JOY DRURY COX & ERIKA MAHR IN CONVERSATION
In the spring of 2020 Joy Drury Cox, Erika Mahr and Sam Trioli began a conversation that casually carried on throughout the course of nearly a year. Weaving in and out a multitude of events in life and the world at large, the conversation between the three of them captured a moment not only within their own artwork, but the meaning of that work in this moment in time.
SAM TRIOLI: When preparing for this conversation I was reminded of an experience I had recently when seeing several Agnes Martin works on display at the Guggenheim Museum here in New York. As others have written about her work, the power of the elements that she brings into play with structure, space and draftsmanship produces almost an otherworldly experience. With both of your ongoing bodies of work, I genuinely feel the same way. How you both choose to use your mediums, tools and sense of mark making is truly astounding and remarkably powerful. How would the both of you describe your processes when you’re at the very beginning stages of a new piece or body of work? Is it more reductive? Or is it a cautious additive dance slowly and methodically taking steps forward, but never going too far?
ERIKA MAHR: Thank you Sam for such a lovely conversation starter. I think almost every conversation between Joy and I has somehow led to a moment of reflection on Martin’s work. The show at the Guggenheim was spectacular and for me placed emphasis on the aura of her work, that intangible thing that can only be talked about in terms of “experience”. I would say that Joy and I both strive for something similar in our current work- a sense of presence. Not just when viewing the work, but also in the making process.
When I think of Martin’s process, I imagine that elegant dance that you mentioned Sam, an additive process with such magnificent restraint. I’m sure I’m over romanticizing it, that’s certainly not how my process feels! My previous bodies of work were completely planned out, with little to no room for deviation. The newer works are quite different, they bounce between adding and subtracting. Although each starts as a small 4.5” x 3” study, there’s now room for decision making while working on the final piece. This is where that sense of “presence” creeps into the work. My hand is not only present, but also evidence of the thought process. Joy- your new work seems to have become much more intuitive as well, less pre-meditative.
"A PIECE SUCCEEDS WHEN THE MATERIALS AND I HAVE FINISHED IN A TIE OR COME TO AN AGREEMENT OF SORTS" - ERIKA MAHR
JOY DRURY COX: Yes, I’ve recently moved to a more intuitive, improvisational way of drawing. Erika, I find it so interesting that both of us have moved from planned conceptual approaches to more open, looser processes. With my earlier form drawings, once the original source was selected, I just lost myself in the labor, in the drawing it out, and I actually loved that. With my newer drawings, the limitations start with formal decisions. For example, my new works are only using horizontal and vertical lines of varying widths. I’ve found that I revel in limitations. Everything opens up as soon as there is less to work with.
In terms of materials and scale, there is a thru line with all of my work. I have always worked at a modest size and with fairly common materials. Erika, your earlier works were quite large, but you’ve also worked at a fairly modest scale as well, no?
To return to Martin - wow, that survey at the Gugenheim. Standing in front of the work, piece after piece, I was a bit stunned. I did not expect it to be as revelatory as it was for me. The experience was less about awe (although there was certainly some of that) and more like a lesson, a conversation, a reassurance in a certain methodology. Some of the power and call for presence in her work, comes specifically from scale - and the accumulation of marks in relation to the size of the whole. This is something that I know is going to be important as I move forward with my own work. I find that there is such a tenuous balance between a work that can be lived with (in a typical domestic space) and a work that affects the whole body. Apart from Agnes Martin, who is always whispering over my shoulder, I’ve been looking at and thinking about Bridget Riley and Tomma Abts - both painters working at very different sizes and very different aims.
ERIKA MAHR: Painting with a capital “P” always felt so intimidating to me. There’s just so much talent and history to grapple with. I adore painting but when tasked with making a “Painting” I seem to have nothing to make a painting of. I’m instantly stumped. With the exception of a few works I keep in the corner of my studio, I consider my work to be explorations within drawing. For whatever reason that label makes me feel safe and I’m able to move forward. I use line, mark, and gesture in my recent works as referential tools. Straight lines are signs for methodical and stable ways of thinking, erasure can be a sign for revision and/or temporality, and gesture signals confidence and spontaneity.
When it comes to scale, a particular body of work- its materials and process, and the intended viewer experience- tend to be what drive the overall scale. Larger works that I’ve done never seemed to work on a smaller scale. I certainly tried though! These larger works tend to place emphasis on the relationship between the micro and the macro through small marks on a vast surface. When done on a smaller scale the works seemed to move towards the illustrative rather than offering a genuine experience for the viewer. I enjoy working on a smaller scale when works are more of a “call and response”, kind of like a game of logic. The recent Erasures and Folds both function like this. I have an initial shape that I experiment with to see what happens if it’s turned this way, inverted that way, erased, etc. Joy, I think of all of your work in this way, a playful investigation or form that poses small “what if” questions and then plays possibilities out almost like a metronome- keeping time at a measured pace. What if this line was bolder, or longer, or horizontal? What seems different to me about your new work is that you’re also asking questions about spatial depth.
