Tuesday, September 17, 1996

Erika Marquardt and Susan Erony: The Same Canvas

Erika Marquardt and Susan Erony:
The Same Canvas

for a Zeitgesit journal

Erika Marquardt and Susan Erony have been working on canvases together for a year, after deliberating on the best way to collaborate. Their work will show at the Zeitgeist Gallery in the fall of 1996

HB: You, Susan, are a Jewish artist; you, Erika, a German. What brings you together incollaboration?

SE: We had both started working in 1989 on themes of World War II, the Holocaust, and the Third Reich. Charles Guliano, the art critic, brought us together to show our work.

EM: It wasn't as if we had been friends who paint more or less the same; that the was the first time we ever met.

SE: I had never thought of collaborating with anyone -- except writers, using their writing in mywork.

HB: Your artistic styles, are different, almost opposite. Susan is restrained; there's a quietness to her style and a limited palette. She draws you in using the tricks of perspective. Your style, Erika, is the opposite -- noisy and colorful,.

SE: So how could we possibly work together? I was totally surprised that our pieces worked in the same space. Maybe it's because they're so opposite. They seemed to complement each other.

EM: That is the strength. Otherwise it wouldn't work for us to paint on the same canvas. If our styles were more or less the same, then collaboration wouldn't make sense; the same artist could do it.

AN: Are you saying Erika's work is more emotional, Harvey?

HB: I think it's more overtly emotional. It's certainly more expressionist, it's got more color. It explodes, whereas Susan's implodes.

Susan's is about absence, about the absence of Jews, not about an experience she remembers as such. The Holocaust didn't happen to her in person. There's some way of evoking disappearance, vanishing, that I think her work accomplishes. Erika's has to do with personal memory of nightmare and trauma in a Berlin being bombed to rubble.

EM: But it could have happened to her! She could be dead. It was Jews who were killed and she, in another time, another place, would have been one of them. So you feel it was you, at the same time, even though you didn't live during this time. But it could have been you.

SE: That's one of the things that got me into being obsessed with the Holocaust. I was sixteen in 1965. Twenty-five years before, if I had been alive in Germany, I probably wouldn't have made it. It made no sense to me.

I still think it has to be different for you to have lived through the experience, and that there's an immediacy you bring to your work I can't possibly bring to mine.

EM: Maybe you have more time to think because it didn't happen to you directly. A loud noise -- it could be a shot, a bomb, a disaster. I don't have time to screen it.

SE: If you hear a firecracker, for a time, emotionally, for you it is a bomb. Whereas I think, what would it have been like if I had been in Auschwitz in the winter and had only rags to wear?

EM: For example, hunger. Today maybe we didn't have breakfast so maybe we are hungry, but it's not the hunger of a person who hasn't eaten enough in two weeks. The word has different meanings.

HB: And that's a hunger you remember.

EM: That is a hunger I remember -- not to have anything to eat. But there are memories you don't have to live through. Susan knows enough about it -- it could have happened to her.

SE: Your understanding of that is wonderful, and maybe that's one of the reasons we work together so well. I spend hours thinking about what you must have felt like as a little girl in Berlin, getting bombed or not having enough to eat.

HB: Erika, how did Jews figure in your mind or in your work before you and Susan began to work together?

EM: I had to defend myself, to come up with my first husband being Jewish and my kids being half-Jewish. I have to defend my kids, too. If something would happen, they would be on the train to Auschwitz. So it's very personal. But we try to separate it out, to say, Jewishness is yours, the bad Nazi, that's me. And maybe it's better to divide it. If I get too deeply into Judaism that isn't really the purpose of why we do what we are doing.

SE: That's really interesting, Erika!

EM: You know, my ex-husband's grandfather was the first rabbi in Vermont. Very interesting. But that doesn't prove my father was not a Nazi. That side is more interesting to bring in what we paint. Susan was really shit-scared to go to Germany and talk to Germans. I think it's very brave to go to the concentration camps and the Krupp steel mills. And people aren't always friendly to Jews now, either.

We had a show in Leipzig last year with some German women. Susan came with her stories of how she felt as a Jew, with her dark solemn colors, her paintings of grave stones and grief -- full of grief that people didn't realize.

SE: We were showing as a unit. It wasn't just me coming in with my art about the Holocaust; it was you coming in with me.

HB: So showing together was the beginning of a collaboration.

SE: I think it was. Being in Germany together was the real beginning -- even more than the show itself it mattered that we were in Germany responding to things in each other's presence.

SE: We were walking in Potsdam.

EM: And Susan said . . .

SE: What do you think of working on the same canvases? And Erika said, "Hmmm, that's a thought. Why not try it?"

