Ebb and flow: In conversation with Loren Erdrich

Water is a paradoxical element. It flows in the direction of least resistance, but as it does it slowly works on the environment, smoothing, tumbling, rolling, eroding, which over millennia reshapes entire landscapes. Water is destructive, a force to be reconned with; and it is essential to all life. Water holds sway in the work of New York City based artist Loren Erdrich. It is a central element in her practice, a lubricant and corrosive that interacts and informs the other media. Colours seep and bleed into each other, forms dissolve and take shape in organic patterns. Surface and depth merge into one liminal zone. The soft figures that populate Loren’s paintings float inside their watery backgrounds: their forms porous, their boundaries ill-defined. “Personally, I see moments where our boundaries are breached as opportunities for magic,” she explains in the interview to follow. In a society shaped by borders and boundaries that maintain order, permeability and fluidity offers an alternative way of being that dissolves the separation between outside and inside, you and I, this world and the other-worldly. In her artist statement Loren writes that “each piece resides on a threshold – a merging point of interiority and intersubjectivity, of desire solicited and desire articulated, of existence and extinction. Viewers are invited to straddle worlds – outside the world as we know it, and inside the sense of water dissolving the distance between things.”

Loren has exhibited her work in solo and group shows around the USA, and has two upcoming projects planned in the UK. She has been awarded several artist residencies and grants, and has published two artist books in collaboration with poet Sierra Nelson. Here, Loren speaks with us about how water shapes her practice and the necessity of being open to the unpredictable and ungovernable.

AMM: Hi Loren! Let’s dive straight in – please tell us a little about your background and life growing up. Did this influence your decision to make art?

LE: When I was young I was taught that there were clear steps I could take toward a happy and successful life – certainly the importance of education and a career was focused on in my household growing up.  So when it turned out I wanted to seriously pursue art there was originally a bit of pushback – perhaps because it was so unclear what a successful art career really was.  Sure there were solo shows, sales, and museum collections to aspire to, and these seemed to follow similar markers of success to those I grew up with, but it immediately was clear to me that the process of making good work followed more ambiguous, more personal rules. I was an emotional, sensitive kid who ultimately found it more fulfilling to judge my life by interior markers rather an exterior. So when I began making art it was like I had found a means to converse with the world about what was actually important to me. It was a way for me to step outside the path that was laid before me and forge something personal and specific.

AMM: How has your work changed over time? What have been some of the influences or people that have shaped this evolution?

LE: My work has always been rooted in the emotional realm. I’ve drawn from my own physical experiences but focused on the emotional impacts and resonances of these experiences. My 20s were pretty solitary – not in actual physical experience – but in how I felt. I yearned for connection and this desire for human connection featured prominently in my work back then. I was constantly searching for ways to circumvent the physical constraints the world put on me in order to find a deeper and more meaningful connection. I saw constraints as control and sought moments when I would be able to be unconstrained and relinquish control. Thus there is a lot of sex and violence in my earlier work. But as I have grown, aged, and healed my desire for connection has morphed from focusing on connection with another person towards a broader connection with a world at large. It still uses physical expressions of connection to express deeper emotional/psychological connections but now figures are as apt to meld with their natural/physical environment as they are with another human being.

AMM: When did you start experimenting with the water-based mediums you currently work in? What led you in this direction and what appealed to you about this combination?

LE: In grad school I began working with watercolour. I think what originally appealed to me was how ‘uncool’ it was at the time. In undergrad I’d been taught over and over again that large scale intellectual paintings were what I needed to make to be successful – so of course I started to do the opposite. I made small watercolours on paper. To me they existed outside of the heavy history of painting and thus were an avenue I was free to explore. I fell in love with the way the colours bled over the wet paper, and especially that moment right before they completely dried when they seemed to crystalize and the natural drying patterns really emerged.

For years I primarily used watercolour and ink until a few years ago when a friend gifted me some raw organic pigments from Morocco. These pigments were unlike anything I’d ever used before. Each one reacted differently to water. Some flew across the page, pushing away all the other colours. Some formed fractal-like patterns as they dried. And they were so bright! Way brighter than my muted watercolour palette. Eventually as I learned more about the differences between watercolour, pigment and dyes I supplemented with store bought versions. I find my inability to perfectly control them intoxicating and I think it’s an important part of my process. Just as I have sought moments where I could relinquish control in my own life, seeking those same moments in my art practice leads to the unexpected.

