Q&A with Curtis Erlinger
Curtis Erlinger packages the past sleekly, its detritus of memory and discarded imagery reworked into objects with a second life that have a meditative, often monochromatic coolness. For Scissor Lift (at PUNCH Gallery), Erlinger delves into a new batch of found imagery sourced from vintage TIME LIFE documentary films. He's culled single frames from amongst thousands and collaged, rephotographed and reprinted them in the darkroom. The gallery is peppered with delicate Xerox prints transferred onto smashed glass, interspersed with silver gelatin prints mounted to thick Styrofoam panels. Clustered in a corner are reels of film that have been tightly rolled into slender cones and shellacked with urethane. From a distance they look ominous, like shiny black spikes. In one silver gelatin print an earthworm (the final frame from a documentary on segmented worms) floats uncannily across the face of Michelangelo's Pietà. The words "The End" hover over the Madonna's lips. Beginnings and endings are everywhere and nowhere in this show, grasped at but refused.
This is much different from your 4Culture show earlier this year. The mediums are different. And there's a blatant sense of futility around trying to rescue time or memories or images.
With the show at 4Culture, with the more painterly works that have cloth over them, I think I got exhausted with that process. The process became kind of existential, to try to recreate photography with painting. I couldn't do it anymore. This show is getting back to the roots of what I used to do: collage, bricolage, throwing things together and seeing what sticks, working with objects. The way I was painting before, very photorealistically, was an attempt to get back to an image, to figure out what the story or experience of an object was. So it's related to that kind of work in that way, treating images as an object. The objects are breaking outside of the frames in this show.
Why the emphasis on the material object? Are you trying to create relics?
Very much so, I think these are very much related to a Catholic approach. I think these are stations. You referenced something Scott Lawrimore said recently: "Do you believe in the image?" I find myself reflecting on that question a lot lately. Maybe not exactly do you believe in it? But do you trust it? What do images have inherent in them that you could trust or that you don't trust? Maybe this work is more about the distrust of an image. You have this inner image, but does it retain a power, is there a persistence of memory? What happens over time, what happens when you take an image, photograph it again, bring that negative into a darkroom and expose it to light….after all these processes does it still have a power, does it still have anything trustworthy about it? Maybe they do and they are sincere. Maybe they are very insincere. I don't know. I kind of like that contradiction: swinging between sincerely bringing something into the world but knowing that it's a failure, or not really knowing if I trust in it. So in a way it's a kind of skepticism. I'm a believer but I don't quite believe….it's an agnosticism of the image!
Your process is also inscribing an aura, if you will, around these images, with all the alterations, the reproductions, the handling…to me they seem definitely more significant than the originals.
I would agree with that. To recreate a photograph is kind of a pointless act of futility, but it is an effort to give an object a new life or new experience.
You have this Tao Lin quote included in the description for your show:
“...one had to expect very little – almost nothing – from life, …one had to be grateful, not always trying to seize the days like some maniac of living, but to give oneself up, be seized by the days, the months and years, be taken up in the froth of sun and moon, some pale and smoothie-ed river-cloud of life, a long, drawn-out, gray sort of enlightenment, so that when it was time to die, one did not scream swear words and knock things down, did not make a scene, but went easily with understanding and tact, and quietly, in a lightly pummeled way, having been consoled – having allowed to be consoled – by the soft, generous, worthlessness of it all, having allowed to be massaged by the daily beating of life, instead of just beaten.” – Tao Lin, Bed
There's this freaked out attitude that this is the end of the world and people don't know how to deal with death at all. We're so detached from the larger questions. That quote's kind of interesting in relationship to photography too. It talks about this mania of living, trying to seize the day, trying to capture the world around us. But there is something to be said for living in the moment, merely being witness and acknowledging that we'll never be able to seize anything.
Scissor Lift is on view at PUNCH Gallery through September 1, 2012.
Images courtesy of the artist. Top: Life Before Birth (Part II), 2012, film canister lid, film, Styrofoam. Bottom: The Hour of Our Death, 2012, silver gelatin print on fiber paper.