Jen Erickson's Topographies Of Lost Memory

The tenuously-connected tissue of small marks on Jen Erickson's paintings at PUNCH Gallery (On view through June 3) fan out like smoke curls, clustered blooms of algae or exploding supernova. Some diptych panels, hung side-by-side, have mirrored designs, like bifurcated stains on a Rorschach blot or diagrams depicting binary division and replication of cells. The unfurling sprawl is comprised of thousands of graphite zeroes drawn over oil paint on panels. In this blend of the organic and mathematical, Erickson's work melancholically dwells on the inability to retain memory. But if the paintings are wastelands filled with empty marks, wandering over them triggers its own host of daydreams, associations and involuntary memory. - Amanda Manitach, Seattle Contributor

Jen Erickson | Diversion 1, 2011, graphite and oil on panel, 36 x 48 inches.

Amanda Manitach: In your work you persistently build up these delicate, formless masses. How do you start a piece and how do these shapes develop as you're working on them? 

Jen Erickson: I start by building up and sanding off layers of oil paint on panel. Sometimes the graphite marks begin as a response to the paint, other times the marks move across the surface in a less co-dependent way. For me the act of drawing is always a reactionary process. Sometimes I think about the process as a problem to be solved, like a giant math equation. As the process continues, the drawing constantly evolves: one mark can change the entire composition and it is a constant struggle to find balance within a composition.

Jen Erickson | Diversion 2 (detail), 2011, graphite and oil on panel, 36 x 48 inches.

AM: You've cited the interconnection of technology and the subconscious/memory as something this work addresses. How did you become interested in relating memory to technology?

JE: I'm interested in the visual aspects of technology and I draw a lot of inspiration from information systems and the visualization of those systems. Technology gives us unlimited access to information, but of course the more we’re bombarded by it the less time we have to form a complete understanding of anything. We know a little about everything but are expert at nothing. In some of my earlier work I directly referenced binary code: it's something that everyone recognizes but few can read. It is entirely inefficient. I like the idea of using an obsolete language as a metaphor for memory. Memories are there and are recognizable, but as time passes and the context deteriorates, is lost, and we can no longer read them.

Jen Erickson at Punch Gallery

AM: Do you have a background in the sciences or technology?

JE: I studied biology for a while in college but after a few semesters realized that what interested me more than science was art. I wasn't a very good science student. I found myself mostly spending time looking into a microscope and drawing what I saw! Now I use scientific concepts as inspiration. They are worlds to which most people have limited access, including myself.

I read about things like string theory, dark matter and white holes and try to visualize what I think those might look like, let my subconscious inform depictions of them. Interestingly, these theories are often more science fiction than science. Often when I’m researching I’ll read pages and pages of an article about a theory and at the end there will a note explaining that it’s entirely unproven; it’s a speculative concept in the mind of a scientist. I usually won’t immediately or consciously work these concepts into my paintings, but eventually I find them coming to the surface, subliminally reimagined.

Jen Erickson | Dissipate (detail), 2011, graphite and oil on panel, 11 x 14 inches.

AM: Also something you’ve mentioned about your work is a meditative aspect to the process. Can you talk about that? 

Jen Erickson: It's funny because when I began working this way I had an idea for a drawing in my head and the only way to achieve this vision was to force myself to sit down and make these repetitive marks. It was absolutely torturous but I liked the outcome so I forced myself to make another one. Eventually the process did become meditative and I began to crave the time spent applying marks in such a repetitive way.

Jen Erickson | Static Delineation (detail), 2011, graphite and oil on panel, 8 x 8 inches (each panel).

AM: So you haven’t always worked this way?

JE: No. When I started painting I did very large scale abstract expressionist oil paintings. They were quick and messy and light on concept. In the time between undergrad and grad school I worked a data entry job and sitting in front of a computer for hours on end had a lasting impact on my practice, especially developing stamina for repetitive processes. It was my job to archive everything from people's emails, personal memos, to employee handbooks and technical manuals. This ridiculous act of trying to preserve every detail of human existence got me thinking about my own mortality and the sense of loss that I sometimes feel when I realize that as we get older our thoughts and memories slip away and become replaced by new ones.

Jen Erickson | Shift, 2011, graphite and oil on panel, 6 x 6 inches (each panel). Image courtesy of the artist.

AM: What are you working on next?

JE: I'm not sure. I'm just on the cusp of starting a new series and it remains to be seen. I sometimes think that I'm ready to make a drastic change and do something entirely different. This never seems to happen. Instead, my work tends to be a slow evolution, kind of like the work itself I guess.


Jen Erickson received her MFA in painting at Central Washington University in 2005 and currently resides in Coeur d' Alene, ID. Erickson’s Transmit and Dissipate will be on view at PUNCH Gallery through June 3, 2012.

Amanda Manitach is a writer and artist based in Seattle.

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