Really Surreal 

Erin Cunningham's artistic absurdity

Really Surreal

Erin Cunningham's artistic absurdity

click to enlarge We Wish we could see what Erin Cunningham is reading. - FRANCIS DELAPENA

The walls of Erin Cunningham's apartment are covered with her collections of art, Victorian portraits, vintage advertisements and even a mustache embroidered from her own hair.

"That was a pain to do," said Cunningham of the thick handlebar. "I cut my hair so often that I didn't have any long pieces. All of those were only looped through once."

In the closet is part of her collection of bikes—five in the apartment and two outside—along with her art supplies, wood scraps, old work, books (such as a Kurt Vonnegut and a book about oriental rugs) and CDs (like My Morning Jacket, Peter Gabriel and Marlene Dietrich).

During an interview with BW, she rifled though treasure troves of sketches and paintings, showing so many pieces that it seemed impossible that they were all produced in the past four years.

Her popular breakout series of over 300 "Sniglets" features little turtle-necked creatures in black outline on whitewashed wood scraps. The satirical takes on everyday situations poke gentle fun at common human insecurities.

She said that she would like to redo some of them in her current style of more realistic characters, but they might be too violent. One of the pieces is an ice-skating scene with scattered bodies of dead Sniglets everywhere, one merrily skating past them.

"I think that a lot of people are like that," she said, remarking that it was particularly relevant in a country at war. "You just skate on because, you know, what can you do about it?"

It's with those responses to personal, current and sometimes devastating issues that Cunningham's work reaches out of a Victorian fetish and a penchant for ungainly situations and becomes poignant art.

Her art no longer has the cute cartoon-ish feel of the Sniglets, but it embraces the same duality, walking a jagged line between whimsical and dark topics. She said that for most of her life, the line between what is funny and what is sad has been blurred.

Like any artist, she draws from her life experiences. Her father died of leukemia when she was 9 years old, and her mother became the dominant presence in her life.

Cunningham always claimed she wanted to be an artist, but never turned the title into product until she was 24. When she finally started producing art instead of just calling herself an artist, she had a breakthrough.

"I realized I didn't have to be such a dramatic person. I can portray all the drama I want in my work," she said.

After graduating from Boise High in 1998, she went to the College of Idaho because she was a "smarty-smarty-pants" as she puts it. However, after three years and only a semester away from graduating with an English and art history degree, she abandoned school.

"It just wasn't what I wanted to be doing, but then I panicked halfway through the semester off. I thought, 'I have to go back.'"

When Cunningham enrolled at Boise State, she began fully pursuing art (except for the full-time job at Starbucks she still needs to pay rent). She sees herself as an artist no matter how much money she makes doing it or how much public recognition she receives.

Cunningham's work focuses on relationships, loss and the perpetual progression of life from moment to moment. She emphasizes that the anticipation building up to an event is almost greater than the event itself. Consequently her work often portrays the moment between an incident and the resulting action. A curious, weightless, expectant air hangs over many of her pieces.

One painting features a double-sided animal, a horse on one side and a donkey on the other, that is gradually ripping in two.

"Eventually, they'll tear apart and then what will they have? They won't be able to move," she said, also explaining that she uses donkeys to represent herself in many of her pieces.

"They're so stubborn and awkward," said Cunningham, "like me."

She also often portrays momentum, representative of the endless march of time forward. This manifests itself in a recurring motif of transportation: planes, hot air balloons and bicycles. No matter how great the anticipation is, each event is just another moment, she said.

Her current show with Ben Wilson at the Flying M Coffeehouse displays mostly acrylic paintings with a wider range of styles than her previous shows. She and Wilson even collaborated on one piece, a comic scene of a soldier figure brandishing a sword at little televisions, titled Visual Assault.

Other pieces include a vignette of three jubilant dancing teeth. Cunningham plans to illustrate an entire story about teeth who want to have parties so they try to get their owner to kiss people, but she won't oblige so they all fall out in retaliation. The painting is the end of the story when the teeth gain their independence.

All of the pieces display the awkward juxtapositions that Cunningham is so fond of: two people in ships out of water dropping anchor, a squirrel in oversized vintage shoes which she described as "a piece of perseverance." or a self-portrait of Cunningham riding a giant lobster. The prices of the show are in the couple-hundred-dollar range, except for one $800 item: the lobster self-portrait.

"Eight-hundred dollars is a joke," she laughed. "Some of the prices are really high because I'm not ready to walk away from them yet."

Cunningham said that when someone appreciates and understands her work enough to invest a large sum, it becomes closure for that event or relationship she was portraying.

None of her pieces have been turned into prints or duplicates. She prefers that people own one-of-a-kind pieces. Though, she admits, she would not have that luxury if art were her primary source of income.

"I don't really pursue shows. I don't have a Web site. I'm not very good at documenting my work. I really do this for me," she said. "But I wish it was my primary income."

Cunningham has a twitching nervous energy that transformed into emphatic enthusiasm when she spoke about her art. During the interview, she pushed up glasses she wasn't wearing and interrupted many of her sentences with, "that sounds stupid."

Many times she described herself as neurotic and persistently re-phrased the same sentences until she felt she got it right. She adopted a strange, serious intensity for statements that held special meaning for her, such as "I really like old things," "I'm really not a serious person," and "absurdity is really important to me."

Cunningham brings an aesthetic to Boise that would undoubtedly catch on in bigger cities if it got the exposure. She tells many old folk tales and uses old images and mediums to bring them across, but there's a naive quality to it.

"I'm trying to come up with simple, sometimes surreal explanations for everyday things," said Cunningham, summing up the overarching purpose of her work. She said that by bringing in the sense of times and events long past, she can bring back a simpler system of understanding.

"In the past, only the most important events are highlighted."

Erin Cunningham's work can be seen at Flying M Coffeehouse, 500 W. Idaho St., through the end of November. Flying M Coffeehouse, 500 W. Idaho St., 208-345-4320.

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