HB: There's enough trust so you can talk about where there's still distrust, or difference.

EM: Difference. We had an opening last Thursday at the University of Connecticut. After the show a young man, Jewish, and overwhelmed about what he had seen, talked about how his grandmother was on a death march from Poland, with all the Jews dying. I wanted to talk about my friend Otto, who and writes poetry and is German, and how he had to walk from way up in Poland to Germany. And Susan said, it's not the same.

SE: I said it's not a death march.

EM: And it isn't.

SE: After that I felt terrible in some way. Not because a death march and a forced march away from an advancing army are the same, but because it's not right to negate the fact that Otto was a starving child whose father was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union.

HB: How does the collaboration work?

SE: As Erika said, if our styles were not so different, there might not be a point to our working together. Although one of our goals is to have the different sorts of imagery work together, there's a tension in the paintings that makes the work interesting.

EM: We are happy that we can do it together. When you say, this picture is finished, for example, what does finished mean? Sometimes something really emotional might have happened. So it's not finished in a slick way; it's very disturbing, and maybe one shouldn't leave it like this. Or we say, let's leave it, it really makes a statement. It catches our feelings, what we really want to say.

AN: You both use found objects, too, don't you, letters, for example.

SE: That's one of the things that makes it easy to put together. And there are two rules. Whatever we do is OK. And it's OK to paint on the other's work.

HB: Those rules are a little contradictory.

SE: But both are necessary. I don't know how long it took us before we could touch each other's areas.

AN: To do graffiti on each other's stuff.

HB: But now you are comfortable drawing mustaches on each other's Mona Lisas?

EM: Yes, and it's nice, too, when I get stuck somewhere, that I can say, hey, let Susan deal with it.

HB: Collaborations of this kind are not common. It's unusual to break down the whole business of the individual, the creator, and his or her canvas.

SE: I think of Gilbert and George, the two British artists.

HB: Komar and Melamud.

EM: Basquiat and Warhol, but you can tell exactly who did what.

SE: Klegg and Gutman, who do installations. But my sense is they conceive the work together.

AN: Part of this collaboration has to do with what's going on in the public sphere around this issue, too, all the controversy, the books being written. People get involved when you have a show.

EM: We want to get away from it being just a historical thing -- the Holocaust and fifty years ago. It's also about things going on now.

SE: Because it is so public, so much in contemporary discourse, there are things we struggle with. Is it OK to bring in imagery about something other than World War II and the Holocaust? Can we bring in imagery about Bosnia or Rwanda? Does that dilute what we're doing or do we feel an obligation to do it? There are very different reactions to generalizing the Holocaust.

HB: One danger is that the Holocaust loses its meaning because it's so universalized. The other danger is that it loses meaning because it becomes so special and ghettoized that it doesn't help you understand other acts of genocide .

SE: We look at that conflict in our work.

HB: What do you like most about collaboration?

SE: I've never had so much fun making art in my life. As Erika says, If we get stuck on a piece we don't have to stay with it; we can just give it to the other one. That's an incredible relief.

EM: As an artist you really want to have your own speed and your own space to do whatever you want to do. Then we get together and we trade our canvases. So we have both sides, we're not alone and we are alone.

SE: Erika works so much faster than I do. She's in her studio 6 o'clock every morning. I'm slogging along and finally get started at 2. She's all done for the day, and I'm just starting. Working with her has really pushed me to speed up, and be more spontaneous.

EM: But what you do takes long; it's so fine.

HB: Maybe you're not competitive because you're so different. There's less chance of clashing.

EM: I appreciate Susan for the things I don't have. She really is well read and knows history and art, and I don't really know that stuff. She can explain much better where it comes from for both of us. I feel safe with her, too.

SE: But Erika, you're so much better than I am about getting the work out. Left to my own devices, I would just stay in studio and paint.

EM: Let's go to Zeitgeist today! Does Alan want this or not!

HB: I know something about Susan's work habits -- her pacing the formalism of her painting, the kind of perfectionism that goes into it. What are your work habits like, Erika?

EM: I don't really know, it just comes. The other day when we talked and you said there's a certain humor to what we're doing, that just comes out, too, because we don't plan; we do it. If it doesn't work, too bad. It's intuitive for both of us.

HB: I'm not sure you intend humor but if both of you allow yourselves to disgorge the most horrific imagery, then it's almost like a poker game: OK, I've got five skulls. I'll see you and raise you two dripping large intestines. It's grand guignol, gallows humor. It's peculiar that this serious material curves around to humor. I compare it to the creation of gargoyles, which may have been meant to defend and warn against evil, but have a humorous quality to them. Maybe they were simply terrifying to someone in the 14th century. But for us they're also figures of humor.

