If you’re into over-the-top patterns and high intensity colors, you need to go see Erin Curtis’s exhibition: A Narrow Escape from History currently up at Big Medium. Curtis packs her paintings with enough kaleidoscopic variety that each one buzzes with its own unique visual electricity. Her labor-intensive process involves the layering and cutting away of overly saturated canvasses to fabricate a dense and diverse surface design. Vibrant colors emerge from beneath others as one irregular rectangle opens up to the painted surface beneath it. But just like the soft geometrics of squares and triangles, the paintings also host a series of far more loadable symbols such as stars and X’s. Each one plays a visual game of hide-and-seek around others in dense jungles of color.
If you’re not familiar with Immanuel Kant and his Critique of Judgment, you should be for this exhibition. He states that a judgment of beauty is based solely on the sensation of visual delight stirred up in the viewer. It requires no prior knowledge about what is being viewed regarding what it is or does. Instead, it’s only about how it makes you feel. With their bright and intricate surfaces, Curtis’s works definitely head in this direction.
In fact, I would disregard reading the recognizable symbols such as the X’s and stars as signifying anything other than themselves. Works like these are best viewed for what they are and absent of cultural references or contextual meanings. It’s pretty simple actually; it’s just color, pattern and shape. View them as that, and let them speak to you in that way. Not to sound too new-age, but let the canvas move you to thought and emotion without slipping into the trap of looking for pictorial references to the world beyond their edges. That’s not to say don’t fight that urge if it comes up. Just don’t approach the works expecting to get a story told in pictures. Vision like this is counter-intuitive to an extent, and you have to let go of “looking for the answer” as we are trained to do.
-detail of Anthropology
So, how did they make me feel?
Independently, the works are strong, and each one or pairing (there are a few pieces that are clearly diptychs) has a distinct personality. They’re diverse like faces and voices in a crowd and yet are unified in that range of differences. However, I spoke with a few gallery goers who were unsure as to the quantity of the work. Just as they individually teeter on the edge of too much color and pattern, there may also be too many of them. One person I spoke with was trying to mentally picture the exhibition with about half the number of canvasses in it. It’s an interesting thought and one not necessarily owed to the number of works. The thirteen paintings sit comfortably in the gallery space. Their medium size works well, and they don’t crowd each other. Instead, the less-is-more mentality arrives from the too much that’s on the canvases. One painting may only be twenty-four by thirty inches, but visually it may feel like six by ten feet.
However, from the other perspective, maybe more would be better. Curtis installed an installation over the gallery windows that replicate the same visual playfulness of the paintings aided by sunlight. But, the installation only sits on that wall, and as someone else pointed out, may have been more effective if it “spilled” out into the space of the gallery.
I could see either criticism being valid, but I’m undecided on whether one is more warranted than the other. What I find more significant is how Curtis demonstrates the flexibility of her aesthetic. Texture, color and pattern, when absent of subject matter, are translatable across the diverse territory of human existence. Much in the same way Kant argues that judgments of beauty are universal; Curtis shows us the potential universality of those things that provoke such judgments. And whether the question is one of too much or too little, it’s never a question of visual sensation. These works meet you on their own terms: a soft geometry with a playful diversity that compels us to revel in the harmonic variations therein.
Posted 7th September 2015 by Arnold, H.C.