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Still-life reinvention

Feeding the growing appetite for Erin Rothstein’s hyper-realistic work

by Deborah Reid | January 23, 2017

painting of a pickle
The Pickle (acrylic on canvas)

The pickle glistens as if just fished from the jar, a small pool of green juice anchoring it to the canvas. The eye runs over a cluster of small bumps on its surface, stopping to search the glassy liquid reflection at stem end. The stark white canvas and bright overhead light isolate it, like a specimen.

Who would look on a pickle for this long or think to make art of it?

“I want to put a smile on people’s faces,” said Erin Rothstein, MA’10, about turning a pickle into high art.

Beyond the pickle, across all of Rothstein’s art, foodies and more have found a new way to consume their favourite subject and their appetite is voracious. And her popularity is growing at the same pace as that appetite.

Collectors are buying paintings that include a Tim Horton’s’ Chocolate Glazed Donut and a marshmallow on a stick pulled just from the fire. Food is not her only muse. In 2013, Google commissioned an 8-by-8-foot painting, Computer Guts, to hang in their Montreal headquarters.

While her subjects may be seemingly simple, the process is not.

Rothstein creates hyper-realistic paintings, a style that leads a viewer to believe they’re looking at a photograph. That’s part of the awe in her work. It requires an obsessive attention to detail, which gives her great pleasure. She spends weeks looking at her subject and only works on one painting at a time, surrendering to a fascinating and occasionally frustrating relationship with the subject.

“A painting has to start off with the right inspiration,” she said.

That can mean going through bags of Dempster’s bread in search of the perfect slice for her work Toast. She photographs the subject on a stark white background using mostly natural light, and then spends time editing the photo before the painting begins. She knows exactly what she wants, works minimally on layout, painting by eye as she moves between the canvas and the image on her laptop.

“There are always fun accidents that make it better,” she said.

The texture in Toast was “really hard” to achieve. Up close, it’s an abstract porous landscape rendered with a limited colour palette in exquisite variations of tone. It’s only from a distance that it comes into focus.

Rothstein describes her work as “modern still-life painting.” She creates time-lapse videos that record her process, reducing the hours to a short, elegant dance with her subject.

She began painting food in her second year of a master’s degree in Art History at Western.

“Art history is very important to fine art. It taught me how to think in more complex ways about painting,” Rothstein explained. She loves academics and teaching undergraduates. Writing her thesis was a “wonderful experience. It took me out of my comfort zone and I learned all kinds of things about myself.”

rothstein in her art studio
Erin Rothstein, MA’10, describes her work as “modern still-life painting.” She creates time-lapse videos that record her process, reducing the hours to a short, elegant dance with her subject.

Comparisons to Warhol please her, but she points to surrealist painters like René Magritte and M. C. Escher as having a big influence on her work. “I love the idea of painting something so realistically in style but in an absurd context.”

She also looks to the realistic representations in Baroque and Renaissance painting and the way artists of that period capture light.

The final stage of painting is adding light to the subject. Rothstein delights in this part of process. Her skill calls to mind the Canadian painter Mary Pratt.

In describing her work, Rothstein uses words like calm, focused, precise and compelling. The same could be said of the artist. She’s soft-spoken, has a serene demeanour and is astute when it comes to her business and brand. She wants her paintings to remain exclusive.

She was 24 when she finished her master’s degree and took to the canvas full-time. In the six years since graduating, she’s been painting, promoting her work and chasing after her twin boys.

"I love the idea of painting something so realistically in style but in an absurd context." - Erin Rothstein

Some of her talent is a genetic inheritance; there’s no shortage of talented artists on her mother’s side of the family and artistic support was not in short supply. She did undergraduate studies in fine art at Concordia University in her hometown of Montreal. Even as a young artist, she was sure of her work. At 17, she took her CV to art galleries in Montreal, knocking “on every door” with the hope of showing her work.

“My art is unpretentious” and that makes for a diverse audience who turns up to appreciate it,” she said.

Her paintings are in galleries in Toronto and Montreal and she’s looking further afield for international representation. Amuse Bouche, an exhibit earlier this year at Toronto’s Abbozzo Gallery, brought more attention to her work and the sales are brisk. Beyond the original paintings, she sells limited-edition prints of her work. Keeping up with the demand is her sole focus.

“The goal for me is to optimize my time painting,” Rothstein continued.

She’s also found favour with the media and has been featured in a number of publications including Architectural Digest. Rothstein also engages her audience through social media, on Instagram.

Rothstein is astute about her business and brand and wants her work to remain exclusive.

“There are so many opportunities,” she said, “but they are not all the right fit. If I say ‘yes’ to everything then I won’t have the time for the right ones.”

Her next project is a big bowl of Fruit Loops, the white canvas the milk that they float in.

“Everyone knows the texture, they have cracks and holes, they’re porous and you need to get that just right. It’s colours that I don’t normally work with. I’m having so much fun with it.”


This article appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of Alumni Gazette
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