Resolving this too, too sullied melting snow

Erica Mendritzki has spent so much time looking at snow that she has become an aficionado of its properties. Her low-key, close-valued colour sense combines the snowy and the muddy in equal measure in what the Winnipeg-based painter calls her “late winter in Winnipeg palette.” Each of those words carries a set of descriptive and metaphoric possibilities. “The snowy part is virgin and pure but then the April months come. Things are really muddy and give rise to the opposite connotations of dirtiness and fertility.” The look of the paintings, which are small enough to suggest a sense of vulnerability but quirky enough to persuade us to pay close attention, is a mix of yellow and black. She admits the combination is “one of the ugliest things you can do as a painter. Ugly but also shocking because instead of a dark yellow, it becomes a weird green.”

One of the most interesting things about the work she has been doing in the last year is the visible ghosting of images and incident. “I like the suggestion that what’s underneath might be as interesting as what’s available on the surface,” Mendritzki says. So in No Pressure, a 20 x 16-inch oil on wood panel, we see “Ha” written seven times over delicate mauve stripes on a sandy ground. It is a mad conceit, the idea that any human endeavour, let alone one as difficult as making a painting that recalls Agnes Martin, is an act without pressure. Mendritzki intends the title to have a slight hysteria to it, which is why the “Ha” gets bigger and bigger. “The idea has a built-in tension, a psychic pressure that is about to rupture at any moment.”

Erica Mendritzki, Going Out Top, 2015, oil on wood panel, 18 x 14 inches.

These are subtle paintings that carry a weight of meaning disproportionate to their appearance. Mendritzki has become interested in what it is to be a female artist in relation to art history and in a range of strategies women have used to make art within that history. “They have worked through winks and nudges and not through overt gestures.” In Going Out Top, 2015, she thought she was making an abstract painting “but the emerging image was too calm. It ended up forming itself into a T-shirt and then I figured I might as well go with the boobs. I was thinking about all those historical paintings, like Liberty Leading the People, 1830, where whatever the activity, the woman’s top just falls down.” In this take on contemporary history, the top can’t fall down because the image on the shirt is already what is underneath the shirt.

Her sensibility suits Winnipeg, “a modest pleasure sort of place” in which the beauties are subtle. “Because of that I’m paying more attention to the subtle difference between the white of the sky and the white of the snow,” the artist says. “Those quiet differences are an Agnes Martin kind of distinction.” In Pretty, 2015, another small oil on wood panel, she paints a grey fuzzy thing that seems to be holding a string. It could be a caterpillar, but it turns out to be more local than that. “Pretty is the furry thing on everyone’s winter parka, the kind that has a life of its own.” Erica Mendritzki’s paintings collar the same life. ❚

Volume 34, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #135, published August 2015.

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