Catalog Essay by Jessica Lantos:
Modern abstracted landscapes that are at once familiar and foreign characterize some of the works by Erin Curtis. She is a painter, yet she approaches the traditional "canvas" in a more expansive and sculptural manner: two-dimensional stretches of paper hang from the wall to touch down to the floor; diverse objects are attached upon the vertical pictorial surface; or the "canvas" is displaced from the wall to the floor entirely. The diverse ways she executes mountains and hills in the landscape point to the same variety in which the landscape is perceived, experienced, and mythologized in a contemporary American socio-political context.
Physically, her work calls to mind the tactile, colorful sculptural masses of Claes Oldenburg or John Chamberlain. She cites Jessica Stockholder and Herbert Brandl as contemporary sources of inspiration, yet she often looks back to her native environment of upstate New York and finds a unique parallel in the art of the Hudson River School. Distinctly American scenes of a vast, untouched landscape, the 19th century paintings are logically composed and often idealized. Tranquil scenes belie their historical moment, when the landscape (both rural and urban) became increasingly infiltrated and manipulated by human presence. Returning to the present day, the artist reconstructs a similar paradigm between the irony (or misconception) of this untouched pristine landscape as present in the Hudson River School paintings and the reality associated with the human engagement of the land in order to re-present it in a thoroughly 21st century context. She states: "My work cannot be separated from my history as an American, a woman in America, indulging in its excesses, in awe of its confidence, and nauseous with its deficiencies. I explore this ambivalence in my work, spinning at the intersection of reverence and asperity, sympathetic to the underdog, the struggle, the beauty and the decay."
Like her artistic forebears, Curtis has worked in oil on canvas; however, mixed media often provides her with the tools to express a wider range of meaning. She gives physical shape to her ideas with craft or graph paper, thin wire netting, house paint, shellac staining, and even molds of Bundt pans. Just as the landscape is in a constant state of evolution, the artist can never predict the final appearance of her work. Items like atlases, outdated maps of towns and suburbs, and everyday objects, both personal and found, represent to her artifacts that belong to a specific period and place yet are subjected to industrial and political variables. Through their use (political or otherwise), the objects occupy a space in history. Despite their initial arbitrary quality, like curtains or a deck of cards, they signify a larger way to conceive of a landscape while simultaneously challenging our regular notions of our surroundings. For example, a deck of cards is the very foundation for one of her sculptural pieces. Set on the floor and standing several feet tall, the piece precariously rises up from a seemingly haphazard base of playing cards. Stability emerges from instability; fragility does not always result in destruction.
Thus, Curtis's painterly collages do not so much criticize as they reflect on the tenuous nature of the relationship between humans and the landscape where industrialization, nostalgia, individual perspectives, and increasing tourism represent merely a handful of such concerns. The colorful canvas, supplemented with diverse objects, may at first obscure the depth of socio-political meaning that Curtis wants to convey. Her deep respect for, and fascination in, the mountains and landscape force us to rethink our everyday notions of the world in which we live.