Paris White: The Language Paintings of Enn Erisalu
Trench Contemporary Art sits on the edge of Gastown near Main Street and occupies a narrow space formerly inhabited by the Helen Pitt Gallery. Owner/Director Craig Sibley opened Trench’s doors in October, 2010, and has quietly been building a roster of local artists including those from Vancouver’s recent history like abstract painter Ron Stonier, as well as senior contemporary practioners such as Glenn Lewis, David Mayrs, and Vincent Trasov, creating a much needed venue for these important and interesting voices to be heard. Trench’s summer group show, Monomania, featured a floor-to-ceiling installation of paintings and some small sculptures by an eclectic mash up of artists – it was a visual cornucopia. Sibley’s latest exhibition is a solo show of language paintings by Enn Erisalu that challenges the divide between image and text.
Erisalu was born in Estonia in 1943 and settled with his family in Vancouver in 1951. He worked prolifically as a painter from the mid-1960s when he began creating abstractions and later, from around 1990, text-based works. He passed away in 2005. The paintings on view at Trench contain mostly monochromatic backgrounds demonstrating Erisalu’s deft handling of paint with thin washes of colour, faintly layered surfaces, and drippy treatments calling attention to the flatness of the picture plane. He used these subtly painterly canvases as backdrops for his inventive but deceptively simple texts in an eerily neutral and dispassionate font – one of his own creation. Often referencing the canvas itself, the works spell out the subject at hand rather than depicting it, conflating the linguistic with the pictorial. Looking at PARIS WHITE, IRON RED and IRON BLACK, all three of which are inscribed with their titles, one wonders whether you first see the colour of the canvas or the text describing it. While recognizing imagery and colour is often instantaneous, Erisalu’s work demonstrates that reading is chronological and cumulative, a divide he exploits to interesting advantage. A work titled TH IS IT contains most of these letters in the painting, alluding to the saying ‘this is it’ – everyone’s narrative impulse is to combine the letters to form this phrase. In 6ix, the number stands in for the letter, MIRROR has its name inverted as its reflection and AGNOSTIC AESTHETIC has the two words layered on top of one another so that they compete for visual prominence – as the viewer you can hardly decide which word you are reading at any given moment as the letters dominate one another then recede.
Erisalu’s paintings benefit from the critical mass gathered at Trench. The more you look at them and the more of them you look at, the more it becomes clear that the decisions he has made and tricks he has played with colour, repetition and composition ask the viewer to consider how they are experiencing what it is that they see. In making sense of the paintings, one deliberates how we perceive and process colour, images and language, and combine disparate and sometimes competing elements to create meaning and ultimately, understanding.