Chris Erickson, ‘a painter trapped in a sculptor’s mind,’ at Straight Line Studio in Snowmass
Special to The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: Chris Erickson’s ‘superULTRAmega’
Where: Straighline Studio, Snowmass Village
When: Opening reception Saturday, Feb. 15, 5-8 p.m.
More info: straightlinestudiollc.com
Gallerists and artists Kelly Peters and Teal Wilson continue to vitalize the cultural scene of Snowmass Base Village with visual art, weekly workshops and exhibitions at their Straight Line Studio. The gallery will open a show of new paintings by Carbondale-based artist Chris Erickson on Saturday.
Erickson has developed his own vernacular of abstract painting out of a thorough education in fine and commercial arts. After graduating with a BFA from Fort Lewis College in 1994, he studied graphic design and illustration at Platt College in Denver, and then worked in advertising after 2000. His work for the Straight Line show reflects a graphic design punchiness, reminiscent of the late Matisse cut-outs. His shapes are solid, unmodulated colors. They strike the eye with the efficiency required in the commercial world of visual communication, but their compositions are complex and ambiguous.
Erickson is adept at making these works function on different pictorial registers. The solidity of the forms, and the lack of a light source within the painting emphasize the flatness of the picture plane. On the other hand, these shapes overlap; some recede and some come forward, and they bend and take on volumetric form to create three-dimensional space. Their solidity is sculptural. One can imagine their translation into steel plates.
“I’m a painter trapped in a sculptor’s mind,” he said.
Erickson’s impulse to work in three dimensions is expressed in those works on wood panel which he cuts into irregular shapes. These are a departure from the rectangle of his stretched canvas, though the canvases too have a sculptural quality in the depth of the stretcher bars, which stand the pieces off the wall, and in the fact that Erickson chooses to paint the sides of those bars, which draw the eye around to the pieces’ third dimension.
The more time one spends with these, the more they move from abstraction towards objectivity. Erickson uses subtle cues to intimate a sense not just of space, but of exterior space and even landscape. He will often use darker, warmer hues at the bottom of the composition and cooler, lighter ones at the top — just enough to trigger a sense of earth and sky. There is often a compositional indication through the middle of the pieces that might reference a horizon line. And some of the elements replicate the gestural movement of foliage and trees, or even gesticulating bodies.
There also is an experiential movement in these pieces from what might be initially perceived as a careful, manufactured finish to an awareness of the handcrafted-ness of the painting. Erickson knows how to make highly finished objects, but looking closer reveals the brushstroke, the presence of his hand, and the artful imprecision in the drawing of the forms, all of which suggest that he is landing on the side of representing a tangible reality rather than a conceptual idea. These works are acrylic paints on canvas or wood, applied with a brush, and not something that could be achieved with an inkjet printer or in a spray booth.
Artists with a sculptural sensibility are rarely also colorists. Erickson is an exception. He sets himself the useful constraint of limiting himself to using no more than 18 colors, just as a poet exercises his creativity within the prescribed meter of a sonnet. This parameter facilitates several things. First, it creates continuity across the pieces and unifies the body of work. More important, it allows Erickson to experiment in creating what he calls “color chords,” those ineffable relationships that arise when hues come into each other’s company. Sometimes the tonal effect is brash, sometimes harmonious, sometimes playful, but never really discordant, try as I might to find in the paintings an unpleasant clash.
Erickson allows himself to enjoy this palette, and there is a palpable good mood in these pieces, not just in his color sense, but also in the dynamic gesture of shapes. These paintings project an outlook, one that is careful but affirmative, exuberant but not silly. This much is discernible from the paintings themselves.
What is not obvious is that they are a means through which Erickson processes the enormous quantity of media stimuli to which he, and we, are daily subjected. In what he describes as a process of distillation, Erickson uses his art-making to winnow theses masses of information, discarding the nonsensical, toxic chaff and retaining the valuable, truthful kernels. It is his means of imposing a livable order on chaos. In an alchemical conversion of this distillate of good into shape and color, Erickson produces artworks that are fundamentally optimistic. It’s a refreshing outlook in this time when sophisticated contemporary art seems obliged to reflect a general gloom, not that one isn’t tempted to be gloomy at this moment. Erickson reminds us, however, there is also good reason to celebrate.
Timothy Brown writes on visual art and literature. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The octogenarian debutante’s 14 paintings were hung in March but went unseen until last month when the Aspen Art Museum opened to visitors following a closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. The works date from the 1990s to 2019.