Where's the frame
November 15, 2023 5:42 PM
Flowing soft edges that are as fluid-like as dyes diffuse in water in bold colours, Loren Erdrich gets this unique visual formal quality by using unexpected materials. wtf? Had the pleasure of visiting Loren in her studio in New York to talk about her unusual technique.
Loren shared insights into her unconventional process, revealing that she begins each painting directly on the floor using muslin, a cotton fabric commonly used in dressmaking, as the support medium. The piece of muslin is laid on top of a old drop cloth and is saturated with water. Then, using dyes and pigments, she starts to dye the fabric while it absorbs some of the colours of past paintings from the drop cloth. Working this way, it’s hard to control the outcome of the shapes and colours, which is intentional. As Loren explains, 'I am always instituting movements that are little checks in my process that keep me from being able to exert full control.'
In describing her approach, Loren compares this part of the process with an underpainting in traditional oil painting. Similar to an oil painter's preliminary layer that maps out lights, darks, shapes, and figures, Loren's initial colours and shapes serve as a foundation that guides her to the final outcome. This relinquishing of control and embracing the unexpected becomes an integral part of shaping the direction of her artwork.
But again, an element of unpredictability extends beyond her control. Some of the pigment or muslin will colour differently in the wrinkles of the surface. Using her fingers or nails to make the marks, the dyes and pigment will react to the different touches. She can guide it to a certain wanted outcome but needs to constantly accept that it might go differently.
When this part is finished, she will stretch the muslin on stretcher bars, which will tighten the surface, and continue to create different layers on top of it. At this stage, the work is still very much wet, so she continues to work on it on the floor, adding powdered dyes and pigments.
With this technique, she usually doesn’t start with a composition in mind. ‘I might think, I think I'll do a big face or have arms outstretched in some way. So I might have a small idea. But in reality, what I find is that if I go in with a distinct idea, the paintings to me don't work as well.’ It also means she can’t do the same painting twice. Not because she doesn’t want to, but because there is no way to exactly repeat the process. ‘Each painting is the confluence of thousands of small events that occur during the painting process plus environmental factors, plus everything that happened prior, plus a bit of magic.”’
At any stage of the process, it’s difficult to make significant changes or retouch areas once the dye has been applied. ‘It’s a forward process I'm always adding. With this kind of fabric and these materials, you can't actually go backward.’ She can lighten certain areas with decolourant, but you can never go fully back to a white surface.
There is beauty in this interconnection between the different layers, but also the physical and conceptual connections between the works. Loren draws a parallel with the concept of a palimpsest, a manuscript from which the original writing has been erased or scraped off but still visible, making it possible to reuse the material for another document. In a similar way, layers of different works carry traces of past paintings and will be part of future paintings.
You can recognise a certain kind of freedom in this. The work is being created in a state of acceptance. ‘It teaches me to continually let go, I can never totally grip onto anything or totally control it, which is freeing.’