Erykah Townsend | Photo / McKinley Wiley

By Carlo Wolff

The conceptual artist Erykah Townsend is blunt, has a distinctive approach to pop culture, and is on a roll. The 24-year-old Cleveland Institute of Art graduate recently wrapped up her first solo show, “Bitter Sweet,” at SPACES. The rest of her 2022 dance card is full, with a show starting in early June at Abattoir Gallery in the Fulton-Clark neighborhood and a residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland starting this summer.

The Abattoir show, which Townsend will share with artist Alex Vlasov, is called “Cheap Thrills,” and it will vamp on ready-mades, the detritus of pop culture brands leave behind. A birthday card destined for the trash after the birthday date has passed is a ready-made. Townsend loves ready-mades. They’re often the seed of her witty and cutting cultural critiques.

The moCa residency, which will culminate in October with a show of her new work, provides a $4,000 creative budget, a $2,000 stipend and $500 for travel. Also in Townsend’s moCa war chest: $1,000 for related public programs.

In addition to exhibiting and selling her work, she has a part-time job as a design assistant for an artificial plant company in Cleveland’s downtown to buttress her bottom line.

Because Townsend, who is also known as E.T., finished college in 2020, during the pandemic, her virtual Bachelor of Fine Arts thesis was unsatisfying to her. The Feb. 12 “Bitter Sweet” opening at SPACES, a gallery in the Hingetown neighborhood of Cleveland, “felt like my BFA because I didn’t have that experience,” she says.

“Bittersweet” by Erykah Townsend. Sheetrock, acrylic paint, gold paper foil, velvet fabric, Poly-fill and faux sprinkles on panel. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The works in “Bitter Sweet,” which occupied the main gallery at SPACES, were awash in ambiguity and duality. No matter how complex her message, Townsend’s presentation is in your face yet entertaining. Like candy, it romances the brain’s taste buds. Like candy, it harbors the threat of decay.

Here are a few snapshots from “Bitter Sweet,” which closed March 26.

“Sweet Trap” presents an unfinished, oddly questing wall made of cardboard bricks, sheet rock, fake sprinkles, gift wrap and duct tape, anchored with what looks like a gift-wrapped bomb. “We Like Explosions,” an assemblage of gold and red ribbons and bows, evokes a party – a violent one. “Weapon Collection” boasts nine weapons and tools, garishly decorated for a deadly night out. Made of toys, implements, balloons and spray paint, this particular wall hanging targets artists who lack talent.

“E.T. is one of the most wildly inventive artists I’ve ever worked with,” says Lane Cooper, associate professor in CIA’s painting department. “I’m not saying ‘student’ here because I don’t mean student, I mean artist. Her work is fearless.

“She reminds me a bit of Andy Warhol but for this moment, right here, right now. I think she makes work about the things that she loves, pop culture. She amplifies the things she thinks are beautiful – but running underneath the choices she makes, you can’t help see that’s she’s pulling back the curtain on the consumer culture that’s driving everything. … This moment is surreal and her work calls attention to that. You don’t just see it through her work, you experience it.”

“Sweet Trap” by Erykah Townsend. | Photo / Carlo Wolff

Mixing messages

Townsend’s playful, ominous work plunders concepts and materials from pop culture, creating what could be called antisocial media.

People think of mixed media as “one piece with a bunch of mediums,” Townsend says. “I just work in different mediums.”

The media she uses vary from piece to piece, and “basically, I just do whatever I want,” she says.

Mixed media to her “doesn’t mean I’ll take a (random object) and put it on a canvas. I will work with photography one day, and one day I’ll probably just do ready-mades. … It’s not mixed media as in the work itself; mixed media means the whole aspect of working in different media.”

She’s currently into a kind of digital painting in which she uses Photoshop on canvases she sends to be stretched and so changed yet again.

Besides actual outlets, Townsend has a virtual one in QTVC LIVE!, a shopping channel invented by Chicago artist Julia Arredondo. Designed to blur the line between art and commerce, it offers art by Cleveland’s Antwoine Washington and Chicago-based fiber artist Vanessa Viruet. An episode highlighting Townsend’s art is set for June.

