Piles and Textiles: Studio Visit with Erin Payne

Erin Payne (NAP #93) paints what she terms “piles” – they are piles of jumbled and indefinable fabric and scattered memories.  Upon first glance, they reminded me of many fond piles from my own life: blankets abandoned from a childhood fort, wet and sandy towels left at the beach, and the ever-growing laundry that accumulate magically by week’s end.  I also saw them as shells of things that once were, but were now abandoned and I was excited to learn more about her process and inspiration. -Ellen C. Caldwell, LA Contributor

Spire, oil on canvas, 24 x 24, 2011

Erin Payne in her LA studio

EC: What drew you to start your paintings of piles?  Has this been a subject you’ve always worked with?

EP: I had always been interested in fabric, especially pieces that were really important to me.  I inherited my grandma’s slips and petticoats and I literally incorporated some of them into older work, putting them in the paint and all.  So the piles started with just my possessions – and they were mostly not clothes, because it’s not about homelessness, as some people have suggested.  That’s just not what they’re about.  And now, even if I do ever incorporate clothes, I disguise them as a blanket, or bedspread, or sheet…

EC: That’s interesting—even thought it started with your grandma’s clothing, they’ve become more about the domestic textiles and piles of fabric that you photograph and then paint?

EP: Clothes just don’t interest me as much – you have to wear clothes and they so obviously will carry residual energy because it’s on you, but something about a domestic object intrigued me more.

EC: I think about domestic things and space a lot – how we fill the domestic space of our homes both physically and figuratively, but then when we give away a box of items that was once near and dear, the items suddenly seem so empty and void.  I love your description of the Pile Project as “a surrogate for the human that once held and used it.” 

EP: Yes, eventually after using my own textiles for piles, I just didn’t have enough to build them anymore, so I started going to thrift stores.  And though it felt like cheating at first, it prompted me to think about the stories behind the fabric I was buying. Did they matter to someone? Why were they thrown out? How many times had then been touched? It was important to add my own fabrics to that and they all have their own residual histories.

Pile with Jeffrey Pine, oil on panel, 48 x 48, 2010

See You Later, oil on canvas, 24 x 24,  2011

Dune, oil on canvas, 24 x 24, 2011

Impostor, oil on canvas, 72 x 72, 2011

EC: And how else do you structure the piles? 

EP: Now, I’ve used tables, chairs, and boxes to make an internal structure beneath the piles.  And I liked that because it was like a Hollywood set… No one sees it, yet it structures and builds the piece.  But this need for the artifice came from the necessity to fill an outdoor gallery space and without it, the pile just didn’t hold its own.

EC: It is interesting that this concept of the artifice is something present with both your piles and dioramas, and how you are exploring so many complex relationships in both series.  So you were really creating the piles and dioramas simultaneously then?

EP: I felt like I had gotten as far as I could with the original piles and, at a point, it just wasn’t doing it for me.  I needed to go to the dioramas.  And it was a risk and it was scary because I consider myself a painter, but I did my MFA show with the photographs of the Diorama Project.

Late JTree, pigment prints mounted on sintra board,
40 x 60
(diorama: oil painted on PVC sheets and wooden structure)

Salton Lake, pigment prints mounted on sintra board, 40 x 60
(diorama: oil painted on pvc sheets and wooden structure)

EC: It is interesting that you use this backdrop of the arctic to start a discussion about man’s relationship with the environment.  Can you speak to this a little?

EP: I went through a big process at school leading up to it, wondering how extreme I wanted to get with the environmental aspect of my work. I love using oil paints and I had to be honest with myself that it’s not an environmentally friendly process.  And that part of it is both my source of conflict and fascination.  And within that, I am figuring out where I fit in the landscape – both literally and figuratively of how I am being in nature.

It’s questioning: what is nature?  Is something touched by humans still nature?  I don’t know but it fascinates me and I like to rub against these questions with my work.

EC: So you had to go through this to see where you stand, and that made you more honest and ready to pursue your end goals with your Diorama Project?

EP: Yes, I wanted to get this artificial landscape into real landscapes around LA, but in transporting this 6’ x 12’ beast, painting on PVC, using the lumber, and trucking it around – its carbon footprint was huge.  This concept and contradiction fascinates me and I’m not sure what to do with it.

But that’s where I’m coming to terms with things and trying to be honest.  It’s like I was making friends with global warming and taking it on vacation, using my art to wonder what my place in the environment is. I don’t know what to do about global warming… it’s so big, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it. So I painted my own version of the arctic, made friends with it, and took it to places I know around LA.  And after that project, I felt like I understood the piles better and felt like I could start painting them again.

EC: And that’s when you returned to the piles and introduced the landscapes to them?

EP: Yes, I was kind of doing it as an amateur science experiment.  Painting piles from the studio in front of the dioramas – but I love the process of also arranging, photographing, and then taking it one step more and painting it – really it’s the process of digesting it all and then the end result is the painting.

Backyard Installation, pigment prints mounted on sintra board, 40 x 60

(diorama: oil painted on PVC sheets and wooden structure)

Erin working in her studio.

Payne's LA studio.


Erin Payne’s work was recently featured in two shows in conjunction with Platform Los Angeles at the LA Mart: Boom, Southern California MFA invitational and Realm of Realism, curated by Shane Guffogg which runs through October 4th.  Additionally, she was featured at Friday Night Lights and Sunday Afternoons at Summercamp Project.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.

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