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Interview With Erin

Two Bodies One Mind

Lorin Gallery’s Interview with Erin Milez


Before the interview with Erin Milez, we have sent her several questions through email to set general direction for conversation. She wrote me back two days later, not with answers but with clarification and specification that better explains the context of the interviewing question – the same way that an academia provides long list of reference at the end of a monograph. Erin gives out the impression of an academic-style artist who conducts extensive preliminary research for her painting and imbues her work with substantial mythical references. Unlike the other kind of artists who resort consciousness and spontaneous feelings frequently, Erin is more meticulous, more intentional, more willing to see her paintings as a work of thinking, designing and experimenting that finally manages to bring out the spontaneous feeling. Chance, arbitrariness, are on the opposite side of her. 


But the way she talks, the atmosphere she gives out, feels much lighter when we finally see her in person. She speaks joyfully and is very eloquent. With the excitement of a young artist, she walks people through her paintings and introduces her method which makes the hard work behind each painting feel easy and natural. The interview day was a windy sunny day in the Los Angeles early spring. Erin comfortably nestled herself into the rattan seat at a corner café, slightly disturbed by the expectation to be interviewed.


Luxi: Where should we start? Probably the most neutral question that can use art history as a pretext? In our previous email correspondence, you have mentioned some artists that have influenced you. Though artistic reference is always a tricky question since some of them can be self-conscious homage whereas others are unconscious, subliminal, it will still be interesting to know how would you trace your own artistic genealogy in relationship to the artists that have influenced you significantly?


Erin: The artists that I look at for inspiration change over times. Most recently Stanley Spencer has been my favorite painter to look at, an obscure artist, not by any means the popular type. He is very wild with the ways he draws human body to the extent that it can be slightly off-putting sometimes. I draw inspiration from him in terms of manipulating body proportions, features and perspective, and his wildness has pushed me to go further than I would have painted. Content-wise, he also gives me some rough direction. There is a kind of divinity in his painting, which probably has something to do with him becoming a religious fanatic later in life. His later works have also become a re-interpretation of the Bible stories in an English context. I like that his work makes the significance of religion more tangible and less theoretical.


I have a little folder on my phone for the paintings I look at, and within it there’s also George Tooker, a New York painter from a slightly later era than Stanley Spencer. His painting plays with the uncanny, bureaucratic atmosphere by having the repetition of the same figure, the same toll booth, the same person sitting behind the desk. The repetition gradually grows very creepy, and the portrayal of the drudgery becomes a critique of modern society. I pulled in some of his methods in dealing with the figuration, as also from works of the WPA era. The batch of murals commissioned by the US government during the depression has been a good source for me to feel of the daily life—the laboring out, the bureaucracy, the construction field. The other major influence for me is the social realist painters like Millet and early Van Gogh works that focus on workers, along with the visually compelling Gauguin. 


Luxi: It’s interesting that you have mentioned the social realist group and visual reinterpretation of Biblical stories. In your own introduction to the exhibition, you have emphasized that your portrayal of the couple has inherited the social realist notion of “couple as laborers” that has an agricultural, classical origin. Are these two sources for content also a source of themes for you?


Erin: Yes, and considering that I was raised up very Christian, it might also be a natural reflection of where I came from. The way I was educated to understand the Bible was more about honoring the ordinary people—the people who are committed to the daily, exhausting labors. And according to  my own experience and understanding, parents clearly belong to this kind of laborers. Compared with a century ago, more attention has been given to the necessary labors that go into parenthood, but that is not enough. Sometimes we still habitually forget how much work and laboring it takes to be a parent. I hope that my painting can be a reminder, an honoring of the fact.


Luxi: No matter it is couple-hood in the sense of two partners or couple-hood in the sense of new parents with the indicated presence of a child, at the very core, your painting participates in the discussion about relationship. But on this topic, compared with the concurrent discussion, your painting seems to have gone a completely different direction. In a very classical way, your work affirms the significance of human bonding and speaks about the tranquil happiness that comes along with having and maintaining the bonding. How would you understand your own perspective within this context?


Erin: For this particular show, it is within the configuration of a marriage, but that’s probably because I have brought in my own life. In our modern context, I only see it as a specific expression out of the multiple, ever-changing forms it can take. It is about finding the form of relationship that really works for you and going along with it, whether it is a marriage, an open relationship, or any other form of human bonding.


With that being said, the marriage in my painting is not traditional in the sense of 1950s. They are different but egalitarian individuals. By portraying their faces and body languages, I aim at a symmetry, a paralleling and a pairing between the two figures. Meanwhile, their differences will not dissolve. They still maintain their significantly different perspectives of life and collide very frequently in daily scenarios. In collision and confrontation, the individuality of each part stands out most clearly to you. A couple started with functioning very seamlessly like a duet in a flow, and when things cease to be so smooth, at the very moment, out of a sudden you start to be conscious of each other more, more of their action. When translated into paintings, I sometimes do it very subtly with their finger movements and to distinguish their body movements.


