Erin O’Keefe is no stranger to It’s Nice That. She first graced our screens in 2014 and again in 2015 – like magpies we were instantly drawn to the bright colours and structural geometry that features throughout her work. And now she returns with her latest series, Built Work.
But don’t be fooled – these aren’t paintings. The New York-based photographer and former architect majestically ties her two disciplines together, forming an outrageously deceptive and illusory series that makes us question the limits of what can actually be done with a camera.
It all started when Erin studied printmaking as an undergraduate, before later pursuing a masters in Architecture and a career as a professor of architecture for many years – of course satisfying her artistic flare by creating sculptures on the side. “At some point,” she says, “I realised that I could use photography to get at issues I was interested in, and I found that it allowed me greater freedom and flexibility.”
Although no longer teaching or practicing architecture, Erin admits that she certainly could not be making the her work without that experience. “Issues of spatial perception, how we move from two dimensions to three (and back) are all built into my way of thinking,” she tells It’s Nice That. “The relationship between images of space and actual space is very rich territory for me, and something that is completely informed by my background in architecture.”
Erin’s process never begins as linear, and instead she focuses more on whatever she finds interesting that day. “I will begin to see a relationship develop between colours or objects, or I’ll come to the studio with a question in my mind about a spatial situation that I might have encountered in a painting and try to get somewhere with it,” she says. “There are never conclusions, just endless speculation.” And from these speculations, a hyperreal world is formed and our understanding of what is photographic deteriorates; painted plywood, printed Photoshop gradients (as seen in her earlier series American Quarto) and collected imagery are staged entirely, all with the intention to trick your mind.
These misreadings, or “persistent ambiguity” are a key aspect to her work. “By using the native distortions of the lens, and the very fraught translation of space, the image gives me lots of opportunity for finding moments of uncertainty.” But are these ambiguous outcomes always intentional? “I would love for the viewer to first enjoy the image in a very direct way for it’s formal qualities,” she explains. “Then perhaps attempt to mentally reconstruct it, and then just take pleasure in the uncertainty – that state of questioning is very powerful to me.”
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