These Things Are Tired
The Elora Centre for the Arts recently exhibited new works by Erin Perry, a show titled These Things Are Tired. As a compliment to the exhibit, Tarin Hughes, the ECFTA director, has organized a publication that offers insight into the artist's process and interprets the major themes of the show. The publication will feature a statement by Tarin Hughes as well as roundtable discussion of the work between the artist, Erin Perry, her frequent collaborator Kat Hodges, and a guest critic, Susan Scarlata.
"Things do not exist without being full of people"
Kat: I would like to introduce Susan Scarlata. Susan is a writer, poet, and the editor of Lost Roads Press. She recently left her position as a Professor of English at the Savannah College of Art and Design. We're glad to have her involved in the discussion. Susan, is there an initial reaction or primary question you have in reaction to the work in These Things Are Tired?
Susan: The first thing that strikes me is the totemic qualities of a few of the pieces in this show. The Heroics, Belonging, and even The World Is Flat, the World Is Not Flat have elements that call up both cultural histories and narratives for me. With various other pieces in the show related more directly to specific memories, are these a nod toward collective memories and histories?
Erin: Yes, I was flexing the range of what felt both specifically personal and very general. A big part of why I chose this group of work is because I relate to them through personal narratives, but they also have a quality of general-ness that leaves them open to viewers. I want to see how these works slide along that range, of personal to cultural, based on a viewer's reading or response. Belonging is a replica, you could say it is a replica of a replica. The source of that work was a bad miniature of an Easter Island Head, a garden statue rip-off of a true original. Yes, totemic qualities are at work here. Especially in The Heroics, where there literally was a tiny cast figure that I found and adopted in order to "have significance" in the way that totems do, as a myth-making strategy. A big part of my studio practice is built on myth-making, not on the societal level so much, but on the level of the individual artist. I always thought of it as a hero, not a totem. Thus the title. But you are right. It's a totem. That actual little figurine also ended up being "packed" in the cardboard box of Belonging, months after I made the paintings.
Kat: Totemic is an accurate descriptor for much of this work, but also as a larger theme that asserts itself in much of Perry's work. I'm thinking in particular of her projects Say Nothing Real Loudly and Salvation, A Way For Ruin. I visited Erin's studio during the early stages of The Heroics paintings, and then again a few days later and remarked, "Oh wait, are you doing something scenic with those? I was thinking they were going to stay iconic.” That was early on, but I wonder if there is any relationship there, between the tropes of totem and icon. A totemic icon! Another theme related to the totem that’s definitely present in Perry’s work is surrealism, but we’ll circle back to that later.
Susan: Yes, the obvious reference to other statues in Belonging makes me think of its cultural history. As a poet I’m drawn to words, and the fact that this piece is titled Belonging, when the Easter Island totem-heads are usually with so many other identical statues is striking to me. Then I cannot help but see how different Belonging is from its source material with its cactus-like coloring and texture. Perry sets up a landscape across the space of the gallery in this way with the materiality of the cactus in the "scene" of one of The Heroics paintings reflecting off of the green succulent-head in Belonging. These choices of color and roughened material, with the title, shift Belonging from being a replica, to a statue to a sculpture.
Thinking about why I chose the word totemic over iconic I looked at the definition of each. Totem's definition has more about veneration of the chosen object, but also one definition notes that "totems are chosen arbitrarily for the sole purpose of making the physical world a comprehensive and coherent classificatory system." Something about the back and forth in Perry's work, between personal and collective narratives resonates with this. The play I've mentioned above between the material elements of the cactus and the figure on the wall in The Heroics holding a bowling ball with a physically present bowling ball sculpture seem involved in this making of full-on collages that are becoming "coherent classificatory systems."
