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Sam Erenberg employs a combination of intense color, unbounded linguistic references, and gestural application of paint to create a process for investigating the relationship between the visual and textual, corporeality and representation. Like James Lee Byars, an artist whom Erenberg knew and admired, he has developed a unique visual lexicon based on forms and colors that are imbued with deep but open-ended symbolism. His mementos series, begun in 2008, consists of numerous paintings on paper or canvas; sixty works from this ongoing series will be included in the C.O.L.A. exhibition. All are of a similar small scale and feature the name of a place (a country, U.S. state, or city) followed by a year, floating on an abstract field of color, as in Chile 1891 and Angola 1976–92. Some, such as Saudi Arabia 1990–91, ring more familiar, assuming that it alludes to the first Gulf War. Idaho 1892 could refer to the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, labor strike of that year, which led to violence and lasting effects on labor unions, but this association is found by way of a Google search. Only the artist can confirm his sources. Actually, locking down their meaning is antithetical to the intended function of these paintings: interrogating the world rather than seeking to explain it.
Erenberg does so through a purposeful lack of reconciliation: the all-caps, sans serif typeface and its field of color are populated with organic, abstract markings, suggesting topographic or microscopic elements. Always together but forever separate, they never gel. Here he displays the battle between the specificity of text and the ambiguity of painting. When combined, their tension creates a third space for exploring how meaning is brought into being.
In the series Los Angeles, Erenberg repeats the city’s name, which not only evokes its imperious sprawl but also becomes a logo in the middle of each painting. It is as if he were acknowledging the city’s kitchiness in its transformation into an emblem of popular culture. His position, however, is actually less ironic. Instead he is fascinated by how a word can be specific in its reference yet can lose its significance by becoming an object in its own right. Intentionally open-ended, the works encourage viewers to examine their own cultural memories.
Erenberg has pursued this special brand of conceptual abstraction in Los Angeles since the 1970s. His committed focus on creating a liminal space by converging media is evident in his experimental films from the late 1960s, such as Time (1968). Multiple exposures, painting on the film stock, and other techniques reveal a combination of influences, including Bruce Conner, Stan Brakhage, psychedelic imagery, and rockclub light shows. Some of his recent paintings feel like stills from these films made forty years earlier. The breadth of his approach and the duration of his aesthetic inquiry are deserving of a future retrospective.
Erenberg’s peripatetic journeys among various media point toward a fascination with exploring how we perceive objects, language, and the interaction of our bodies with these things that first gestate in our minds. He illustrates the dialogue between experience and representation. He also points to their limitations when separated from each other.
— Tyler Stallings