Side x Side

Erin McKenna:
finding the shape of the overlap

Interview-March 24 , 2020, 
By Side x Side Contemporary

Erin McKenna is an interdisciplinary artist with a background in sculpture. Through a feminist lens, playful ‘misuse’, humor, and celebration she makes work that dismantles stereotypes and complicates binaries and hierarchy. While receiving her BFA at Columbus College of Art + Design, she participated in New York Studio Residency Program in 2011. In 2012, she co-founded No Place Studio (Columbus, OH), a warehouse space with nine studios, and event space for shows, music, performance and parties. In 2015, she moved to Los Angeles, CA where she continued to make work and continued her career as an art handler for museums, galleries and private clients. McKenna has attended ACRE (2013), Grin City (2014), and Shiro Oni Residency (2019). She has been awarded two Smucker Wagstaff Grants (2018, 2019), Rackham International Research Award (2019), and an International Institute Individual Fellowship (2019). Her work has been exhibited internationally at SkyLab (Columbus, OH), ACRE (Chicago, IL), NADA (Miami, FL), Arturo Bandini (Los Angeles, CA), Harold J. Miossi (San Luis Obispo, CA) and Shiro Oni (Fujioka, Japan). Her work has been published in Hiss Magazine. She currently lives in Ypsilanti, MI where she is finishing her MFA at the University of Michigan.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but spent weekends and summers at my grandma’s house in rural southeastern Ohio.  When I was 8, I lived in my grandmother's house while an addition was being constructed. There was an obvious line that separated the finished, carpeted, lived-in house from the new wooden construction. The smell of sawdust, drywall and paint and the sound of the chop saw, and classic rock were not affected by this boundary.  Poor planning, no building codes and quick improvisations caused some problems. The stairs were installed upside down, making the steps steep and the landings narrow.  The ceilings were built 10” too low, the bottom of doors are cut off, the doorknobs are knee-high and round objects roll off tables. As a result of spending over a decade in this house, I appreciate things that are slightly off, and a good sense of humor. 

What is your artwork about? Tell us about the ideas that you have in your work.

In this body of work I am trying to complicate hierarchy, stereotypes and associations with materials. The title of the show, finding the shape of the overlap, references the overlap of many things: excessive/necessary, masculine/feminine, and structural/decorative. In the work, silk, chain, bolts and nail polish, etc. are mashed together with disregard to preciousness or intended application.  The work is not fixed, allowing for variable arrangements to encourage the idea of shifting uses and associations.  I implement the same techniques over and over as a nod to craft and the knowledge we acquire from learning through making. The labor is always visible to show the artist's hand and as a way to let the viewer into the process and intuitive problem solving.

You use fabric and delicate materials in most of your works while you combine them with large sculptural elements. What is this contrast and combination about?

I love the contrast of seemingly opposite materials in dialogue, like the rigid, sometimes gritty building materials with  the colorful,  soft fabric.  In this body of work, it happens with mid-afternoon moon - the title refers to that moment when you see the moon in the middle of the day, and a signifier of night time surprises you! So like that surprise, the materials in this piece hopefully do the same.  Delicate beaded fabric and sequins are submerged in house paint, silk is kept taught with heavy chain, and both fragile thread and thick bolts keep fabric in place.
What are the most important questions you think your work will raise for the viewers?

I hope this works makes people question their associations and stereotypes with materials and use not only with the materials in my work, but things they come into contact with everyday. And then I hope they start to question their associations and stereotypes beyond materials, but with people, places, political ideologies, etc.  I guess it boils down to the fact that nothing is black and white, but there is always a gray area.
We are having your exhibition and this interview during the Women’s History Month. As a woman artist, your work questions stereotypes that are around women in the art world and society. What changes would you like to see in the art world as an artist who works from a feminist point of view?

Oh wow, where do I begin? Well obviously museums and galleries should show more women, queer people, and people of color and people should collect more women, queer people, and people of color. (Shout to @gar_la, Gallery Artist Reform, LA, and instagram account that counts the keeps tally on the number of men, women, and POC represented by LA galleries).  Another change I would like to see is more women, queer people and people of color as art handlers!  I have been in the business for 8+ years and it is not diverse.  I have been met with so much sexism, and mansplaining in that field. Once, I worked for a client who was happy to pay for the men who worked, but didn’t want to pay for my time because I was a ‘girl’.  The one and only  time I had a woman supervisor was at the Broad in LA - Julia Latane - and she was amazing. She made an effort to hire a diverse crew and she started a Diversity Apprenticeship Program with the goal to hire, train and pay people with diverse backgrounds to learn this skill set of working in a museum.

What is your inspiration? Who are your favorite artists? Any specific research interests?

I am inspired by the everyday and the fantastic- walking in my neighborhood, Beyonce, gardening, the textile district in downtown LA, going to the thrift store, and learning to cook.  I am always drawn to tactile and colorful things, like a faux fur pink vest, stucco walls, or Dolly Parton’s sequined jackets.
My favorite artists right now are the queen of sculpture, Lousie Bourgeois, Alan Shields, Sarah Braman, Mika Rottenberg, and Rebecca Morris. 
As far as research interests, after I am done writing my thesis, I want to revisit car culture in the sense of customization like Jingle trucks from Pakistan, the custom pick-ups from the mini truck era, and custom vans.
What limitations and barriers are you facing as an emerging artist?

Uncertainty in financial security and stability.  I hope to start teaching next year, but I will have to start out as an adjunct which is a low paying position.

What are your goals as you move forward in your artistic career?

I will always be making work. My goals are to keep showing and to teach.  I also want to start an artist residency in south eastern Ohio with a community center in the small town which functions as a flux space for exhibitions, skill shares, music venue, meeting place, and whatever else the community needs.
What’s next? Do you have anything coming up soon?

Up next is writing my thesis and then publishing a little book with my writing and images from my thesis show.  After that I am going to apply to residencies and jobs!

See Erin’s exhibition here.
*For more info on Erin’s works please visit her website  &  Instagram 

Image List:
*Erin McKenna, cowgirl and the dandy, 2020
leather, sequins, plywood, nails, spray paint, metal pipes, paint, screws, 4x4, hinges, s hook, nuts, washers, pleather, staples, mending plates, nail polish, caster, fabric dye

*Erin McKenna, mid-afternoon moon, 2020 (detail)
paint, bolts, velvet, washers, nuts, sequins, nailpolish, fringe, trampoline frame, lumber, chain, carabiners, gromets, silk, synthetic fur, patches, turquoise beats, springs, cinderblock, flocking, steel O ring, ball chain
*Erin McKenna, mid-afternoon moon, 2020 (details)
*Erin McKenna, mid-afternoon moon, 2020 (detail)
*Erin McKenna, daisy chain, 2020 (details)
electrical cords, LED light, paint, bolts, nuts, washers, sequins, ball chain, grommets, chain, s hooks, carabiners, lycra and polyester, amethyst

Images © 2020 Erin McKenna

Interview by:
Side x Side Contemporary
Krista Brand & Mana Mehrabian