Erin: There is also a spiritual underpinning with a totem. Not just in the sense of making the world into classifications, but of building a connection to the spiritual, mythic understanding of the world. The works I made for These Things Are Tired may not be exactly spiritual, per se, but the idea of choosing an object, making an object, imbuing it (or desperately trying to imbue it) with a sort of mythic power and spiritual meaning is fundamental to my stance as an artist. A governing principle. My artist self is not so much an academic, or a formalist. If anything, I'm a mystic. That would be my artist archetypeâ€“ a mystic. But yes, totemic does get at the root of what I'm trying to do. And also how I do it.
Kat: Yes, totemic is more accurate than iconic. To call The Heroics iconic would be incorrect â€“they are not a classic example of anything! It would be humorous to call any of these artworks classic, because they are not typical of anything and make no attempt to somehow be representative of a class of objects, which also speaks to their Thing-ness. This is a playful comment, Susan, since you bring up the notion of statue, and since the figure, or figurine (it is both) depicted in The Heroics is oddly, droopingly statuesque. They are indeed composed in the classical pose of the most iconic of sculptures, the Greek statue depicting a victorious athlete. So they are not iconic, but then again, they are.
Susan: On a related and somewhat funny totemic note (meaning I feel funny writing this), The World Is Flat The World Is Not Flat calls up the Humpty Dumpty fairy tale narrative for me. It's the roundness of the figure's body; the way the legs dangle off the wall suspended in nowhere; and then also the title. The World Is Flat, The World Is Not Flat is this small person trying to figure out if it is or isn't flat, and I think back about my child-mind reaction to that fairy tale. That story is not about someone that tripped and fell. Humpty was seated, as this figure is. I always imagined he just felt like "let's see what happens if I jump" --to find out if it is or isn't. The World Is Flat The World Is Not Flat has a similar tension, of preceding an irrevocable event. The moment right before it can’t be undone, can’t be put back, and the kind of shrug I get from a number of the figures in this show as if they are thinking “Well, might as well try...”
Kat: You know that else? Humpty Dumpty is kind of a puppet. He has arms and legs, he's animated, anthropomorphized, but is also just an egg. An egg has no agency on its own; it is alive, but only kind of, and is mostly just helpless there on the wall. In a related understanding, when I saw this work in studio I immediately thought of Pinocchio --the way the figure's legs are fashioned, it struck me as that same kind of wooden puppet positioned by strings, a marionette. The World Is Flat, The World Is Not Flat’s "suspended puppet" quality is both charming and uncomfortable. Interesting for us to have two different associations with fairy tales in reaction to this work --cultural narratives. From original grotesque tales to more current, Disney-fied versions, there is a similar translation issue there, of original, replica, bad replica, cultural memory and associations.
Erin: Oh, that’s great. I wasn't working explicitly with that Humpty-Dumpty tale, but I love that you refer to it. And that Susan, you feel funny about making that reference. That semi-uncomfortable reaction to your own reaction. Those kinds of deeply uncanny responses are something I'm always glad when one of my works elicit. My thought on the nursery rhymes is how those narratives are SO surreal, very playful but also extremely dark usually, and also have a sing-song, dream-slash-nightmare kind of jarring juxtaposition. The puppet issue Kat brings up is interesting too, because I had in mind two specific kinds of objects, “Erin’s Object Topics,” lets call them, while working on this show, that for me stand out from the multitude of objects in the particular way that they relate to the psyche, and to installation as a genre. One topic was “Toy” and the other was “Prop.” Props are so interesting in the way that they must stand in for or support the idea of the real thing. Belonging had these Prop overtones, and All I Can See Is A Hidden Mess and Sock Hop were Toy related works, and certainly their installation in the gallery was affected by the notion of play, and objects in a domestic setting (strewn about toys, tossed around laundry, playing with your food, hiding things under the rug). And for me as a sculptor the puppet is certainly a psychologically charged toy.
The work also had a specific interest for me as a sculptor. I was talking to Kat in the studio about the kinds of moments I was trying to tease out of domestic experience, how certain everyday experiences within the home can have this lasting, visual and visceral impact, and right away Kat made a sketch, a napkin drawing, really, of a memory she had from childhood of seeing her reflection made infinitely between two mirrors while sitting on her bathroom counter. She made a diagram of this experience, the visual disruption between flat and depth, it was a quick description of a spatial conflict and an existential conundrum. And I thought, what better way to re-tell that particular moment, than by making the flat drawing of an experience back into three dimensions? It really is just that drawing made dimensional, an exercise of what can be communicated through two dimensions and then through three. It was, again, a translation project.
