Erin Washington: Dust to Dust
These colors survive— not, notice, thrive, or flourish, or bloom, although some do carry a floral note about them and all are temptingly considered as analogous to the anemone, beauty from blood, pain—most explicitly beyond the pale, on the periphery, the edge, the places carrying head on out beyond the solid and material plane and hanging, like gravid pauses, over nothing, like Odin from Yggdrasil or street lamps, incandescent color suspended over and illuminating voids, gaps, prismatic trimmings buried like the K/Pg boundary, a band of violence and romance and the proliferation of things difficult to recognize, study, taxonomize, comprehend, so that one looks at, say, a marvelous representation of a Hellenic-style sculpture of a woman's face and neck, Ruin and cosmic dust, in chalk!, becomes absorbed in the kinetic nature of it, of the legion of little cuts and scores which birthed her, the beak and talon marks of Prometheus' eagle in the long-coagulated, tar-like chalkboard blood of the perpetually riven, of the elegant curve of a neck, the carotid groove, being summoned from the most didactic of mediums, the upper lip and eyes piled up as if from snow, the bridge of the nose resting like Golgotha, the dogwood beams born across her forehead—no room for Pallas to get out of there!—and the small nebulae and clouds of uncrossed tally marks and all this hermetic, glorious, intricate beautiful stuff and suddenly screaming out there on the edge is this band, the colorful K/Pg layer, running like snakeskin or a Fruit by the Foot along the upper corner, process yellow and grapefruit flesh and paint-cap-groove green, and the one notices it, too, throughout the painting now, flashes of color, of inspiration!, crocuses in a black snow. - B. David Zarley, Chicago Contributor
Those colors hidden beneath the pedantic surfaces—it's a chalkboard and chalk!—of Useful Knowledge, Erin Washington's solo show at Zolla/Lieberman, are abstractions she applied in between coating her panels with pigment/joint compound mixtures and chalkboard paint. They can read—and read is the correct word, here; one must move through and digest Washington's works in layers, chapters, books or cakes being the best metaphors and book seeming the more apt—as cathartic, as the creative impulses requisitely exorcised and the echoes of her less mimetic past, but can also represent the underlying dreams, madness, thoughts from which our concrete knowledge is extracted. They sit just below the surface, like schizophrenia, beautiful and frightening and integral to the chalk directly atop them, even when invisible.
The pain with which knowledge is gained—and knowledge always comes at a price, up to and including a god's eye—and the wounds opened in the pursuit of truth are what Useful Knowledge illuminates, in often humorous and always clever ways. The Western hermetic and classical art images Washington portrays are layered thick not just with paint but meaning, and not just meaning but also wit, stacked entendres which unravel into a multitude of related but separate ideas, a ball of baby snakes.
Take, for instance, the minute piece which hangs at the entrance of the exhibition, a relatively plain looking rectangle with “Useful Knowledge” written on it named Untitled. Or how about The Empty Vessel …, a chalk drawing of a vase, easy symbol for the student's mind, which comes from the Art Institute, where Washington is a lecturer (joke no.1), which carries in its name a space (the ellipsis, and also joke no.2) left by the completion of the saying which goes something like “the empty vessel makes the loudest noise,” which, it hardly needs pointed out, is a misericorde-sharp joke no.3 in a political climate which finds Donald Trump a viable presidential candidate, and which is displayed in front of a glorious, shining-like-the-host golden space blanket, which wraps around it on all sides (joke no.4), only looks incredibly expensive (joke no.5, and “all that glitters”) and carries the supreme reversal of being “gold” used for health and safety as opposed to the “healing” once achieved via gold (joke no.6)!
The After Zeus series is a technical triumph in a show full of them. Washington's masterful use of maddening chalk is worthy of admiration in and of itself, a quiet but impressive display of her power, but it is perhaps best realized in the three drawings of her own drawing hand, which had visited upon it—replete with mythological cruelty and the couching in fauna—the machinations of the titular god. The series is a three year study of the healing of her drawing hand, which was bitten by a dog named Zeus; the parallels to Zeus myths are both hilarious and horrifying, as permanent damage would have inevitably altered her career. As the phantom renditions, lighter than a lover's touch, reveal, any such damage will only be noticed by the artist and perhaps those who know her work with encyclopedic ken, and the scar—eerily resembling a smiley face, or those alien smiley faces often inflicted upon school bus seat backs by angry lighters—fades with the passage of time, a perfect calling for—and availing of—the ephemeral chalk.
Elsewhere in the show, ouroboros, tails firmly affixed in their mouths and symbol of, among other things, the alchemical pursuit, promise infinity, in their form and their reciprocated ancestors behind them, before coming crashing to a halt well above the lower bounds, a strangulation and encouragement to peer into the depths both. In useful knowledge, Washington recreates, with stunning accuracy, David Hockney's Kerby (After Hogarth) Useful Knowledge, which in turn is a painting of a drawing Hogarth made for a book on perspective, that ever-so-useful bit of knowledge for any artist, something mutable despite its assumed permanence and none more mutable than Washington's, which is sloughing away as one reads; the chalk is to always remain unsealed.
Knowledge is the accumulation of information, of facts, experiences, observations, theories, insights, leaps, falls, deaths, orders, rules, and screaming, bleeding schisms; it is something akin to the panel, to the pigment and joint compound atop the panel, to the swirling array of color and urgency and feeling, to the pouring over said array of a firm foundation, to the application, upon that foundation, of a million motions and painstaking efforts to create something beautiful, and for that something beautiful to, if not re-made over and over again, inevitably fade away to a ghost.
Already, in less then a month, that sign outside the exhibition is practically illegible.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist, and book/music/art critic based in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter (@BDavidZarley) and at bdavidzarley.com.