Interview with Erin Finley

Line Gallery: When we first became aware of your work in 2007, you were doing large-scale paintings. When did you make the switch to drawing and what prompted that switch?

Erin Finley: Those paintings were exhilarating to make because they were big and brazen: the largest one was 15 feet tall. I was dealing with the sudden loss of my mother at the time, so there was a lot of angst in me back then, and I channeled it all into making work. The experience was very freeing.


LG: So do you think that the smaller scale of the drawings offer you something different?

EF: Those large-scale paintings felt heroic. But they’re like anthemic rock songs: all noise, no subtlety. Each of my current pieces has a lot more to say than those ones did. There’s this short story by Ernest Hemingway – and it’s only six words long – but it’s such an anvil, and in a way, my current works are modestly sized because I’m interested in economies of size. Hemingway’s story, in its entirety, goes:  For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.


LG:  Why do you think drawing is important in contemporary art or as a practice?

EF: I am a huge disciple of drawing. There is something about the integrity of an unmediated line that’s so poetic. It’s probably why I copy Brigitte Bardot’s signature cat-eye when I apply my eyeliner – because I just love a good line. But to answer your question earnestly: drawing is important because it speaks to presence and absence more authentically than any other art form. The drawn mark consistently means ‘the artist was here’, like it did in Lascaux.


LG: Many of our visitors have remarked at the fineness of your pen work and have asked about how you develop your drawings. Could you tell us a bit about your working process and drawing techniques?

EF: To start, I do a faint sketch of the whole image with a mechanical pencil. Then I begin inking the small areas. I use a cartography pen that’s normally used for map-making. You can get hair-thin lines with this tool, and a good range of line weights. I use that for the minutiae and then go in with thicker pens for the rest of the drawing. Sometimes I’ll add gold leaf at the end of the process.


LG:  Are there any experiences that you consider to be formative to your practice?

EF: Yes, I’ve been teaching life drawing for about ten years now at the college and university level. It’s been a decade-long clinic on understanding anatomy. I’m also drawing cadavers through a medical sciences program in Toronto.


LG: During your artist talk at Line Gallery, you spoke about how your drawings function as a kind of self-portrait, enabling you to try on different experiences, personas and physical traits.  Could you speak to this and also to what else shapes and informs your work?

EF: For me, this is what makes being an artist so engrossing. I am always empathetically ‘trying on’ different anatomies when I draw these figures. Over the summer I watched Disney’s “Jungle Book” over and over because I was fascinated by the chimpanzees bouncing around inside seemingly elastic bodies. So I explored this notion of the human body as a rubber-like entity, like Bugs Bunny, stretching his legs out six feet in order to trip the Road Runner. I was thinking about other ways for a body to be. Apart from that, to answer your question about what else informs my work, I’ve been looking at the role of physical comedy in our visual culture for years, and to me, the prankster reality show “Jackass” looked a lot like those torture photos from Abu Ghraib. I’m interested in humour as a device for highlighting perversion.


LG:  What I think is interesting about the images included in Murder Ball is that your subjects are women, but in many ways they challenge stereotypes by assuming macho roles.  In reference to what you said about “Jackass”, what relationship do you see your female subjects playing in your work?

EF: In the past I’ve said, only somewhat facetiously, that my work is essentially “Jackass” – but with women. Watching Steve-O perform an asinine stunt on the show, like sitting naked on a firecracker, comes off as conventional frat-boy behaviour, but when a woman performs the same act, it’s loaded with a host of other implications.


LG: Your drawings, at first glance, read as playful, but your drawings definitely confront and capture some of the darker sides of being human. Can you tell us about this tension in your work?

EF: Yes, the drawings are calibrated so that codes for humour are cancelled, or at least complicated, by codes for pathos, or codes for provocation. There’s a specific emotional temperature I aim for in my work so that viewers are left feeling a little unsettled. A while ago, I’d read a New York Times article about Lou Reed’s music and there was this one line that really caught my eye: “Good art doesn’t need to have good manners, good morals, or good taste.”


LG: Are there any drawers that you have been looking at recently? Are there any Canadian drawers we should check out?

EF: Amy Swartz is a Toronto artist who makes preternaturally exquisite drawings of insects. There’s a heartbreaking, poetic air about her work – and such astounding technical prowess!

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