Erika Mahr is a very grounded abstract minimalist artist that incorporates drawings and sculptural elements that is worth meeting.
She recently had another solo exhibition of her ongoing series Paper Folds in one of LAUNCHF18 's viewing rooms where she presents monochromatic works on paper with 2D and 3D designs (they were on view from October 29 - January 2, 2021.)
Her work is multidimensional. She handles her “paper folds” with delicateness and at the same time “plays” with their density and weight. She adds precision, wit and humor to her work. She is not intimidated by the paper's ephemeral features and fragility; instead she paints them and molds them into layers and somehow embraces their “human imperfections.”
Erika is also known for her graphite drawings as well as her paper sculptures and other acrylic abstract paintings. Her work is certainly a contribution to the large art tapestry coming from New York.
Born on Long Island, Erika rises to the challenges of being a women in the New York art scene. She proves that woman artists can be moms, full time art teacher - highly appreciated by her students - and established studio artist showing her work in art galleries in NYC.
She currently lives and works in the Hudson Valley. Nevertheless.us interviewed her via zoom.
Q. Tell us about your latest exhibition "paper folds" with LaunchF18? - Is it a continuation of your previous ones?
Erika Mahr. The work right now is in a viewing room through the Gallery LaunchF18 who I’ve been working with for a number of years. They have a small space in Tribeca and now they’re doing a number of things on their website. Doing a lot of viewing rooms especially during the pandemic which is great. So the works I have in there are actually from 2016 and they’re from a series called” paper folds”. The paper on them is paper you use when you have portrait done of you when someone does a black silhouette cut out.
It is painted paper that is very very thin infinite white, and then painted it black so it is really delicate paper. It is then just folded paper on white bristle board that has just a single rectangle drawn as the parameters in pencil. So this series was in transition.
From a large body […] around 50 to 60 inches large and they were really time consuming taking months and months to make until i felt I came to the end of those. I used that time to focus on what I was really was looking for. I was experimenting with materials again and looking for my next thing, kind of like a thread to pull on. I was looking for a new way of working because at that time I had been working at my full time job at Westchester Community College teaching for a couple of years. I was really having trouble navigating that studio practice and this full time job and so I was looking for multiple ways of working (not one large one time consuming body of work). It was taking me months, sometimes up to 6 month to complete one drawing so it didn’t feel sustainable. With the paper folds it was much more immediate, It is not like the final piece is the first thing but I can do these little sketches with newsprints just by folding some paper and taping it down with some glue paint or tape.
And they’re really a call back to an earlier series called “Geometric Narratives” where there are stacks of papers so instead of folding I would cut a shape out of them. And then It would create an actual 3 dimensional space within the cavity which is also very time consuming so with the paper folds I was still thinking of this system of logic that I was using for these earlier works. In these works there’ll be a tiny shift in the material but instead of creating a three dimensional space I wanted to play with the illusion of 3 dimension so the Graphite rectangle kind of just sets up the parameter. And gives the illusion of that flat picture plane but also gives the black paper and area to them move off of and as soon as the paper moves off of it starts to be an overlap and an element of space is automatically introduced. So I became really interested in how just a small shift of a fold of the paper in comparison to that rectangle could create the illusion of actually quite a bit of depth and space.”
And there’s a bit of a comic relief not like “haha joke” to them, but for me that quite playful where they feel they’re slipping and sliding a little bit
Q. You use paper folds so magically, does the material you use hold a specific meaning or value for you, please tell us your story with these ephemeral and fluid materials. Are you influenced by some of the artists like Sol Lewitt ..
Erika Mahr. Paper is just so ephemeral it is not permanent and it can tear really easily. With temperature shift it grows or it shrinks. It wrinkles and flattens out. So I am drawn to that and it feels very personal, it is very living which is the complete opposite almost to the way I deal with the material. I want to control it. I like cement blocks, things that are really hard and concrete. I really love logical thinking. I am not a dreamer in that sense. Everything is grounded in reality, so the paper is the antithesis to that and I really enjoy the struggle and wrestle with having to control it. And in the end I never can completely get it as perfect as I want. I feel like the best part of my work lies in those little moments where maybe something happens to the paper or maybe this little bit of black paint on the paper kind of slips off and just adds a sense of humanity to the work that I think i would strangle out of it if i didn’t have a material like paper. It is interesting you bring up Sol Lewitt, his work is one of my early loves. What’s interesting is that I am really drawn to the actual initial schematics he makes like the rules at Dia Beacon when they had the drawings there. They had that big graphite grid and right when you walk in you see the schematic, the little diagram that shows you how to make it and that’s what I am drawn to : the actual diagram. So like in Dan Flavin's work he does these neon the rose of lights which i don’t really respond to but when I see his drawings and his schematic for them I just love them. Because I think it shows his thinking process in a really raw form and the graph paper that it is on. It also brings humanity to the work that they’re sometimes trying to take out of the work.
