Contributed by Cody Tumblin / Before I start talking about Paul Erschen’s work, I’d like to talk about mud. Imagine a muggy summer afternoon near the lake and the warm stench of sticky wet mud riding off the wind. As you step down into this supremely gooey substance, there is squelching and squishing, and thick brown goop pushes out from and around your shoe – bubbles, twigs, and leaves being squeezed and flattened between you and the earth. As you step forward and out of the mud, the creases, cracks and ridges of your sole are – for only a moment or two – impressed on its surface until suddenly these ghostly architectures soften and return to liquid.
Paul Erschen’s work admittedly has little to do with mud at all, but is very much involved in the impression and memory of objects and the residual traces they leave behind. While his sculptures more directly mimic and combine every day objects — hyrdrostone, cement, and ceramic forms cast from film reel cans, rubber truck bumpers, ration crackers, etc. — his paintings and prints (and the drawings that lay the foundations) subtly suggest these objects and chase after them, often ending up as a mixture of unresolved parts.
In Erschen’s paintings, we see sprawling lines and flat areas of color that press up against a thing that was once there, an invisible object. Bright pastels, nearly neutral peaches, yellows, and medical-grade blues surround and embrace negative spaces and unseen edges. We might find an abstract contour of a semi-circle with rough serrated edges resting against a flat Pepto-Bismol pink square whose translucent skin reveals the skeleton of another outlined form beneath it. The forms in Erschen’s paintings feel like remnants of logotypes and industrial forms that have broken down, softened, and decayed into organic abstractions. Their sun-faded colors and geometric forms have a utilitarian subtlety that echoes the formal concerns of his cast sculptures.
When talking to Erschen on the phone about his work, we discussed the architecture of his paintings and how, at some foundational level, each image is rooted in a drawing (or really a host of layered drawings). Although each drawing typically starts off on a very small scale (a post-it note or a memo pad), it is soon enlarged, photographed, printed, projected onto a wall and remade, churned through a myriad of regurgitative cogs so that an array of possible translations are produced: shells, skins, sketched fragments, shadows, and silhouettes. Multiples of each form are eventually screenprinted into varying arrangements on paper, rotated and adjusted with each layer and ink color, their frictions left more to chance than tightly calibrated placement.
Erschen recently debuted a new body of paintings in a solo show at Devening Projects in Chicago that features poplar slats, painted and nailed to canvas-stretched panels. At a distance, these paintings look like reductive drawings made of perfectly straight, fragmented gestures that form subtle curves and architectures. Sometimes, the painted slats of wood flicker in and out of the surface with a patterned frequency of alternating hues. In other paintings, they stand out as a series of mechanical silhouettes, starkly painted in contrast to a flat and neutral ground underneath. Their surfaces are painted sparsely with wide sweeping gestures of paint that feel quick and resolute, almost performative. In general, these paintings feel much more elegantly choreographed than Erschen’s previous bodies of work. Their broken contour forms are rhythmic, yet they join together delicately, nearly dancing around and pressing up against a half remembered form.
Historically, painting has served as a tool for revisiting and remembering, or at times allowed us to chase after the fleeting ghosts left behind from a place, person, or feeling. Erschen’s paintings seem to describe the shape of a memory, drifting somewhere between the figurative and the unfamiliar. When we revisit that certain sunset, doorway, or cast shadow in our mind from years ago, we recall its form again and again, until the shape deteriorates or is reconfigured. Perhaps these painted forms trace the edges of a memory whose warmth still lingers.
“Paul Eschens: Fandy,” Devening Projects, Chicago, IL. Spring 2020.
About the author: Cody Tumblin (b. 1991 Nashville, TN) is a painter, cook, and occasional writer who lives and works in Chicago, IL. IN 2020, Tumblin was selected a NewCity Breakout Artist and has an upcoming solo show at HG Inn in Chicago in the fall.