By Allison Plitt
When one looks at Astoria artist Erika Mahr’s drawings from afar, the viewer gets a sense of abstract, atmospheric images. If one stands less than a foot away from her pictures, however, the observer will see hundreds of tiny grids run across the paper. The images no longer appear to be shadings drawn in an instantaneous motion, but minute lines that become part of a detailed, geometric pattern meticulously planned and designed.
Describing her creative process, Mahr speaks about lines, measurements and precision. “I grid out the paper and then, within the grids, I draw with pen and ink. It’s kind of a test of endurance. They’re not meditative,” she explained. “These are based off of minute-long sketches of a momentary emotion. It’s kind of dissecting this very gestural, emotional sketch — dissecting it in a very logical way — and I have rules in how I put the lines down.”
Besides her drawings, Mahr has made a series of books that she has created by measuring and cutting each page according to specific dimensions. One can see each page of the book but never has to open it. “I think it’s interesting taking the idea of repetition within art and then within the book form, it becomes a narrative,” Mahr remarked. “There’s a story but without words, without text, a very simplistic story of geometry and the travels of the shape through space.”
As an artist, Mahr considers herself a minimalist and admits to being influenced by the works of 20th-century minimalists such as Donald Judd, Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt. A term used in art and design, minimalism is based on the idea of simplicity in form and content. At the forefront of the minimalist movement, LeWitt believed that architects were artists. In a similar fashion, Mahr draws with Rapidograph pens that are used by architects because “it gives you the most steady line possible.”
“People approach minimalist work and think it’s really cold,” Mahr said. “I kind of respond that I can find the emotion and beauty within it. Really what I’m trying to do is examine our thought process within simple mathematics and geometry. Mathematics is a man-concept — it’s made from man and, therefore, it has human qualities to it. I think it’s relatable, which is why I do everything by hand, so the process is very laborious.”
Growing up on Long Island, Mahr studied dance and music as a child but was not exposed to art at home. Her parents have professions, nonetheless, that have obviously had an effect on her rational thought process – her father is an electrician and her mother is an accountant who also teaches business and mathematics. Mahr became interested in art in school and often visited New York City to take art classes and visit museums.
After Mahr decided in high school to pursue art as a profession, she moved to Florida to enroll in the bachelor of fine arts program at the University of Florida, where she met another student artist, Jason Mitcham. Upon graduation, Mahr returned to New York City and Mitcham followed her. The two married in 2007 and now live in Astoria. They also share a studio space in Long Island City.
In addition to obtaining a master of fine arts degree at Hunter College, Mahr has been working in the graduate art office there for the past two years as an advising assistant. This fall she hopes to be teaching a course at Hunter called “Introduction to Visual Experience.”
Despite the prospects of teaching, Mahr never wants to abandon her calling to her artwork. “What I enjoy most about being an artist is really making the work,” she observed. “It’s about the time spent thinking about the ideas, the formulation of the concept that I think is the most intriguing.”
As LeWitt also believed in the artistic philosophy of conceptualism, which emphasized that the planning and design of an artwork was more important than the finished piece, Mahr appears to be logically following in his influential footsteps.