SE: Is it OK to poke fun at the sanctification of this history? What does it mean to push the edges of all of the work that's come out about the Holocaust and Nazism, and to push the symbols and images used in those discussions and depictions? I think that's one of the places this work has been taking me. I believe if we can't get away from romanticizing victims and treating the events as holy, then we're in trouble; we'll never get down to the fact that real people are involved, and the issues are complex.

HB: If and when this collaboration is over, can you ever use that imagery again? Aren't you using it up as you use it?

SE: I don't know if we can know that. That may be why we're talking about the images as metaphor at this point, and have no idea where the work will take us.

Even though we allow ourselves complete freedom to paint whatever we want, we also edit a lot. We need to be able to paint over each other's work because we need to edit each other. We always look at the pieces together. When we think the pieces are close to being done, that's when we come together and discuss them. That stage is not spontaneous; we decide how rough to leave the piece.

HB: How do you decide if it's done?

SE: If I look at it and don't have an anxiety attack, it's done.

EM: We edit with our heart and emotions. What is this? It doesn't work, and we both know it. We cannot explain it but we both know.

HB: You have a series of small paintings, crowded with imagery. In the bigger paintings, it seems the collaboration brings out something neither of you could have done alone. I'm not sure that always happens, or even that you want it to. But sometimes it feels like there's a combined sensibility coming through, one mind.

SE: That's probably when we feel the best, when we sense that too. But the little pieces have inspired the big pieces and influenced them a lot.

EM: To be freer.

SE: And richer. It has to do with the amount of stuff we put into them. They were a real breakthrough. We can look at them and figure out where to go with the bigger work. I don't think we could have gotten where we got in the bigger work if we didn't do the little pieces.

HB: Is there a difference in the way you use found objects?

SE: There's one thing I do I can't think of you doing; I use collage objects like paint. I don't use them as much for what they are as to make a surface or an image. I'll tear up paper a lot, or use tiny pieces of burnt paper like mosaics. I don't think you do that, do you? When you use found objects you usually use them for what they are.

EM: Right. Something new happens through them. A different shape appears.

HB: You use bits of the Berlin Wall, yes?

EM: Yes. I started to paint when the Berlin Wall came down. I started to ask, if I lived there, what would my life be like? If the Wall had always been down, I wouldn't have had to come to this country. So I think sometimes what we do too is try to figure that out, layers on layer.

HB: You both use maps, photographs, texts.

EM: Here for instance [displaying a photo of a work], is a letter I found from a German soldier who was in Russia. He writes, "Dear Mom, when you get this letter I'll be dead because everybody will die tomorrow. The war is terrible. I suffer and am unhappy." Susan found another letter.

SE: This is, for me, the most difficult piece I did with Erika, because it is the one where so much anger came out. Erika gave me this piece with a letter from the Russian front by a German soldier and called it "Feldpost," which means letters from the front. This goes back to the topic of incommensurable sufferings. I just could not stand thinking about this German soldier on the Russian front as in a truly horrible situation.

EM: You thought, it serves him right.

SE: I did, and wanted to answer with another letter. I found a letter written by a Polish-Jewish mother who was about to be deported and wrote her last letter to her child.

HB: Do you still do work outside the collaboration?

SE: Not lately.

HB: So my question of how it effects your own work is one you can't answer.

SE: I can actually. My last two pieces, which I finished after Erika and I started collaborating, are the strongest I've ever done. I think work with Erika has loosened me up and given me more courage to put stuff on canvas and not treat it so preciously, and not worry it so much.

Also because Erika's surfaces are so rich-- there's something about your surfaces that has effected me, pushed me in my own work.

HB: Erika, is it too soon for you to say how this will effect your own work outside the collaboration?

EM: Sometimes I think, my god, how can she suffer this much, how can she have done this? Then I feel inside that I dig a little bit deeper and come up with something that may have the right feeling. Because I know it hurt Susan to do it, and I feel responsible. Not, "Oh, well, another skull. Up it goes." But really to grip it from deep down. In the future, I will be more respectful of my own work, and more responsible.

HB: Alan, what do you like about this work? Why do you think it belongs at Zeitgeist?

AN: It's alive and fresh and it's important that people respond to it. .

HB: I think the strongest work you've had here -- Steve Frederick's, Jeff Mak's -- is work that's over the edge, that most gallery's wouldn't even know how to talk about.

AN: We've had some confrontational work.

SE: That certainly drew us here. We said, if we could show in the Boston area, where would we want to show, and we just kept coming back to this place.

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