition or as a whole? Or can each object stand on its own?
I think most two-dimensional artists hope to make discrete works that can function on their own.
But, when I think through installations, I think very much in three and four-dimensions...How will the viewer string together work as they move through the exhibition space? Even if the installation is a simple one reduced to discrete objects on the wall, I will try to curate relationships between those discrete objects with the hope that a meta-statement (or meta-dialogue) is created.
Could you talk a little about your Yes/No chalkboard work? Is it an ongoing piece? There are different versions? I am drawn to your text-based works. Even the one with the word OK. The way its embedded seems impermanent yet very firm. The text pieces seem reassuring.
The first YES/NO “chalkboard” originated out of a need to create a conceptual framework for my daily actions within the studio...a sort of emotional On Kawara test. I made the first one during Graduate school, a time where you’re usually inside your studio on a daily basis. I found myself overworking paintings (that frustrating phenomenon where through the process of adding too much, one’s work becomes turgid like a brown/black over-ripe banana)...I needed a tool to grant myself permission to stop...or to be subtractive/excavative...or to not even touch anything and simply breathe/exist within the studio without flubbing everything up. The first YES/NO chalkboard was simply a daily exercise: upon entering the studio, I would, based on my own physical/emotional state, write either YES or NO in chalk on the surface of the board.
YES was affirmative: WORK! MAKE!
NO was acknowledgement: slow down...stop...think...or DESTROY!
The next day: erase and start over.
Eventually I began to consider the chalkboard as not just an affect litmus test/exercise, but as legitimate works of art. Once that happened, variety and possibility and even collaboration became available.
Also looking through your work I am also drawn towards your titles for each works. My favorite one is, ‘A [person] can’t just sit around.’ How do you decide titles for works?
Titles, themes, content...most are drawn from research. I tend to exhaust a topic briefly, and then I try to forget the details, allowing the essence of the subject to get internalized...so that later when I am working on a drawing, almost like a dream (if one believes in the theory that dreams are a way of the thinking mind to sort through one’s daily thought, experiences, feelings, and anxieties), my sub-conscious will reconfigure the research and spit out a title..its a sort of lateral thinking or fuzzy logic.
The specific sculpture you’re referring to is one of my studio chairs (which happens to be an aluminum lawn chair) held aloft by helium-filled mylar balloons. Perhaps tabloid trope now, the original lawn-chair balloon pilot, Larry Walter (colloquially “Lawnchair Larry”), who flew 15,000 feet above Los Angeles in 1982, when questioned by the press as to why, why do such a thing, stated: “well a man can’t just sit around.”
I thought that was such a clever (and absurd) answer...it felt like a valid answer to the daily question, “Why make artwork?”
I’m usually inspired by something absolutely ridiculous.
Do you ever get bored in the studio? Or even frustrated? I know I do. Or do you embrace boredom? What do you do if you are in this situation?
This relates to the YES/NO chalkboard...although I have a theory that when you’re out of school, once going to the studio is an active YES, moments of boredom become less frequent. When you are saying NO to Lifetime movies, and parties, and chores, and all the other ways we spend our free time, but YES to making a thing that hasn’t been assigned to your or expected of you...you’re less likely to get bored I think. But, yes, of course I get bored and frustrated while I am in my studio. There are even certain marks I will make when I am bored...perhaps that means I’ve embraced boredom? Or maybe that is cope-ing?
How do you deal with rejection?
I love that you wanted to create a class about this...I’d be curious to see how anyone would teach that, because I don’t know if rejection ever gets easier (although...I would imagine the professor teaching a rejection class would love the catharsis of constantly rejecting students for a semester!). Sometimes it [rejection] in art feels analogous to rejection in love. The first break-up feels terrible, awful, the worst thing that has ever happened to any person in the history of love, because you, the rejected, have never felt this horrible, aching, confusing, nightmare before and therefore, have no past experience with rejection to help cope with the stupid thing. All subsequent break-ups feel just as awful, but at least you know, from your past experiences, that you’re not going to die from this, and you’re not going to feel this way forever. The first time I was rejected for a large grant that I had been nominated for...it felt like an injustice to humankind had been committed and that some caped vigilante would need to rectify this imbalance in some no-holds-barred burn-the-earth-to-the-ground type of way. Now when I am rejected from something...it stings...but I know from past experience that rejection a) will not kill me, and b) will not possess me forever.
You received your MFA in Painting and Drawing from SAIC in 2011. How was your experience? Did graduate school change your life? Or at least somehow better it?
Before I answer the personal: I do not, by any means, want to purport that it is essential for an artist to pursue a Graduate Degree...or even a Bachelor’s Degree. I work at a school, yes, I am passionate about learning and teaching, yes, that too. However, I have seen art school destroy students...in any number of ways...whether psychically, emotionally, intellectually, and/or financially. I do not want to make it appear that art school is “for” or “necessary” for every artist. I’m sure there’s an alternate universe where there is an Erin Washington that doesn’t have an MFA and is making interesting artwork just fine.
That said: of course graduate school changed my life. I teach at the School of the Art Institute partially out of feeling a karmic debt to the institution that helped mold me. I graduated with twenty-four peers who are life-long friends and Patti Smith was our commencement speaker. Patti sang a song and told us to make (in whatever form it took) art for the rest of our lives and not to worry about moving to New York, just make and live and be.
You are a lecturer at SAIC, and you are teaching a class called Fail Better. Could you talk about that? How did you think of that? What are your student’s reactions?
I knew that I wanted to create a class about being uncomfortable and about destruction. I wanted students to think of drawing as a conceptual tool for indexing thoughts and movement through time and space. For a while I was toying with calling the class “LET IT GO.” The title “FAIL BETTER” is cribbed from a Samuel Beckett quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
A chunk of the course involved experimental exercises...draw with your eyes closed, that sort of thing. Like I said, I wanted the students to be okay with being uncomfortable with not knowing whether they were failing or not. That is what being a working artist is. I think that the worst thing an artist can do is to internalize a fear of failure. Ironically, because of this, I was positive that the students hated me. I was the mean Zen teacher that wasn’t answering their questions. The point was, I wanted them to be okay with ambiguity, to build up their own personal critical thinking toolbox. I wanted them to realize on their own that they were asking the wrong questions to begin with (if we’re going to keep that metaphor going). By the end of the class every time we tiredly chanted, “fail better,” it was sounding like, “feel better.” It was lovely to see how much they’d matured in just fifteen weeks...I think a lot of them had a really great time and made killer work because they’d gotten over their fear of failure.
Do you have any advice for up and coming artists?
Fail better! And document everything.
Do you have any exhibitions coming up that we should know of?
Yes! As I write this, we just finished installing my show at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery in Chicago, IL (my first solo show with them). The show opens Friday January 8th and will be up through February 6th, 2016. I will also be in a two-person show at Roots & Culture in Chicago this Spring. The show is with Chicago based artist Ron Ewert and is set to open in May.
Thank you so much Erin! We wish you good luck in your future endeavors!
Find out more about Erin and her work on the artist’s website: www.erinwashington.com