Erica Mendritzki is finishing her MFA at the University of Guelph, Ontario. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholarship. Her work has been exhibited in Canada, Germany and the UK. I spoke to her over gchat about her thesis project, a suite of four paintings titled “On Posing,” which I learned about when she presented them recently at a weekend of artist’s talks hosted by the Blackwood Gallery at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. – Sheila Heti

THE BELIEVER: First of all, what are we seeing here?

ERICA MENDRITZKI: These are four paintings that started with the idea of making a picture of a photographer’s backdrop—the kind you might find in a yearbook photo, or in a family portrait taken at Sears.

BLVR: How did the idea come to you?

EM: I honestly don’t know—as an idea, it suddenly appeared, I think while I was eating lunch at school! I remember asking my friend if she thought it sounded like it was a good idea, and she said, “yes? I don’t know?” which was basically good enough for me.

BLVR: What did you ask her? “Should I make pictures of backdrops?”

EM: Yes. I think I said, “What if I made a painting of a backdrop, like in a yearbook photo?” I was attracted to the idea that it would look like an abstract painting, but that it would sort of secretly be depicting something. At first there was just one of them.

BLVR: How did there come to be four?

EM: I made the first one, but I wasn’t totally happy with how it turned out, so then I made another one, and I liked how the two of them interacted. But they were different sizes, and both were too small, so I decided to make four more that were a little larger. Four seemed like the right number—it’s so stable. Two becomes about doubling; three is hierarchical; but four is just enough to suggest “many” or “multiple.”

BLVR: And the blue… do backdrops tend to be blue?

EM: They come in lots of colours, but blue is probably the most common… or at least it was when I was getting school pictures taken! I think that this particular kind of backdrop is starting to become nostalgic. From what I can tell, studio photographers now tend to favour solid black or white in the background, rather than the mottled effect of the hand-painted blue that I’m referencing. But that kind of backdrop isn’t totally obsolete yet—I still see it turning up occasionally when some of my friends post professional family portraits on Facebook.

BLVR: Do you get a feeling of familiarity or possessiveness or kinship when you see those photos posted?

EM: Yes… almost like the feeling I would have if I used to work as a school photographer. It’s part nostalgia, part professional interest; I pay a lot of attention to exactly how mottled the backdrop is, whether there is any creasing, whether there is a halo effect, exactly what the shade the blue is. Most backdrops are kind of beautiful and kind of dreadful. I think my paintings are beautiful, but I was prepared to go through with them even if they didn’t end up being beautiful. The beauty is almost an accident.

BLVR: Did you model your paintings on specific backdrops that you gathered for research?

EM: I did a little Googling, but the model is really my own mental picture of a backdrop, based on school photos. I didn’t have a specific source on hand as I was painting them—I worked towards a mental picture, I guess.

BLVR: Did you reach it?

EM: Yes, I think so. They do look like backdrops, to me, and I’ve taken photos of friends in front of them, just for fun, and they’re pretty effective as backdrops! They can totally pass as the real thing. But how an image exists in the mind and in the world is never quite the same. The physical presence of the paintings makes its own kinds of assertions, and influences space in a way that you can’t quite predict in advance.

BLVR: What would be the ideal reaction to these paintings?

EM: I think it would be for someone to enter a space and look at the work and think of them first as abstract paintings, but then have someone else walk in front of them and have a kind of “aha!” moment where they see the paintings turn into backdrops. I’m interested in the questions, ‘Are they abstract paintings, posing as pictures of a backdrop? Are they pictures of backdrops, posing as the real thing? Or are they actual backdrops, posing as abstract paintings?’

BLVR: Those were the questions that excited me, too! You mentioned the “muse” in your talk last weekend. Do you believe in the idea of the “muse”?

EM: I guess I do, in a very loose sense. I think of it as operating in the realm of aesthetics in a way that’s somewhat parallel to how your conscience functions in relation to ethical decisions–it’s part of you, but it is also informed by culture, by your upbringing, and I think in practice it feels almost like an external judge to whom you can privately turn and say, “What if I do this? Or this? Which is better? What is the right thing?” Then it also sometimes spontaneously grants you ideas, like the idea of painting a backdrop that appeared to come out of nowhere. You can also look towards it for the sense of tone when you’re creating something—is the tone right, does it need to be harsher, smoother, crasser, whatever. I used to be suspicious of making work that was too grand or minimal or pure—the first backdrop that I made had these weird patches on it that I put in to try to subvert the simplicity of the image. But the paintings seemed to desire that simplicity, that minimalism. Now that I’ve broken my taboo against minimal elegance, I’m finding that I kind of don’t know what to do in the studio. I think that every time you re-invent yourself as an artist, even in a minor way, it’s both liberating but also strangely paralyzing, because you have to re-learn how to be this new kind of artist.

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