‘With Shadows’, water, raw pigment, synthetic dye, colored pencil and watercolor crayon on canvas, 91x76cm

AMM: Water is a central element in your work from a material and conceptual perspective. Please tell us more about how these two aspects intertwine and manifest in your work?

LE: Materially, with the exception of the small bit of watercolour binder I sometimes use when I make my own watercolours, it’s been important to my current process that I don’t use a binder with the raw pigments. The pigments and dyes are mixed solely with water – usually right on the page or canvas. This leads them to behaving somewhat unpredictably – they don’t always do what I think they will do. I can encourage them towards a desired effect but ultimately I only have so much control.

The water totally destroys the rigidness of the ground which I appreciate. The formal rectangle is skewed, sometimes slightly, sometimes massively. I feel like these physical attributes help me towards a more philosophical exploration of success within in an imperfect environment.

And I’ve always been drawn to water. I am awed by the ocean, and keenly aware of its power. I love that something so fluid and so malleable on one hand, can also wield such incredible force.

AMM: Permeability and fluidity are celebrated in your work. In what ways does this visual language of the indefinite allude to vulnerability and offer a counter narrative to those that shape society?

LE: Societies which are shaped by rules and order depend upon distinct boundaries and clear demarcations to enforce this order. In these societies, permeability is considered vulnerability, and vulnerability is seen as a weakness when control is the desired outcome. So things that cross boundaries, or don’t adhere to basic norms, are considered dangerous by the powers that be precisely because they are in fact powerful – they have the power to disrupt ingrained systems and structures. Which is ironic right?  That these points of ‘weakness’ are precisely where the power lies.

Personally I see moments where our boundaries are breached as opportunities for magic. I see the permeable and the fluid as possible points of growth and change. I hope that by working with these characteristics within my practice I can give access to a world in which vulnerability and softness are respected instead of restrained.

AMM: Let’s talk about sex and sensuality. Are these distinct in your art? How do you approach these in your painting and what holds your interest in these subjects?  

LE: To me the sex has never been just about physical pleasure or eroticism. I’ll use physical proximity as an expression of intimacy, penetration as a way to breach the established boundary between one body and another, orgasm as a way to reach a point of letting go. In this way I think it has been natural to work with sexual content, and just as natural to expand beyond that. Sex featured often in my earlier work but at some point it stopped interesting me as much. It felt too easy, in a way. Now I want a different type of connection. Definitely my work is still sexy, even without being always necessarily graphic. Sensuality I think of as not being tied to the graphicness of sex, but referring to a deep pleasuring of ALL the senses. Sensuality is rounder on the edges, more ambiguous. There are parts of the body we usually think of as sensual even though they don’t refer to directly to sex. I hope my work will always be sensual because it will always invoke a certain inhibition – a release of the control we are taught to maintain.

Imagery wise I find myself consistently exploring moments which seem to dissolve the separation between outside and inside, me and the other, this world and the other-worldly. Hybrid figures often appear (human/animal, human/environment, human/other). Recently I have been thinking a lot about how our bodies merge with the natural world – decay, camouflage, immersion, reflections. There are moments were I see our flesh itself as a landscape, in its fragility, mutability and resilience. I’m interested in the metaphoric narratives this embodies. Ultimately I’d like each piece to reside on a threshold – a merging point of interiority and intersubjectivity, of desire solicited and desire articulated, of existence and extinction.

‘Leak’, water, raw pigment, organic and synthetic dye, ink and colored pencil on canvas, 48x41cm

AMM: Give us a peek inside your studio – what does it look and feel like? Is there music playing and do you have company? What kind of environment and headspace is just right for you to work in?

LE: I have a great studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It is completely private which is important to me – I want to be able to leave a mess, make noise, cry and laugh etc without having to consider anyone else. Style-wise I’d consider myself something like a soft minimalist (I just made that term up!) meaning I don’t want a lot of clutter or extra stuff, but the little I do have I want to be warm and inviting. It’s worked for me to use one section of my studio for storage, supplies, and the more administrative side of things, and the rest section is just empty white walls and a clear floor. I start paintings by working with them flat on the floor so floor space is very important.

Overall though, when I’m making work I don’t want to feel claustrophobic – which can be a tall order in a city filled to the brim with sights and sounds. Usually I start music playing when I get in and then I don’t really change it until I realize it’s been playing the same songs for hours. If my brain is too full, or if I need a fresh start, I take everything off the walls, clean up all my supplies, take a breath and start anew. I’m not really someone who leaves the studio for breaks so once I arrive I stay there until evening. I usually get there around 10am and work through until 7pm or so.

