Portrait & Likeness Much of Erica Van Horn's work is interested in what might be thought of as a kind of portraiture, the creation of imagistic and textual likenesses of both people and places. In depicting important people and places in her life, Van Horn often uses a kind of visual metonymy to represent a person indirectly in the figures of closely related objects or words, reducing the idea of portrait to its most basic elements. In various self-portraits, the artist explores the relationship between image and identity, the visual nature of memory, and the perpetual human need to re-imagine the self. In representations of historic or cultural figures, Van Horn reminds us of the artist's ability to re-narrate and revise well-known stories, layering her own impressions or criticisms overtop of the traditional texts. Van Horn's likenesses often serve to celebrate and honor their subjects; they reveal something of the artist's relationship to her subject, thus creating a sense of intimacy and connection in the viewer. Nevertheless, Van Horn never loses sight of the fact that such artistic representation is evaluative and interpretative; she understands and makes use of the ways portraiture can influence the viewer's broad understanding of a subject.

An installation by Erica Van Horn

An installation by Erica Van Horn: 11 Nov-20 Dec 1986, [New York: s.n., 1986]

A kind of self-portrait, with this simple postcard (an announcement for an installation of her work at Franklin Furnace in New York), Van Horn begins to tell the story of her life as an artist. The sentence refers to the first books Van Horn made as a child: in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Van Horn began making books as a way to understand and process the traumatic and confusing events of the day. In this story of the artist’s beginning, it is easy to recognize many of the distinctive and important practices and themes that define the artist’s oeuvre; for Van Horn, book making has been and remains a practice by which one can reflect on, work through, record, narrate, and honor complex experiences, feeling states, and relationships. That the text is written in Van Horn’s own handwriting reflects both the artist’s investment in the imagistic qualities of language and text and her acute awareness of the way handwriting, as a distinct and individual marker, can act as a visual representation of its writer.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 +979A 5

On Fruit & Vegetable Bags

On Fruit & Vegetable Bags, 31 Portraits, Self & Projected: One a Day, May 1986, [Paris: s.n.], 1986

This book is the result of Van Horn’s daily practice, for 31 days, of making self-portraits. By drawing her own portrait—“self and projected”—each day, Van Horn documents the unglamorous daily work of the artist, while also exploring her own image, day by day and into an as-yet-undescribed future. Thus, Van Horn creates an unfolding visual autobiographical narrative, creating a record of her own evolving sense of herself. Of her choice of materials for this book, Van Horn writes “I loved the small paper bags given out in the greengrocers. This was a way to use them without having the bags be the focus. The bags were the everyday.” In her choice of materials, Van Horn reveals her interest in reclamation, reworking, and repurposing the things of daily life, including in this case the artist’s own self image.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 +986N


++ See also This Is the Everyday + Leftovers

I am Trying to Exorcise the Demons from My Life

I am Trying to Exorcise the Demons from My Life, No, 2, 1984, [Paris: s.n. ], 1984

Van Horn made several versions of this book, a self-portrait of the artist by way of her “demons,” which she refers to as an “oft-repeated attempt clear my life of negative habits and fears (ie. smoking, drinking, poor health, anxieties, etc.) which impede forward movement.” I am Trying to Exorcise the Demons from My Life is one of numerous examples where Van Horn works over an idea again and again, trying to resolve questions of both form and content. In her practice of repetition and return, Van Horn reveals that many of the subjects she engages in her work are inexhaustible, irresolvable, and thus endlessly fascinating and ripe for continued artistic exploration. The books bearing this title, Van Horn tells us, “served to distract me, but I don’t think any demons were exorcised.”

