Erin Curtis, Apartment Building, 2010; acrylic on canvas; 73 x 114 inches; courtesy the artist and Champion, Austin
Neighborhood, from Cornerstone series, 2010; acrylic on canvas; 31 ¼ x 25 ½ inches; courtesy the artist and Champion, Austin
Erin Curtis appears to be obsessed with disrupting modernist idealism, using painted color and pattern to personalize austere architectural landscapes. In her show Ornament of Savage Tribes at Champion, Curtis ratchets up the use of vibrant color and pattern in the twenty-one works on view, blanketing found and painted images of buildings, bridges and municipal spaces with her frenetic designs. The patterns overwhelm the depicted structures, stamping them with ornamentation of the domestic: woven rugs, chintz wallpaper, quilt designs.
Apartment Building (2010), painted in acrylic on unstretched canvas and hung like a banner across a gallery wall, looks like a rug made with seven disparate weaves. This illusion quickly falls away to reveal the image of a continuous block of apartment buildings, which the occupants have covered in colorful cloth. Picture it as every apartment balcony hung with wet laundry, so that the buildings appear as one vast tapestry. It’s a neat trick, interlacing the apartments with a shared, dynamic palette that warms up the composition. One could say the polygonal patterning is psychedelic, but that would detract from the apparent domestic connotations. Curtis’ craft feels more wholesome than drug-induced, more community-oriented than individualistic.
Neighborhood (2010), the best work in the show, amps up the crafted, communal feel. In the center of this framed painting, two skewed buildings rise like a monstrous V above a garish floral motif in the foreground. Between these edifices Curtis stacks an entire neighborhood of apartment buildings, shops and stores, one atop another like a ladder into the sky. Curtis’ “neighborhood” showcases her skill as a draftsman, her ability to render and adorn in minute detail. Each smaller structure, a shop for example, is less than an inch in size yet finely painted with small spots of color.
Bell Labs (2010), another huge canvas hung like a tapestry, portrays the disused and imposing interior of the building that birthed the cellular telephone, reinventing the successive levels of office space with stripes and squares of pink-tinged color. Standing back from the canvas, the work is impressive in its visual complexity; but as one approaches, the paint looks thin and flimsy. It’s like letting air out of a balloon. Curtis’ patchy and inconsistent technique mirrors the haphazard design with which she subverts the interior. The work as a whole, however, would benefit from more painting and more rendering.
I would like to see the painterly draftsmanship Curtis uses in Neighborhood in all of the work on view. The artist has always densely marked some areas of her paintings while leaving other places nearly bare. This approach has served Curtis well in the past, creating an interesting dichotomy between finished, totalizing areas corresponding to her focus on modern architecture and loose, nearly frayed-looking areas that heighten the sense of a personal touch. When done well, it feels like a machine-stitched quilt with the batting hanging out. In the case of Ornament of Savage Tribes, however, the works feel rushed and the paint too spare to adequately showcase Curtis’ talents.
Dan Boehl is a poet and novelist living in Austin, Texas. His book Kings of the F**king Sea is available from Birds, LLC.