Curtis Erlinger’s piece in the New Members Show at SOIL is fantastic. Titled Duet, it is a painting and a live projection of that painting facing each other from opposite walls in the gallery. A description of it might be hard to follow so I’ll go step by step.
Erlinger found a negative in his parents’ archives and painted a picture of it. It’s an image his mom took of her friend playing a guitar in her bedroom. The painting is exactly representational of the negative, except that Erlinger painted the eyes differently. The painting is hung on the wall.
About three feet out from the wall is a video camera on a tripod. It’s on, and it’s filming the painting on the wall as well as whatever/whoever crosses the space in front of the painting.
The live video is being projected on a monitor that is hanging on the wall opposite the painting. The video camera is inverting the negative/positive imagery, so that what you see in the monitor is the opposite of what is being filmed. Therefore, a live, inverted version of the painting is facing the actual painting. (Which, remember, is a negative.)
This is complicated and wry, and could be mistaken for one-liner trickery. But there is so much more going on. The live-filming/inversion process is not the punchline of a joke, but the mechanics of perception of a much bigger conversation.
I, and maybe other excitables, could go into orbit finding the duets within this duet. It is a duet of painting and video. Past and present. Positive and negative. And here’s the best one: historical scrutiny and nostalgia.
That’s a Mammy Doll on the shelf behind Erlinger’s mom’s friend, to the left. Unbeknownst to these guitar-playing 60’s youngsters, their Mammy Doll would implicate their inherent racism for decades to come, to be sorted out by their progeny. Erlinger had intended to do a precise representation of the negative, but was so distressed by the Mammy Doll that he had to paint its eyes on the girl with the guitar.
The girl’s new eyes are the Mammy Doll’s eyes; they are the artist’s eyes; they are a check on nostalgia and a self-conscious rendering of history. They are regret, an indictment, and the subject of the riddle. Because in the end, the girl is left with the Mammy’s eyes, and the Mammy Doll is not a Mammy Doll anymore. She’s white.