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 +984K

Our Friend Syd Came Down from the Farm above Us

Simon Cutts and Erica Van Horn, Our Friend Syd Came Down from the Farm above Us for the Last Time on Monday November 21st, Ballybeg [Grange, Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland]: Coracle, 2005

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 2005P

Simon (1st century), Apostle

Simon (1st century), Apostle: Called either the Canaanite or the Zealot, [Docking, Norfolk, England], 1989

This book, a mix of handwritten and printed texts and Van Horn’s drawings, celebrates October 28, the feast of Saint Simon. Van Horn establishes her representation of the Saint, who is often pictured in a boat and sometimes holding a book, using the language of a dictionary of the lives of the saints and drawings of Simon in a boat, with and without a book. The artist repeats and reconfigures these simple elements to highlight the fact that the subject of the portrait is not only Saint Simon, but also Van Horn’s husband and frequent collaborator, fellow artist Simon Cutts. Like Van Horn, Cutts is well known as a book maker; together Van Horn and Cutts runs a literary and art press, Coracle, which takes its name from a kind of small boat very like those depicted in Van Horn’s drawings.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 989S

Seven Lady Saintes

Seven Lady Saintes, Rosendale, NY: Women's Studio Workshop, 1985

In this reimagining of the lives of virgin martyrs from the calendar of Catholic saints, Van Horn’s simple visual representations (which are also richly decorated and colored, in the tradition of much Medieval hagiographic art) and short texts reduce the stories of these saints to the barest of elements, in much the way traditional depictions of Catholic saints use the saints’ “attributes,” associated objects, to represent the events of their lives. In her narratives of the saints’ lives, which reveal the sometimes inconsistent and unlikely elements of such stories, Van Horn calls attention to a tension between portraiture and biography, and between the real and the imagined elements in any historical biography. The artist also adds her own interpretation of the stories and of the very act of venerating martyrs by celebrating the brutality of their tortures and deaths.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 +985S

Docking Competitions

Erica Van Horn and Laurie Clark, Docking Competitions, 1991-95, Docking, Norfolk, England: Coracle, [1995]

This collaboration records four years worth of fund-raising competitions in the artists’ home community of Docking, events sponsored by local chapters of the Women’s Section of the Royal British Legion and the Women’s Institute, two leading volunteer service organizations in the UK. Van Horn and Clark create a clever window into their community by documenting the charitable work of these organizations using only brief descriptions of their contests accompanied by simple illustrations. The competitions focus variously on household articles (“The competition will be for the prettiest hanky”), craft projects (“A competition for the best hanging basket made from the skin of half a grapefruit”), and gardening achievements (“The Competition will be for The Longest Stick of Rhubarb”). The comic portrait that results pokes fun at the tradition of such competitions with no sense of ridicule or mean-spiritedness.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 995D

Small Houses

Small Houses: the Buildings of Tom Browne, Ballybeg, Grange, Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland: Coracle, 2007

In Small Houses, Van Horn honors another artist, a friend and neighbor who works in an unconventional artistic medium: a retired builder, Tom Browne makes miniature versions of the houses of friends and family. Browne’s work is itself a kind of portraiture, a fact Van Horn recognizes and acknowledges by putting Browne’s replica of her own house on the cover, essentially making the book a sly double portrait. In addition to celebrating Browne’s houses, Van Horn’s narrative in Small Houses reveals ways in which a maker’s sensibility extends to Browne’s quotidian chores and daily life in rural Tipperary, Ireland. As part of her “Living Locally” series, a group of works that observe, document, and honor Van Horn’s adopted home community in Tipperary, Small Houses is also a portrait of a place, a community, and a landscape as viewed through the work of one member and recorded and described by another.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 2007S


++ See also Language: Foreign & Local

Le Poet

Erica Van Horn and Simon Cutts, Le Poet, Docking, Norfolk, England: Coracle, 1993

A joint portrait of Van Horn and Simon Cutts, her poet-artist husband and frequent collaborator, distributed to celebrate the New Year, 1993

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 990N

Oeuf et Une Chaise

Oeuf et Une Chaise, Vitry-sur-Seine, France: s.n. 1983

In this private visual narrative, a kind of imagistic autobiography or self-portrait, Van Horn records what she calls “an awkward time—thinking I was pregnant while very poor and living alone in Paris and not having a clue as to what I would do about it.” Much as her work often pares a narrative to its most basic elements, in this case, the artist writes: “I reduced the problem to 2 elements: the egg and the chair, literally waiting for the egg to drop.”