AMM: What is your process of research and working?  

LE: I definitely look to other artists for inspiration on new techniques – colour combinations, mounting/stretching insight and mark making. I’d say most of my research comes in the form of reading – but not art theory or art interviews as you might expect. I read a lot of fiction and poetry and I find so much inspiration from the imagery there.

I’m not a big planner in the studio – the process needs to be organic and intuitive. I get very absorbed in the physical process, so much so that for a good portion of my process the content is just a vehicle to explore with the materials. Sometimes I will even remake old paintings (different scales, material combinations, etc).

To start my paintings I usually work with the canvas/muslin unstretched and very wet. That way I can work into both sides of the cloth. I do a lot of sitting around waiting for everything to dry so that I can tell what it will really look like. There is a period when the fabric is just barely damp that is a perfect time for more detailed touches. I also draw into them with coloured pencil or watercolour crayons. When a piece comes together enough I will stretch it and then continue working on it until completion.

AMM: What are you working on right now? How’s it coming along – what’s working and what’s causing a challenge?

LE: I generally think of different methods of paint application and different types of mark making almost like tools in a tool box. When I discover a new one I start to use that tool a lot, and I can neglect the other ones. Sometimes I go deep in one direction and I’ll realize I want/need to reinvigorate other aspects of my practice. That’s how I feel at the moment –  figures have become more and more absent in my work over the past few months (perhaps mirroring the isolation we are all undergoing during the pandemic) and the work has become quieter and even pastoral. So I may now try to reincorporate more specific, deliberate imagery…go a bit weirder again. My process is always evolving. Things are shifting in the studio right now – I can feel it.

‘Closer To Everything (Far Out)’, water, raw pigment, synthetic dye, colored pencil and watercolor crayon on muslin, 91x97cm

AMM: In your artist statement you write about your process: “ I savour the push/pull between deliberate and unintentional movements.” Why is it important for you to be open to the possibilities of experimentation?

LE: So much of my process is trial and error. I feel like I rarely use materials as intended – it’s almost best when I don’t even know how they are meant to be used. I try things out intuitively and usually end up hitting on some way of working that feels truly original and exciting. In fact it’s when I become proficient that things can become stale and I become bored. There’s also just something about letting the materials do what they do. I let the dye move through water; I let the canvas soak up the colour from the drop cloth below; I let the forms take shape as the canvas dries. Usually these natural processes produce results that are entirely magical. And I balance this magic with my own deliberate actions and choices.

AMM: The same quotation could be applied to your gestural style of mark-making. Please tell us more about your relationship with pigment and surface materiality.

LE: When I began using pigments and dyes from different sources I realized I could create distinct effects – while with some techniques and materials the colour seeped into to the canvas, with others I could get the colour to sit right on top of the surface. These surface marks appear gestural but I’m usually following faint traces of previous marks or stains. These are often the driest marks, done with a damp brush when the canvas itself is only slightly damp or entirely dry.

This part of the process was a big breakthrough for me because suddenly the surface of the paintings became active. Now the paintings are no longer just a pool one can dive into – now things can swim on the surface. With everything at a similar depth my figures always appeared to be the foreground but now they can recede to the background if desired.

AMM: Colour is a big deal in your art. Have you always had an affinity for emotive colour?

LE: Yes, I think so. Even though my palette was more muted in the past it was still emotive. I mostly choose colours intuitively, often based on what is available at the time. I’ll find a few colours I love, use them until they run out, and then by necessity my palette will shift. I learn a lot by looking at how other artist’s use colour, how they get things to pop, to vibrate, what combinations they use. I’ve always been drawn to colour, but I wouldn’t say I’m particularly skilful at using it. Most of what I do is by necessity or mimicry.

AMM: Alongside your drawings and paintings you also produce painted ceramics, videos and atypical performances. What do these different media offer you creatively?

LE: My video and performance work is fairly rare – it really appears only when a project necessitates it.  One of the last videos I made was a collaboration with my husband Seth Scher who works in video. I built a life size cloth doll with an internal tubing and pump system. Using stop animation I painted the doll with ink and dye while we pumped water through it so that the colours bled and changed and the doll seemed to leak. That image has appeared a lot in my work – figures so full they leak.

