Erica Mao

Erica Mao (b. 1994) is a New York City based painter and sculptor. Mao received her BFA from the Parsons School of Design (2016) and MFA from Columbia University (2020). Mao has exhibited in galleries such as Rubber Factory, Rachel Uffner Gallery, Steve Turner Gallery, International Print Center, and Madison Park Gallery. Awards include a Keyholder Residency at Lower East Side Printshop, the Leroy and Janet Neiman Award at the Leroy Neiman Center for Print Studies, and the Glasier Fellowship at Columbia University.
February 9, 2022
Tell us about your practice.
My practice is about creating different entry points for the same world. Through each painting and sculpture, there is a small window into the wild, atmospheric landscape where my protagonists wander. I think of it like I’m engulfed in the pitch blackness of a cave, with a flashlight in my hand I illuminate a tiny part of rock and that gives me another piece of the puzzle, another window to the world.
In your latest solo at Rubber Factory and at your MFA show, you presented both paintings and ceramic works together. Can you tell us a little about how the two mediums relate to each other?
I think of them as being in conversation with each other, my characters that wander are in search of shelter, a safe haven to rest from the tragedies befalling the land. Worn cabins, crooked sheds, and dark caverns dot the landscape, sometimes seen in the far distance in my paintings. I bring them to life through clay, a material of the earth that is forged into being through intense heat.
Though the structures themselves are accessible to us as viewers, they exist beyond the reach of the protagonists, suspending them forever in a state of hoping and searching. The space in between these two things is what I’m interested in, the want, the need for the things that make them happy or keep them alive. That is the feeling I’m trying to capture.
Your use of color is one of the more striking elements in your paintings. Can you talk a little bit about your process when it comes to figuring that out?
I tend to be more intuitive with color, the narrative of each painting drives a lot of decisions for me. What’s going on? Where are they going? Where are they coming from? The answers to these questions then determine what setting they’re in and possibly what time of day it is.
In nature, color can shift and change so quickly. I want to capture those in-between moments like when the sun has almost disappeared over the horizon or right before a big thunderstorm when the clouds roll in.
But then I’m also interested in what happens when you rely on memory to recreate an image or a setting. Memories depend so much on your senses that most of the time we forget what was actually happening but we do remember that the sky was kind of orange that day and it smelled like cedar. So creating an image from my memory of a place often leads to the colors looking more fantastical and CGI-like than the natural world.
You’ve mentioned how you don’t really plan work before starting – can you tell us a little bit about your process? Does your thought process change as you work across mediums?
I don’t think or operate well in a linear timeline, there’s not much interest for me in beginnings or endings. I feel like most of the time we’re perpetually deeply entrenched in the things we’ve been doing, even if we don’t realize it. I take a similar attitude toward drawing if that makes sense. Each line is a continuation of the last one and it keeps going and going. I like to play with the boundaries of figuration, landscape, and abstraction. The energy and life force that flows from a human is the same that is present in the fire or the stream. 
With sculpture, it’s a little more difficult for my stream of consciousness to come out. There’s a focus that needs to happen just to contend with the material I’m dealing with and the physics of it. It helps if I think of everything as parts of a whole, similar to that cave metaphor I mentioned earlier. I don’t try to make sculptures that have a finality in their singular object-ness, everything is part of a world. That’s why in the future I hope to have the time and resources to make an installation that includes my ceramics. 
Can you tell us a little bit about the protagonists in your works? Are there particular characters you see as traveling alone or in pairs?
My protagonists are travelers, wanderers, saviors, villains, and mystics. They’re always searching for or running from something.
With paintings with more than one person, I imagine different scenarios where we stumble upon the encounter at the moment right before the climax, a point in time when the tension is at its highest.
What has been inspiring you lately?
I recently went on a trip to Arizona with my family and I got to see so many amazing valleys, canyons, and rock formations. Even though I paint invented landscapes it’s always incredibly inspiring to actually experience the grandeur and presence of the land.

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