Blackberries, coffee, bleach, dust, pomegranates, burnt bones and mold. These incongruous items sound like the ingredients for a recipe to counter a witch’s curse, but in Erin Washington’s deft hands, they’re the alchemical foundations of entrancing gossamer lines laid atop delicately composed panels; sumptuous works executed in a manner that plumbs the blurry boundaries between drawing and painting.
Washington arrived in Chicago seven years ago by way of Colorado for study at the School of the Art Institute. “I loved it in Colorado” she says, “but when I left, there just wasn’t much of an art community I was connecting with.” Entranced by the city’s “pragmatist work ethic and vibrant community,” Washington stuck around after her stint at SAIC—where she now teaches—and, through dedication to content as well as craft, has quietly become one of Chicago’s most respected young artists.
Her works conjure up provocative images of history and myth. The somber hues and chalkboard surfaces that proliferate in her modestly sized drawings evoke an overcast autumn day in the city; the type of melancholy afternoon when the top of Chicago’s iconic skyline remains shrouded by gauzy crowns of gray.
“The form of my work has changed a lot over the past ten years” she says, “but the subject matter has always been relatively the same. For a while, I concentrated a lot on material play and pure abstraction, but ever so slowly, mark making started creeping back into the work…at first through symbols and diagrams with the occasional word and then finally imagery started intermingling with abstraction and materials.”
These images, which range from a finely rendered bust of Aphrodite to a series of stacked ouroboros—the mythical snake that eats its own tail—featured prominently in her January solo gallery show at Zolla/Lieberman. Called “Useful Knowledge,” the exhibition was among many creative highlights over the past year and a half for Washington.
“The ‘Cosmosis’ show at the Hyde Park Art Center last summer was also an incredible experience. Curator Steven Bridges was absolutely lovely to work with, and I was able to exhibit with many artists that I consider lifelong friends,” Washington continues.
Also last year, Washington delivered an electric performance at Kavi Gupta Gallery focused on eccentric aviator Larry “Lawnchair” Walters and Roy Sullivan, the only man to survive being struck by lightning seven times. “The bizarreness of these two figures alone is part of an obsession,” says Washington, “and then shoehorning them into my practice made for a really weird and funny performance.”
Although the upcoming year is shaping up to be just as busy as the last with a show at Roots & Culture in May and a curatorial project slated to open in 2017, Washington’s commitment to her practice remains the center of her attention. “I am incredibly lucky to have had many opportunities to show my work and share my ideas with people, but at the end of the day, I am drawing because it communicates something far more effectively than my words or my writing are capable of doing.” (Alan Pocaro)
Elliot Josephine Leila Reichert is a curator, critic and editor. She is the inaugural Curator of Contemporary Art at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University. She was formerly Curatorial Fellow at the Chicago Artists Coalition, Art Editor of Newcity and Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University.