On the final weekend of this year’s Austin Studio Tour I meet with the artist Erin Curtis at her current solo exhibition “Trapdoor” at MASS Gallery. Before visiting hours officially kick off, she arrives to install the large, canvas door hanging she has painted and strung with decorative strands of beads and braided, multi-colored parachute cord. The colorful double-sided curtain welcomes viewers into (and out of) her exhibition of 11 densely patterned, large paintings on canvas and small paintings on paper.
“I really like this space a lot,” she says. “This is some kind of store front. You wander in, and say to yourself, ‘I had no idea this place was there.’ It’s kind of funky, too.”
Curtis was a founding member of MASS in 2006 when she was an MFA student at the University of Texas at Austin. The gallery has occupied two different brick-and-mortar locations since then, and Erin has lived and worked as an artist as a Fulbright scholar in India and then in Washington, D.C., before making her way back to Austin’s east side.
The rolled-up canvas that she hoists above the gallery door is not one of the works listed on the exhibition checklist. But as she unfurls one section at a time, I can see it resembles them. It is hand-painted all over in narrow stripes, and the artist has cut repeated geometric motifs into its surface. That layer and its cutouts have been superimposed onto another striped canvas surface. Abutting areas of staggered patterns suggest visual movement. Where figures are visible — for instance where crescent moons appear — shape and surface are literally embedded in one another.
Similarly, in the painting “Two Moons” (2021), jewel-toned surfaces and appliqués in canvas overlay a base-layer of black and white stripes, glimpsed in columns of repeated chevron-shaped lacunae. Around the perimeter of each apparent black-and-white chevron there is a blobby outline of either maroon or orange paint. That outline makes its interior shape pop forward visually. You could even imagine that the artist has glued each chevron upon the face of the painting, allowing hot orange and dark red glue to congeal along each edge. In fact, Curtis achieves that outline by flipping the fully cut and painted top layer of canvas around and painting its backside, allowing paint to bleed along the edge of each gap to the front.
Unlike the wall-mounted, rectangular paintings of the exhibition, outside Curtis’ free-hanging curtain flaps and dangles into the viewer’s space and permits their touch. This piece of drapery, patterned fabric hung over a doorway, occupies an ontological status between “art as Art” and craft as decoration. It shares its title “Trapdoor” with the name of the exhibition, and like a trapdoor, it occupies a liminal space: between the contents of the gallery and the rest of the world — and between “acrylic on canvas” and functional textile.
The density of pattern and color in Curtis’ paintings, like her choice to decorate the spaces around her work, is a sign of her generosity toward her viewer. Every square millimeter of her paintings registers a moment of her own attention, a moment of care that she anticipates her viewer discovering.
She elaborates with an example: “It’s almost like you’re thrifting and you find this really nice jacket, and then you’re like, ‘Wow, the lining is beautiful.’”
I equate this maximalist tendency of hers with generosity.
“That’s the best possible interpretation,” she responds. “And at worst, it’s a compulsion.”
The previous day, I had visited Curtis’ home studio, where she shared plans with me for her current project-in-progress, a large-scale commission to create new art for the planned University Health Women’s and Children’s Hospital in San Antonio, due to open in 2023.
Provisionally titled “Painted Courtyards, In Bloom,” the project provides an aesthetic program for the elevator and lobby spaces on each of the hospital’s 12 floors. The title refers to the floral and vegetal motifs that predominate her proposed imagery. She chose courtyards as a guiding theme because, she says, “I want the work to have this inside-outside feel, to have some references to architecture and design, but also a feeling of growth and nature.”
Though she had tidied up and whitewashed her studio walls, the space still showed traces of the new paintings in “Trapdoor.” Its stained floors attest to her athletic use of paint, as do the many stacked containers of her own mixes of acrylic colors. Incisions in the walls recall the labor-intensive way that she cuts her canvases before stretching them, tacking them up and carving them line-by-line with an X-acto knife.
Some of the parameters of the “Painted Courtyards” commission have required Erin to re-channel her usual creative impulses: for instance, she is restricted in her use of red, black, and other dark colors. And her physical touch — the characteristic tactility of her paintings — will not play as large a part in the final installation, where digital scans of her designs will be printed on ceramic-coated steel panels covering 10-foot tall walls.
Curtis, whose resume boasts 12 public and commissioned works in the past eight years, welcomes the challenge: “I like this idea of: What are the constraints? How can I use those constraints to make the work more interesting?”
She related to me a revelation she made early in her post-academic career. The kinds of questions she asks herself about her work have shifted: “In school, you’re always asking: how am I going to justify this?”
Now she’s more likely to ask herself, “What am I making, what am I putting out in the world?” She adds, “It’s always different when I’m working on a commission, or working on art that is fulfilling a purpose, too. I do like thinking about that with art: what is this thing doing; what is it giving?”
“Trapdoor” continues through Dec. 4 at MASS Gallery, 707 Gunther St. massgallery.org/exhibitions#/trapdoor