Q. Is there a specific message you would like to convey or is it art for art?
Erika Mahr. I would like that this series there is not one emotive thing I’m working towards. It's like those black charcoal drawings or the works behind me. For those they are really more ..like a logic play. Like a smirk on your face. When you're sitting down and you have a moment to play a sudoku game .. is what i'm looking for ...they're more personal pieces in a way...they're really for pleasure like a feeling of pleasure following through that thinking of logic.
Q. You exhibited online do you think it is not giving a fair viewing to appreciate the work, the paint, the texture?
How did you handle the difficulties artists are facing during the pandemic to survive? Do you think it was a good thing or bad for your creativity and production process?
Erika Mahr. Pre-covid I think we were relying on the internet. And the internet for art work especially drawing is this kind of give and take. So the give is that so many people are seeing your work and you get to see so many other works that you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. Your website can go to Beirut and also be in New York so my work can be in both places where it wouldn’t be otherwise and so of course it’s a benefit.
Taking photographs to document drawings, I think that’s one of the hardest mediums to capture and when you make black work especially it is pretty impossible to photograph. So these paper folds I would love to get them scanned one day. I think it would be the best way to recapture them. Yeah it is really tricky to show the material and the image at the same time. To capture both of those is pretty impossible. So yeah it is not quite fair for the work but also helps champion the work.
And with covid it is interesting. Covid has done the same for art work in both beneficial and not. It is not, well - as a working mother artist, I think --covid is pretty impossible to be able to sustain the same amount of time towards the practice. but it is also interesting to see how it shifts and changes my thinking of the work. But overall it’s been interesting to see how artists and maybe more also Galleries, how they’ve been forced to use the internet to do more viewing rooms. I think more artists are actually getting a chance. It is easier to take a risk on an artist online because it does not cost as much as a solo exhibition. I think it’s been encouraging some more conversations and some more free artist talks, some interviews and panel discussions for people to be able to see. I think it has become more inclusive in a way. The viewer is included more. I think more people have access to art that wouldn’t have otherwise and that’s been great!
Q. We notice that you use a lot of gray, white, black in your work; do you have a preference for these colors? Do you dislike other colors?
Erika Mahr. It seems like I would hate color. I love teaching color and I love a good painting with color. I love picking colors apart, how different artists use colors differently and respond to color differently in the world, I really love that. When I think of my own work. I very rarely have used colors since Grad school. I went on an artist residency in Joshua Tree. It was the first series post undergraduate that I had where I colored but it was muted and it was because I was responding to the landscape. It was really interesting and kind of weird but I never posted that work. But I tend to in most of my work. Not every time but often I can fully realize the image in my head when I am kind working with the material experimenting with them getting close to fine tuning the idea of a series. I start to really visualize the pieces and they’re always in black and white and gray. Never in color. I think if i start using color it has to really have purpose and meaning.
Q. So are these sad feelings because the feelings are dark and neutral? You always work with dark colors black and grays even in your paintings, do you have colors that you prefer and others you avoid? or is that the feelings you want also to depict?
Erika Mahr. It is interesting because color can symbolize an emotion almost in a cliche way almost using just a few colors. So that’s one reason I stay away from it because I have a feeling it can become a symbol of that. But earlier works dealt with voids or feelings of our own humanity kind of our own limitations like these black drawings - black charcoal drawings. Things we are not all proud of as humans but we all have within us. Like greed and desire and those things we kind of cover up. So blackness has this space where it is not void or empty it is full so maybe it is hard to see. I like blackness, something wanting to be uncovered. It is a presence. Lately with motherhood you tend to feel like you’re in this tunnel or this snow storm in your head is what I think of it. So gray works for me, I am starting to put a lot of gray and moving more towards it because I am thinking about that static space where it is quiet and noisy at the same time and it is hard to pinpoint anything down. That’s what I have been thinking about a lot lately. That ‘s where all the gray is coming from right now.
Q. You are a New York born artist and you live here as well? How do you think NY influenced your work? Is it more challenging to become an established artist here or it is hard for artists anywhere?
Erika Mahr. I grew up on Long Island I didn’t want go to an art school in the city. I wanted a liberal arts experience so I went to the University of Florida and then I really wanted to go back to the city and went Hunter College. I lived in New York City for almost 15 years and now I ‘m just one and half hour North of the city so I feel those are different experiences, but New York in general, I can’t help but think of the city and I think of the city more as a force than anything. I don’t want to personify it; but it’s definitely a force that affects everything you do. The way you move in the world is very much determined by the city and how it’s functioning, the set up and how you communicate. There’s some kind of social aspect to it because you’re around people and there’s a lot of opportunities that way.