My life circumstances play a large role in the work that I make, when I make it, and how large or small its scale may be. As a relatively new mother, working on larger works that involve laborious processes hasn’t been a good match for my current lifestyle. Time is even more of a commodity during this moment. Smaller works that I consider to be gestures or “call and responses” feels somehow more appropriate to this time and a reflection of how I currently structure my thoughts.
Joy, I like how you talk about smaller works in relation to the domestic space. I’ve been thinking more about the role art plays within and around the home. 2 years ago I moved to upstate NY from NYC and started a family. As I spend more time within the home and on our land, I’m finding myself recalibrating how I think about art and how it is integrated within our lives. I’m still trying to understand and make sense of this shift. For now I’m letting it play out organically in the studio. I’m currently working on completing a number of works I’ve had in progress since the winter. After that I may need to make another shift- so much has changed in the world since starting this body of work.
Have you found that you’ve been able to continue with this new work during this time of quarantine? It seems like drawing them could be grounding for you at this time. When I look at them I feel both grounded and put at ease, as if I’ve just taken a few deep breaths.
JOY DRURY COX: It has been a few months since we’ve worked on this conversation and looking back at it now feels like a lifeline of sorts. I’m grateful to have this writing as a record of my thoughts pre-COVID-19. Our dialog pulls me back to a space of reflection about my work and my goals, something I have felt so disconnected from for the past several months.
For various reasons, I have been completely stalled in my art practice over the last several months. I had a big push to make work for a solo show at Asphodel Gallery in Brooklyn, which opened the Thursday before New York went into lockdown. I was actually at MoMA on that Saturday when the city shut down. Late Fall of 2019 and early 2020 was an intense time for me making and preparing my new work for the exhibition. I’ve had mixed feelings about my new work sitting in an empty gallery for all these months. When I left the show, I looked on the drawings with so much hope and excitement, for what could come next. Somehow I’ve blinked and it is July, and honestly I’ve been lost. I didn’t have a big project to fall into, and so really this time has led to me feeling stalled out with my work. Obviously everyone is dealing with drastic life changes on so many different levels. This brings me back to considering choices we make as artists in how our work grows and evolves over time. I’m interested in how the work changes either because of outside forces or life changes or more internal shifts that come out of the demands and innovations of the work itself. I don’t really have an answer for this, but lately I’ve been thinking about the distinction between choices made out of a reactive or proactive stance. Art making as an endeavor on the whole feels like such a balance of those two stances - action and reaction.
It is such a relief to read that my new work would give you a visual deep breath. It makes me think about breathing more broadly. The inhalation as a mark, an accumulation and the exhalation as an expelling, an erasure. Over the last several months, I think I’ve been building up the energy to inhale again.
The drawings I made for Prone and Plumb at Asphodel were such a tightwire walk to make. One of the things that I love about your newer works are the way they embrace or elevate the failure of the mark or the material. This has been something that I have struggled to utilize in an authentic way in my own work.
Could you talk a bit more about how you hold control and fluidity simultaneously in your practice?
SAM TRIOLI: Erika & Joy… wow. This has truly been a remarkable conversation to sit in on. I think if I were to add anything at this point, it would only take away from some of the incredible insight you both have shed light on and both have so eloquently described. There is so much to think about at this point, to revisit and continue to explore. So, as we end this conversation, I know the start of more research and investigation into some of the ideas, artworks and artists you discussed begins. Thank you both!
ERIKA MAHR: Control tends to take center stage in the making process for me. When dreaming up an image I fantasize about sweeping gestures and light handed marks made with ephemeral/fluid materials. But once I get those materials in my hand I instinctively want to contain and rigidly control them in a way that isn’t natural, ultimately resulting in many failed attempts. I’m often frustrated and have to make a piece a few times, but can’t help but love the wrestling match. A piece succeeds when the material and I have finished in a tie or come to an agreement of sorts. I’m intrigued by the friction that is created within the process. That friction is in your work but is more subtle in its approach. Your hand-drawn lines strive to be mechanical with their precision but the utensil, paper, and your hand inevitably fail which in turn slows the viewer down. It’s in those moments where the pen or graphite reacts to the tooth of the paper that the viewer inhales and is let into the process.
1. Joy Drury Cox. Prone and Plum Drawings (2019-2020). Installation view
2. Erika Mahr. Paper Fold 11. 2016. Paper and graphite, 13 x 10 in (33.02 x 25.4 cm).
3. Joy Drury Cox. sos. 2020. Ink and graphite on paper, 18 x 15 in (45.72 x 38.1 cm)
4. Erika Mahr. Paper Fold. 2016. Oil on panel, 13 x 10 in (33.02 x 25.4 cm)