Back to the dancing metaphor, it takes the different movements of two individual dancers to make a perfect duet partner, and that’s what I am trying to find a balance in my own painting. In interpretation, it depends on what movement would you ascribe to the colliding moment – it can be viewed as a moment of merging, or a moment of splitting, of being born anew out of a whole. Different interpretations can co-exist simultaneously, and that’s what I have found fascinating with relationship. 


Luxi: You have mentioned that the Greek mythological figure Janus has been an important initial source for you regarding the portrayal of duality. What’s special about Janus? And how do you think it differs from other symbols about duality such as the dual-body in Symposium, the Yin-and-yang?


Erin: What’s so special about the face of Janus is that it can be viewed from different perspectives. When you look at the face right from the front, he is the symbol of duality. And you can also interpret him from either right or left, and viewed from this perspective, he becomes a symbol of transition, of the changing process from one face to the other. Janus is the god of doorway: doorway as a transition, doorway in the domestic environment. Traditionally, people think of Janus as having a split personality, and when one mind is turned off, the other will automatically be on. I do not want his symbol to be much about switching back and forward, but more about how the two different minds merge together. 


Luxi: On your social media, you have shared the preparatory process before a large-scale painting. It was first a collection of small sketches, different experiment with the colors till it felt right, and many of them came from scenes in your real life. I guess there’s always a question for artists whose works are closely related to their own life – Will there ever be a fear of overthinking?


In order to turn a real-life scene into a fictional painting, you will have to constantly sense the moment in real life, to contemplate on it, which makes the boundary between life and art very thin. And for you, in particular, if your working space is also very physically close to your living space, will there be a fear of erosion, of art taking over life?


Erin: Luckily, at this moment, I haven’t found overthinking to be much of a problem. Quite the contrary, to be able to think about the moment has given me more tranquility when I am actually parenting or interacting with my husband. If it wasn’t for the time that I can stand in front of a canvas and creating the painting, the mundaneness and repetitive chores of parenting would have become overwhelming. It would feel exhausting and trivial. It’s about thinking about life rather than overthinking about life.


Painting has provided a parallel, alternative space for me, and this allows me to come to peace with the uncontrollable part in both my life and my work. When I am painting I go into the kind of cocoon composed of my materials, and I stay there in my meditative zone. So far I have been in this state for a year, and I am shocked how many works I have created within a year. I am not sure whether it is sustainable in the long term to create the same amount of work I have painted this year, but it is very empowering to see how much I could make meanwhile raising my daughter and maintaining a good relationship.


Luxi: As from works from this exhibition, we can only see an indicated presence of the baby. Does it mean that in your current theme and method, the baby has not yet reached a maturity that it can have an artistic expression? Or will it always remain this way, the baby being an implicit reference?


Erin: Yes, not yet. From the “Two Bodies One Mind” show, the closest I have got is with The Birthers Are the Birthed where the couples are holding the legs of the baby descending from the ceiling. But in this case, the baby is more like an archetypal baby instead of a specific baby, nor like my daughter. The birth of the baby actually gives birth to the role of parents as parents. They are not just couples anymore, and it is a brand-new identity to them. This piece is also the one in which I feel the least personal with the way I use the baby. And in the rest of the paintings, it’s just objects hinting at the baby’s presence. I guess this is my next biggest question for myself: how and when will the baby come into the painting, and I don’t have an answer for that yet.


Luxi: The question can also go into the opposite direction – will you have any reluctance to have the baby in your artistic creation? We too frequently see in real life that after the birth of a child, parent becomes the primary identity, and this is especially so for women when first and foremost they are considered as a mother. In a family, parenthood becomes the primary meaning for couple-hood, and the rest is at the risk of being engulfed by the umbrella term of parents. Will you resist introducing the child motif in your painting so as to counterbalance the trend?


Erin: I think this is what I haven’t been able to figure out. In real life and in paintings too whenever there are kids, they automatically become the center of the piece. But what’s also in my mind is that the depiction of child can very quickly become cliché and chaotic. I haven’t figured out a way to genuinely include a child in my painting, and as I move forward to the next phase of my painting, I will have to look more at other people’s painting where there is a kid to see how they balance the gravity of a painting.


I also think you are bringing up a very good point about how labels can be very overwhelming. I was very nervous about becoming a mom; I would worry that when people learn I am a mother, will they assume certain things of my life? Will it overshadow my other identities? But identities are all intersectional: being a mom is as important as being a partner to someone else, as important as being an artist. Finding ways to make parenthood not as an umbrella label will also be an important direction for me to explore.

Text credit: Luxi He

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