The history of art, like the structure of the physical universe, has become a settled matter — a grand paradigm — in the last few years. Each now has a story that will stand the test of time, or until a new age demands a different theory: whichever comes first. A question that might be put to those who believe that the millions of dollars spent on art at auctions in New York and Los Angeles are buying the art that will eventually be in the history books, is this: What about those artists who, instead of breaking sharply with the academy at the end of the 19th century, shifted their emphasis and continued to explore, through art, the most sophisticated biological mechanism that ever evolved: the optics and psychology of vision? Is it possible they are the true rebels?
Consider three paintings by John Erickson, currently hanging together—for what may be the first and only time—at Phillips Gallery. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that “Little One,” “Return of Little One,” and “Fly By” were all painted at about the same time, judging from the sense of déva-vu they produce. In reality, of course, they could be separated in age by months or even years. Let’s not forget that even before French and British artists invented photography in the hope that it would replace drawing, they had begun to first explore and save their intentions in drawings, thus making second and third attempts at a particular subject commonplace.
However, the suspicion that these three works have a common source in a preexisting photo doesn’t hold up well when their backgrounds are compared. While “Little One,” which a small patch of red-orange in a lower corner shows to have started out as something else entirely, suggests but doesn’t clearly reveal a street intersection behind its central subjects: a white tree past which a red-winged blackbird flits. Much of the sketchiness of “Little One” is gone in “Return,” where the Yield sign gives way to a pair of street signs, a free-standing hose bib appears, and everything including the bird is much more clearly delineated. Each of these works has its own, natural audience: the first for its spontaneity and sketch-like character, the second for its emerging, overall atmospheric feeling.
It’s not until the third version, “Fly By,” that something takes place that could not have happened in the last 50 years, which would otherwise be a good guess about the time period represented. The veil of illusion was still in place then: the unconscious notion that the artist depicts a reality witnessed and painted, or drawn, or at least sketched in place and in person. But “Fly By,” which title brings to mind “fly by night,” meaning untrustworthy, contains elements from two incommensurate realities. Specifically, an electric light switch and an outlet-with-plug, the latter surrounded by the illusion-smashing corner and floor of what’s most likely the artist’s studio, not only conflict with the rest of the depicted scene, but both float disconnected from the depiction like a couple of ghosts, visions, or hallucinations. Additionally, the key element of depth that was an intersection seems to have become a light-filled doorway. Those who prefer the illusion brought over from the earlier versions may well hate this, but for those who know it for just another level of immersion, it may be as exciting as the discovery of linear perspective was during the Renaissance.
Imagine Erickson in his studio, projecting a slide on the wall to work from — whether of a scene in nature or a previous painting is irrelevant — and instead of mentally editing out evidence of the place where he works by omitting its overlapping or penetrating details, he leaves it in. Isn’t this a better, more legitimately autobiographical way of painting “from life?” It hardly matters whether this scenario is accurate; Erickson could, and arguably does, add such “visual segues” to anything he paints and wants to lend a frame, not just externally but internally, with details from his specific living and working conditions. Indeed, it was a title given to a landscape, “Impression: Sunrise” by Monet, exactly 150 years ago, that lent its name to Impressionism. Why, then, couldn’t the title of a piece here lend itself to this innovation? That title is “Atelier,” and with its connotation not just of the place where art is executed, but the entire studio space, equipment, and all that contributes to the work of the artist, it is surely the right title for the painting it adorns, and perhaps as well for art that contains similar evidence not just of its subject matter, but for the creative environment that nurtured both the work and the artist who made it.
This show at Phillips may be the largest public exhibition of Erickson’s work yet shown, close to 40 paintings, though it’s hard to be precise even for the artist and the gallery, which reveals its origins in a community of working artists by arranging surplus works on the floor along the wall, or propping them up wherever eager viewers can find them in order to expand its display space. Smaller shows have focused on these recent, phantasmagoric works, most of which place figures and fixtures ambiguously inside or outside of buildings, but in this show are figures and portraits showing the influence of other Modern approaches that Erickson has made his own. For instance, “Rosa” and “Chocolate Labrador” are neither cubism nor collage, though they owe, and bring, something to both. They look more like steps on the way to the anatomy, call it make-believe or composite, perhaps, displayed in the artists’ bodies in “Atelier.” Examples such as these abound throughout the collection, but it would be a challenge to find two works that depend entirely on the same such devices. Erickson, in fact, seems to possess his own personalized set of modern painter’s tools, and draws as he will from that toolbox to capture what is frequently an initially baffling image, but one that ends up combining everything he shows us with everything else in our visual memories, so that in the end we realize, if we’re paying attention, what a wealth of remembered visual treasures we carry within us.
John Erickson, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through July 14