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 +983Q


++ See also Visual Narrative & the Plot of Pattern

Eighty-Nine Women Drawn in a Book

Eighty-Nine Women Drawn in a Book: 10 February 1987 - 1 February 1988, [New York: s.n. 1988]

Within a found financial ledger book (several pages of which contain figures and calculations) Van Horn blends drawing, painting, and collaged pages from magazines to create eighty-nine images of women. Reusing found materials in combination with her own drawing allows the artist to revise and re-imagine commercially produced depictions of women: a woman in a photographic advertisement, for instance, might be transformed into a portrait of Saint Lucy, who happens to be the patron saint of salesmen.

Beinecke Call Number: 2009 Folio 66


++ See also Leftovers

Mes Vetements Sont Souvent [Une] Un Problème

Mes Vetements Sont Souvent [Une] Un Problème, 1983, [France: s.n. 1983]

Van Horn uses an unusual format, creating an accordion fold-structure by sewing loose cards together, to document a challenge of her daily life in Paris: "my clothes," Van Horn writes, "were ALWAYS a problem (not fashionable, not new, not expensive, and often mismatched)." This book is one of a series of "souvenirs," in which Van Horn models the form on the familiar folders of postcards that are readily available on the streets of Paris, where the artist was then living. The clothing depicted here is also visible in other work Van Horn made during this period, including Eulogy--Favorite Clothes Who Died in France, 1983, and Odyssey, Paris 1982, in which Van Horn's purple-booted feet can be seen in the first frame.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 983M1

++See also Visual Narrative & the Plot of Pattern + This Is the Everyday

Stiles & the Pennine Way

Stiles & the Pennine Way, Docking, Norfolk, England: Coracle, 1993

An unusual daily travel journal, Stiles & the Pennine Way, records an eleven-day-long walking trip in England; seven day of the trip were spent walking the Pennine Way, a trail ranging across the Pennine Mountains. To keep from getting bored and as a way to distract herself from the steady rain, Van Horn kept track of the stiles she passed through or over along the walk by making hash marks on the sleeve of her raincoat with a waterproof pen. “I was very tidy about my little group of tally marks,” Van Horn writes of her second day on the trail, “and found myself admiring my sleeve a lot through the afternoon, especially since it was raining hard and I had to keep my head down.” Though the book includes Van Horn’s prose narrative about her trip, her drawing of her sleeves interrupts the text in its center; in this way, Van Horn suggests that the marks and the practice of making them are at least as important as the straightforward description of the journey.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 +993S


++ See also Visual Narrative & the Plot of Pattern + This Is the Everyday

Reference Files of Envelopes Received

Reference Files of Envelopes Received, December 1983-December 1996

This singular work of artistic and archival practice includes some 3,500 envelopes sewn into 154 books, housed in six large boxes. The envelopes are all addressed to Van Horn (or to her and her husband, Simon Cutts) at locations in the United States, England, France, and Italy, over a period of more than ten years. After keeping all her incoming correspondence for many years, Van Horn decided to discard the envelopes in an effort to pare down her possessions: “I decided the envelopes were dead weight. After sorting through and separating a few years worth, I felt very sad. The envelopes were a record of where I had been at moments during a peripatetic time. My solution was to sew them together in monthly batches.” The resulting work is an exploration of memory, its fragmentary nature, its insistence, and its repetitions. By transforming the postmarked envelopes into something new, Van Horn both records their original meaning (her connection and communication with a particular person, at a particular time, in a particular place) and creates a new and separate meaning for each envelope, now the raw materials of a work of art, the component parts of a large-scale art project.

Beinecke Call Number: Zab V3115 +983R


++ See also This Is the Everyday + Leftovers