Smoke and mirrors

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson, with reflection, during the installation of <i>Western Star</i>.

Jeff Erickson, with reflection, during the installation of Western Star.


Just four days before the opening of his exhibit Western Star in the Sheppard Gallery, Jeff Erickson was still making decisions about his installation. This wasn’t indecision—it was part of the creative process. When artists who work in traditional media—like, say, oil paints—install their work in a gallery, their primary concern is to display their artwork in a representative manner. But for a site-specific artist like Erickson, the installation process is the artwork.

“It’s about making aesthetic choices,” he says. “Where a painter might make the decision to use more red … I make the decision to put more monitors in a room. … People sometimes ask what media I work in—‘Well, right now I’m working with a dog kennel, salt, mirrors.’”

Western Star is a three-part exhibition intended to take gallery visitors on a journey. The visitor starts by entering a corridor lined with reflective glass. The tight corridor and hall of mirrors makes even the most arrogant visitor feel self-conscious—it also has the effect of completely transforming the space and visibly placing the visitor within the installation.

“I work with smoke and mirrors,” says Erickson, with a smile, “literally and figuratively.”

The first part of the exhibit is titled “orsa,” a Latin word meaning “beginning.” Even with the opening a few short days away, Erickson’s ideas were very much in flux, so the exact nature of the piece had yet to come together. But it will center on a small sculpture made of glass and plant life and soft, cloth materials. The piece is inflatable, and fluctuations in its air pressure will trigger a key part of the second portion of the installation: a clay pigeon launcher.

The second portion of Western Star is called “singultus”—Latin again, this time meaning “violent death.” In a small chamber a little farther down the hall, the launcher shoots fluorescent clay pigeons directly against a wall perpendicular to the mirrored corridor. Shards of smashed orange clay litter the floor, splinter the walls and glow in the ultraviolet light that illuminates the small chamber. Nearby, closed-circuit video monitors document the glowing shards and recast them as the scattered lights of a rural landscape or a rotating star field.

The final part of the exhibit is “finis,” the end or goal. An abandoned dog kennel, sagebrush grown into its chain links, surrounds a mound of salt gently illuminated by neon light underneath.

“Salt is a material I’ve used for a long time. I like it for its history, and the way it’s been mined, but also how it’s something we need in life … but it also has this desiccating quality. … And it has this really fantastic glow when illuminated. And it has a grounding quality that, for me, says human and Earth at the same time. If I were to use dirt, you’d just equate that with Earth, but with salt, there’s also a human quality to it.”

Western Star is a very personal piece for Erickson. It’s part of a series of works titled Landscape of Absence—a title that reflects Erickson’s fascination with the desert landscape as well as the sense of loss he has experienced since the tragic death of his infant daughter.

“It’s not clear to me how I feel about it,” says Erickson. “It’s not resolved—and I don’t think it ever will be. It’s something I’m working through as an artist. And something I’m working through as a person.”

The dog kennel is an empty container—intended to house a living being and noticeable for the lack thereof, except for a pile of salt, arranged like a burial mound of glowing crystal embers.

One of the central ideas of artistic composition is finding balance. A painter does this by contrasting complementary colors, orange and blue, for example. But for an artist like Erickson, working on the scale of installation, balance is found with contrasting materials and dichotomous ideas: hard and soft, solid and ethereal, quiet and loud, absence and presence, peace and violence, land and sky, life and death.