“Weapon Collection” by Erykah Townsend. | Photo / Carlo Wolff

Townsend, who gets around by bus and foot, is also literally on the move, eager to settle into a studio space in the Hildebrandt Building, the same building as Abattoir. Not much of a “people person,” she prefers to work by herself in her studio.

Is pop culture an alternative reality or reality itself?

“I think it’s both, because it is an alternative reality but it becomes so embedded into us that it becomes real in a way,” she says. “People spend so much on Mickey Mouse merch they make him real. People live off of pop culture.”

Disney and its subsidiary Marvel have taken over, Townsend says with neither irony nor anger. Her work is commentary on pop culture, which she sometimes loves and at other times deplores. She also uses pop culture “to criticize a main political topic, or something.” But her approach, Townsend suggests, is indirect.

On her own terms

The youngest child and only artist in her family, Townsend discovered her talent in preschool at Iowa-Maple Elementary School in Cleveland, when the kids had to draw “like, Dr. Seuss book covers, and I remember going overboard.” She didn’t know when to stop and she didn’t want to.

Her artistic fearlessness made her a winner in 2015, when she was a senior at the Cleveland School of the Arts and was awarded a full, four-year scholarship to CIA.

“It was one of those things where you can’t believe it happened to you,” she says of her CIA full ride. “It was great. The only thing I didn’t like is people would, like, envy me – not like a freak, but like I got everything handed to me.”

Detractors, potentially envious, sometimes suggested she wasn’t deserving of her fortunate situation. Townsend believes all art should be judged on its own merits, she says, rather than the artist’s identity.

Her view of her academic experience is not exactly sunny.

During critiques in which she was praised, one CIA student would regularly tear her down, Townsend says. And when she criticized the school, she got pushback because she was told she had no say since she had a large scholarship. She liked the facilities and the art at CIA, and as for the teachers, “it was 50-50.” Her fellow students? Not so appealing.

Another teacher enthusiastic about Townsend is Zachary Smoker, manager/adjunct faculty at CIA’s Fabrication Studios. He met Townsend when she was a sophomore, and even then, “E.T. was fearless through her play and experimentation in the studio, always pushing both her own technical ability and the limits of the material itself,” he writes in an email. “I feel like there was always something new, exciting and unexpected happening in the work. The breadth of mark and strategy she employs is reflective of this tenacity.

“This aggregate of surfaces, textures, colors and pop-culture references is a hallmark of E.T.’s work. In a lot of instances, it seems it’s this playful material invention that’s driving both the conception and reception of the work’s tactility.”

“We Like Explosions” by Erykah Townsend.| Photo / Carlo Wolff

Where Smoker applauds Townsend’s artistic sprawl, some pundits would like to box her into being a “Black artist,” she says. She doesn’t like the term, saying it segregates both in the larger society and within the Black community. She says she doesn’t believe race should be a defining quality of one’s career.

“I’m not the same as another Black person,” she says. “We’re all different.”

She recalls a Black school mate who created artwork that seemed to suggest he struggled growing up in the “hood,” but he was actually from the suburbs. That wasn’t his story, but rather reflected pressure for Black artists to make work about being oppressed, she says.

Feeling like a misfit in many communities she’s part of, she notes she feels free to call out everyone.

“You know how I was saying I was a misfit because if I did anything not Black, I was called white,” she says, citing listening to rock music as an example. “Whenever you don’t do stereotypical things that people consider Black people to do, even Black people will call you, like, white.”

Townsend is not afraid to speak her piece. Count on her to continue creating testy, absorbing art that challenges the viewer to think twice – at least.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified “Weapon Collection.”

On view

• “Cheap Thrills,” featuring Erykah Townsend with Alex Vlasov, is on view starting in June at Abattoir in the Hildebrandt Building, 3619 Walton Ave., Cleveland.

• Townsend’s moCa residency will culminate with a show in October. MoCa is at 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.