Thursday, June 12, 2014

John Erickson: Dog, Interrupted.

At first glance, the dog paintings of John Erickson appear to be light hearted and jovial, as a procession of pooches roll, beg and drool through his works. Some are cheerfully paired with fire hydrants and holiday ornaments (1), soda cans and watertowers (2). Others wear pendants and crowns, as if to emphasize their preciousness (3). One dog lies upside down (4), with his legs dangling buoyantly in the air, pleading for a belly rub. Warm and fuzzy, playful and goofy, these subjects not only speak to Erickson’s rich sense of humor, but tug at our heartstrings, signalling the unconditional love and companionship that we expect from Man’s best friend.

As we succumb to their charms and fall under their spell, something else starts to happen. The image begins to disintegrate, collapse and ultimately fail us. In Green Briar (5), a hound dog stands in three-quarter profile. Behind him, a curtain of limes and greens suggest a meadow saturated with sunlight and grasses. The dog’s musculature is mapped entirely in overlapping color values. Approaching the canvas and looking closer at the animal, the viewer discovers magazine cuttings and paint samples that explode like bombs. These reveal Erickson’s process, which layers acrylic, marker, latex, collage, oil, and polymer resin. This is also where the illusion dissolves. It takes only a few seconds for the dog to disappear and for the image to shatter into a million splinters and fragments.

Erickson compares these ‘moments of surprise’ to a child experiencing their first snowstorm, and the incredulity that happens when confronted with something that is both unexpected and spectacular. Such moments are woven throughout Erickson’s imagery and unfold on multiple levels of perception. On one hand, we find instances of extreme clarity, such as the glimmer in a dog’s eye or the chiaroscuro of an apple. These areas of hyperfocus are conveyed with the most economical of elements: usually a shard of paper and a dab of paint. They also act as a nexus of acuity, gathering our senses and focussing our vision while everything else falls away.

Simultaneously, Erickson constructs counterpoints that negate the veracity of these places and deny the illusion. Spartacus of Sharpie (6) abounds with instances of visual delight: the reflection on the paper clip and the belt buckle are profoundly rewarding. They serenade our desire for verisimilitude and trompe l’oeil. And yet, paper strips are pasted to the model’s arm and thigh, which block any depth perception. Further layers of complexity are found in the pieces of scotch tape stuck to the paper, the ripped edges left white and raw, or the crusty impastos and drippy washes which Erickson applies unapologetically. In some cases, magazine cuttings are added to the mix. With advertising logos that clash with their surroundings, texts can actually be discerned. In The King Hydranted (1) we appropriately read of ‘Modern Day Mavericks and Western Icons.’ It is in moments such as these that we are brought back to the harsh reality of the canvas, and its immutable surface. In this way, the artist flirts with the blank canvas; the holy grail of modern art where pictorial illusionism intersects with the physicality of a stretched canvas. The finality of this pursuit leads only to the thick, resin tomb that seals all of the artist’s works.

Augmenting Erickson’s ‘moments of surprise’ are references to contemporary and bygone visual languages. In Seers and Prophets (3), Erickson describes the contour of a dachsund using only a red Sharpie marker. This effectively electrifies the dog, giving it a radioactive feel. In Beach Dog (7), a small black square is placed atop a bouncy border collie, which floats above the subject like a fly in ointment. This serves no other purpose but to burst the bubble and destroy the illusion. This glitch is another of Erickson’s many curveballs, and harks back not only to the father of modernism, Kasimir Malevich, but to the early days of color television, where signal interference led to the diffraction of light streaming out of a cathode ray tube. In Spartan Training (8) a male model stands upright at what appears to be a floating panel, which we see ‘through the looking glass’ as it were. As a transparent surface, the panel brings to mind the futuristic glass computer interfaces of films like Mission Impossible. Furthermore, as vectors of architecture intersect at irregular angles, extreme foreshortening places the viewer high above the figure. We stand so close however, that we become part of the action. We could in fact be the subject of the painting. As such, the dynamic is reminiscent of Diego Velazquez’s iconic Las Meninas (1656), which surreptitiously folds the viewer into his world. Finally, Tree of Knowledge (9) evokes the black and white stop-action effects of early war footage. Throughout the composition, a string of apples orbit the tree like atoms in a nuclear model. A regular feature of Erickson’s lexicon, they are void of gravity and suspended in space, propelling us into a kind of cosmic trance.

The collision of cultural and perceptual references in Erickson’s work could be read as a crisis of styles, which speaks to the postmodern condition described by Jean Francois Lyotard. Constantly shifting between illusion and artifice, triumpf and collapse, the prospect of a final, revelatory effect is agonizingly delayed. It is for this reason that Erickson describes his work “not as an absolute fact but as a continuum of process.” As a language that is constantly undermining itself as it reconstitutes itself, this also brings to mind more ancient conundrums such as the classical Greek uroboros paradigm, of a serpent that devours its own tail as it simultaneously nourishes itself. On a personal level, Erickson’s approach is grounded in the conviction that time heals all wounds, itself informed by transcendental meditation, Mormon eschatology, the writings of Carlos Castenadas and Eckhardt Tolle. Navigating Erickson’s world makes time travellers of us all, and has the capacity to bring our own paths to a grinding halt. And yet it is only from this vantage point, Erickson believes, that new vistas can be glimpsed. Like that moment when we step outside our comfort zone, and it begins to snow.