Erin Washington: “Useful Knowledge” at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery


Chicago-based artist Erin Washington’s chalkboard-like works have a very strong material allure, though viewing them immediately directs one’s thoughts far beyond the pieces’ physical presence. On the edges of each panel, globs of dried paint reveal the thin layers of tones that were built beneath the matte black grounds, and the surface bears the dusty smudges from marks made and erased as the compositions progressed. Modestly sized, these works on panel are filled with contents that feel grim, deep and encompassing. While there’s no doubt that Washington’s concerns are weighty and poignant, she counters that conceptual heaviness with material lightness: a wallpaper installation of wispy, reflective emergency blankets, and images on panels that are rendered delicately through drawn lines of white chalk.

Washington’s Search for Meaning (2015) features a drawing of Viktor Frankl’s renowned 1946 psychology text, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In Ruin and cosmic dust (2015), the precisely drawn head of a classical-looking sculpture is missing its nose. Three drawings of the artist’s own right hand after the removal of sutures years ago recall the history of medicine and anatomy. Such subject matter depicted with Washington’s chalkboard technique reminds one the stuffy lecture halls of universities-places with one foot in the past and the other in the present. They suggest places where the facts and histories of the heavier sciences are discoursed in only one direction: from the teacher to the pupil. Yet Washington’s works are the furthest thing from didacticism. While the chalkboard works in “Useful Knowledge” do nod to the finite nature of knowledge, they are far more emphatic upon that which is nebulous. The chalkboard is also the epitome of ephemerality: a surface that is intended for practice, false starts, or brainstorming, the space for the lengthy means to an end, as a problem or equation is worked through to its conclusion. The marks upon a chalkboard are the stuff that are not meant to stay, but to be inevitably wiped clean. That Washington’s work depend on preserving these chalk marks emphasizes the methods and practices that take us from uncertainty to certainty.

Ruin and cosmic dust
Erin Washington
Chalk, acrylic, and gouache on panel
34 1⁄2″ x 30″
Photo: courtesy Zolla/Lieberman Gallery