I would say that it can feel daunting. In Brooklyn at one point there were around 2000 artists alone and that’s just Brooklyn ...it is easy to have a community of artists and good friends who are artists within New York but yeah it's kind of penetrating and you have to feel like your your work is contributing in some way and that sometimes feels really difficult.
Just moving outside of New York (the city) has been really helpful. I still have this community of people but I’m growing my community of artists that have been slowly moving out of the city. I’m living 20 minutes away from Beacon… connected with a Hudson Valley studio group/ women artist group that moved from the city to different parts of the Hudson Valley. There are 12 of us that regularly meet and so during the pandemic we do our meetings on zoom and have either or open or specific discussions, it’s really great. A friend has set it up and it’s been a saving grace, especially during covid. But moving up here I have been able to spread out in a larger area, but I still have a community but i am not within 2000 people in a couple of square miles. And It's easier .. sometimes in the city it’s hard to see outside of it so it’s giving me a new perspective and I'm still trying to figure it out. But New York the city is close enough where it is still the force, it’s still nagging at you to keep pushing.
Q. You’re a mom, a full time teacher and an artist how do you manage all that?
A lot of my thinking right now. I am always thinking about my practice and examining my studio practice and how it has changed and what needs to change and I am definitely at a moment now. A phase where I ‘m reevaluating again trying to recalibrate it to now not just adapting to a full time job and now adapting to a family as well. It’s interesting. I don’t think that happens anymore but when I was an undergraduate there was a real taboo against having children as a woman. Talked a lot about that with my friends over the years as they decided to or not have children. It’s just a challenge for women, wanting your career and also wanting to have the experience of having a child and I think the art world is slowly embracing and wanting to champion mothers. But i still think there's a long way to go and I think this pandemic has really put a spotlight again all the sacrifices women are making not just in the arts but in general and leaving their jobs and taking a step back to do what they need to do. Coz women are awesome and they’ll get back to it
One thing that pandemic has done is that it made me face my fear to be on video. I am one of these people with big camcorders and I always hated being on it. And then being on zoom so much I guess this fear is gone now. (...)
Q. Who are your influencers in art? Do you have a favorite?
There are so many I would say Sol Lewitt would be on that list. Agnes Martin in terms of the experience of work and the viewer’s experience. Jake Berthot for the experience and then artist that I originally looked at and still think about in terms of drawing as an action I really looked to the performance videos those of Marie Cool and then Richard Serra color aid video (https://www.moma.org/collection/works/196429 1971) . I would say that it had a lot of influence on these paper folds. It’s these paper folds and he videoed it from above so you only see a color and then all of a sudden his hand will sneak in and take out the paper and then it’s another color. So you’re thinking shifts back and forth from just being this blank color and then all of a sudden you’re reminded that it’s actually, not just a screen but it is an object so it goes back and forth from that flatness to that physical space.
There are 1,2,3 questions we are trying to ask all of the artists we interview :
- What is art in your life?
It has been shifting and changing so much. Art used to be in my life the reason why I made all the decisions I’ve made. From where I went to school to where I lived and the people I surrounded myself with. The jobs that I would take and now I’m lucky enough to have a tenure position and have a home and home studio and have the things I always wanted and very fortunate. Now with Covid especially then also at the same time have a new family. I am thinking about art and how it functions within my life and I am thinking about it within the household also a lot more. So even thinking about the work I am hanging on my walls is different than what I used to or thinking about how maybe I can possibly use my land that I live on within my art. So thinking about it is much differently; it used to be the reason I did things but now I am looking more for a seamless integration in between my life and living as an artist.
(It was a year past this summer Courtney Puckett and Colin O’con they're artists living home and they started “White rock sculpture center” on their property so they’re doing an annual show and so I was invited to participate in that last year and I was able to call mock up in my yard. Card boards and strings take up space it was amazing) having more space to work and having home space. I always knew I wanted a home space. Studio space was getting so expensive with no windows and no circulation.
2. What is your here and there?
“My here” would be my specific present. The thing in my reality that I interact with on a daily basis and “my there” would be all of the things that I cannot see or attain at the moment because of time or space.
3. What is Nevertheless for you?
I don’t know if I usually use Nevertheless I probably just say “so” but If I ever would use it in a sentence right now I think I would say that things are really hard right now nevertheless I’m trying.
Interview conducted on
Dec 21, 2020 02:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)