Kat: Ok, I want to shift gears for a minute to discuss the surreal. These Things are Tired engages with the connection between the surrealist interest in totems. In his essay On Thing Theory Bill Brown discusses Walter's Benjamin's interest in objects and what he refers to as “cultural debris.” In Benjamin's essay Dream Kitsch he fuses the surrealist invigoration of cultural debris with the invigoration of tribal artifacts (ie. totems). Brown ends the essay with Benjamin stating that "the world of things advances on the human being and ultimately fashions its figures in his interior." Within Benjamin's materialism, things literally install themselves in the human psyche. This quote resonates with not only the totemic idea, but with surrealist themes. There is a suggestion that one decorates the self, or the psyche, and that things “install” themselves within human subjects. This reflects what Erin describes when she talks about these works as personal narratives. It seems decorative objects and domestic settings have “advanced on her, fashioned [their] figures in [her] interior. Now they anchor certain memories and remain as fixed things within her. So these works are psychologically decorative in explicitly referring to decoration (the rug on the floor in All I Can See Is A Hidden Mess, the garden idol of Belonging, and the wallpapering and strange interior decor settings of Gain A Feeling of Confidence, First Surface, and View of an Aerial View). Also, The Wallpapers that decorate the outdoor chain link fence are “decorations.” Each piece has certain psychological parallelisms with the act of home decorating--how people put things into their houses and put things into yourself.
Susan: Oh, that it’s interesting, Erin, do you see these works as surreal, or quasi-surreal? The mixtures of material and content have a bizarreness that can be associated with the surreal, but there is this everyday, quotidian element through decoration that Kat hits on above. The notion of "Dream Kitsch" relates particularly for me to All I Can See Is A Hidden Mess and The Wallpapers as each references memories that have clearly been worked over again and again in what seem to be both dream and waking states. Each of these pieces, blown up beyond their original sizes, demonstrate in surreal-ways how images, sensory details, and patterns lodge themselves within human remembrances and psyches.
Kat: There is also the surrealist tendency of unexpected joining and juxtaposition. The diptych structure used in the Chromira prints, the floating arm next to the sitting room with a painting and TV in Gain A Feeling of Confidence, the blunt carved statue face combined with a saguaro cactus and cardboard box that makes up all the elements of Belonging.
Erin: The surrealist painters were an influence on me when I was a very young artist, and reflect my continued tendency toward ‘collage’ and ‘combine’ methods. And yes, the narratives and moments that had all the elements I was looking for have an overtone of the surreal; are dreamlike, recalled, juxtaposed. I like that you mention dream and waking states. When my work is at its best, in the studio, I would liken it to a waking state, an involuntary dream that happens when you are awake. Somewhere between conscious and unconscious thought, but with making as the thinking. Things as thoughts. My favorite part in that essay is where Brown writes that "modernity created a false ontological distinction between inanimate and animate objects, whereas in fact the world is full of "quasi-objects" and "quasi-subjects". That is a surreal notion, and I really fell for that that idea, especially as it relates to sculpture, and to dream states, and totems.
Susan: The toy and prop are quasi-subject and quasi-object forever and ever. There are a few lines from a poem that I've thought of a number of times in thinking and writing about Perry's show. They relate to how her works reference textured surfaces and psychologically decorative memories, and their overlap and interaction with her artistic impulses. These lines are from a series of poems called On Dissonance in the collection Equivalents by Jessica Baran. Full disclosure, I published this book.
"As you read this, someone is curating their bedside table. Someone is curating their lunch. Someone had something terrible happen to them, once, or twice, in childhood. It provokes little scrutiny until it’s placed in the right pile and looks good next to blue."