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How Artist Erin Shirreff Reveals the Secrets of Modernist Sculpture

An exhibition at Parisian Laundry, Montreal, expands our understanding of the modernist shapes Donald Judd and Henry Moore created

In the subterranean gallery of Montreal’s Parisian Laundry scrolls an inky film by sculptor Erin Shirreff. Though this isn’t quite true. Shirreff’s Still (2019) – its title a winking misnomer – gestures towards film in a long tracking shot that pans across a shallow stage set with black-and-white modernist forms. The medium is further referenced through a running time of 39 minutes, and the depth and quality of its image, with each object’s cratered surface illuminated and sharply lit. But there are slippages – occasional ‘splices,’ for instance, and shadows that don’t belong to any visible form – that undo our certitude. Shirreff seats her practice along the creased fold of sculpture, photography and the moving image, and Still makes quiet admissions of a formalist legerdemain, revealing itself to be a play of media that both asserts and undoes the authority of its subjects.

Shirreff earned her MFA in sculpture at Yale University School of Art, and, if pressed, still identifies as a sculptor. Following recent exhibitions at the ICA Philadelphia and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, her unique play of media between the moving image and single exposures have been dubbed ‘duration pieces,’ which add temporal motion to the otherwise still, and illusions of depth to two-dimensional surfaces. In Shirreff’s silent film Roden Crater (2008), for instance, we view James Turrell’s eponymous and famously unfinished earthwork from a distance, cycling through ambient effects. Only when a shining orb spans the sky do we realize that Shirreff has printed out an image of Turrell’s crater and placed it on a wall opposite a fixed camera. She’s been shooting it under different light conditions in her studio, and swinging us through their atmospheric and illusory effects.

Erin Shirreff, Still, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Parisian Laundry, Montreal; photographer : Maxime Brouillet

With similar legerdemain, Still, perfectly attuned to Parisian Laundry’s cavernous cellar, slows us down, dropping our heart rate for a meditation. Incidentally accompanied by the sound of the bunker’s whirring air-ducts and high-ceiled pipes, Shirreff’s greyscale video is projected in enveloping darkness, and requires close attention. Using Photoshop, Shirreff seamlessly stitched together many photographs of talismanic plaster-cast shapes (crescent moons, rounded mounds, straight slabs, sometimes sparsely arranged and sometimes forested) and cambered them across the screen, marching her still images into a moving sequence. These form a long stage populated with abstract objects that seem to reference the modernist sculptures of Tony Smith, Robert Smithson, Donald Judd and Henry Moore – occasionally undercut with a splice or the interruption of archetypal contemporary forms, such as a sculpted Coca Cola or Pom bottle, whose shadow is misplaced in the sequence, and when it appears recalls the proto female silhouette of the Venus of Willendorf.

Robert Morris once asked Tony Smith why he hadn’t made his sculpture Die (1962) ‘larger so that it would loom over the observer’ or ‘smaller so that the observer could see over the top.’ Smith replied that he ‘was not making a monument,’ but neither was he ‘making an object.’ At a talk that followed her opening in Montreal, Shirreff was asked what comment she felt herself to be making in response to her towering modernist referents. The artist’s response was existential: she was curious about the interiority of these objects, their potential hollowness and the way in which they mirror our inability to fully know one another. Our stoic, folded exteriors never admit all that lies beneath them.

‘Erin Sheriff’ runs at Parisian Laundry, Montreal, until 23 February 2019.

Main image: Erin Shirreff, Still (detail), 2019, video. Courtesy: the artist and Parisian Laundry, Montreal; photographer: Maxime Brouillet

Sky Goodden is the founding publisher and editor of Momus, an international online art publication, podcast, and book that stresses ‘a return to art criticism.’ Goodden is currently the Artist-in-Residence at Montreal’s Concordia University (2018-19).

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