My ceramic work is consistent – it is a counter presence to the painting in my studio. I use air dried clay, paint it with an acrylic base, then use watercolour and dye on it. The ceramic works are quite small so I interact with them on a completely different scale. In the moments where painting seems impossible often I find that working with clay is more possible, and vice versa. I think of the sculptures as small 3D paintings – the clay is a support to the paint similarly to the way canvas and paper are supports.  I find it interesting that some people respond to the clay so strongly. I think it offers them another way into the work – a way that is personable, manageable, and tactile.

AMM: You were very productive during lockdown – producing a series of drawings that have been made into a book in collaboration with poet Sierra Nelson. What was your experience working during that time? How did the pandemic and other external factors influence you personally and creatively?

LE: When NYC went into lockdown no one had any idea what was in store for us. I have a private studio that I was fortunately able to use throughout lockdown, but day to day I wasn’t sure if I would be able to continually access it. I began working with ‘mobile’ materials – drawing paper, coloured pencils, watercolour crayons – and brought those home with me every night in case the next day I wouldn’t be able to leave my apartment. Since my work is always based in the emotional realm, it wasn’t really a stretch for me to bring the energy of what was happening in the world into my studio. The panic and sadness that I, and everyone, was feeling actually allowed me to delve into my work without the expectation of results that is normally present when I work. I didn’t look to the drawings to be anything other than a moment to moment expression of what I was experiencing. That these daily drawings ended up being technically and aesthetically interesting was secondary.

Since the drawings are fairly uniform in size and technique, compiling them in a book seemed natural. I’d had experience publishing a book back in 2012  – I Take Back the Sponge Cake is a hybrid book of poetry and drawings, a collaboration between the poet Sierra Nelson and myself, published by Rose Metal Press.  Since that book resides more firmly in poetry/written circles, I wanted this book to live primarily in the art world. I decided to make it a limited edition and gave a lot of attention to the replication and printing of the drawings. I think Sierra’s poetry is stunning so I asked her to contribute text. The result is ISOLATION, which is a self-published.

If anything, I have found these pandemic months post lockdown the hardest. As pandemic life has ground on and this life-style has been normalized I’ve had to question where to go from here. I think this experience has made so many of us question what is truly important to us.

‘Cross Pollination’, watercolor and acrylic on ceramic, 11x16x7cm

AMM: The pandemic has altered how we do things across the board, including how we see, engage and purchase art. What impact do you think this will have for emerging and independent artists?  

LE: I have shown my work online for years via Instagram and it’s been an important tool in my practice, but one result of the pandemic is that purely online viewings of artwork are now legitimately accepted and normalized. Since the pandemic began I have had online exhibitions with galleries that have been wonderful. In a way I think these online shows are lower risk – for the gallery and the artist – so they are important stepping stones for emerging artists. And online, individual artists can do so much to promote themselves and reach a broader audience and create sales regardless of a gallery – which is wonderful.  Artists are in some respects less dependent on the established gate keepers of the art world.

But while I do think my work presents well online, I also feel there is no replacement for seeing the physical work in person. They’re two different experiences. Online, everything presents as the same size and it’s also very difficult to understand how surfaces are treated. I recently had an in person show with George Gallery in Bushwick and it was such a relief to see people positively interacting with the work in person again.

AMM: You’ve been awarded several artist residencies – what do these experiences bring to your practice?  

LE: When I’m on a residency there is nothing else to attend to other than making art and feeding myself – everything else is secondary. I don’t have to cater to anyone else’s needs but my own and for a month or two it’s such a gift. When I go on residencies I usually go somewhere very remote and full of natural beautify. This time spent in quietness and nature affords me a sense of expansive space (internal and external) that is an important part of my process. These times fill me with an energy that fuels my work for months to come.

There’s also something about being in a new environment, and a supportive environment, that ultimately gives me a fresh perspective on my work. I find myself trying new materials for example. In fact, the muslin and coloured pencils I now use frequently in my paintings are two results of my time spent in Wyoming last year on a residency. I brought both materials with me on a whim – threw them in my bag at the last moment to fill up some extra space – and they’ve ended up becoming key materials in my process now.

AMM: Despite the prevailing global uncertainty, do you have any projects coming up? What’s next for you?

LE: I’ve just completed a bunch of shows and projects so to a certain extent I’m entering the gestation period again. I do know I will be participating in a group show in London in early 2021 and there are some late 2021 (if all goes well) UK projects potentially as well. I’m currently in conversation about some east coast exhibitions – time will tell. It’s not rare for me to have no idea what’s next – things always appear.

Find out more about the artist: www.okloren.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Dirt and Desire (After Anne)’, water, raw pigment, organic and synthetic dye, ink and colored pencil on canvas, 69x66cm