High and Wide
Interview with Eric Sall
By Dennis Matthews
Eric Sall is a painter I met while he was receiving his MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and I was working on my BFA a couple years ago. Ask him about the time I kicked his skateboard into the elevator and sent it down to the ground floor of our studio building. Still I was invited by Eric to his opening in the Chinatown Gallery District here in Los Angeles and requested an interview with him. The show consists of a selection of three of his strongest paintings. While a new gallery space, Eric’s work is large and any gallery needs to provide that breathing space to properly take in the worlds Eric creates in his paintings. Bright, funky, constantly on the go the paintings don’t wait for you, they consume you voluntarily or not into that mishmash and globs all done in his seizure-inducing palette. The reverberations that run amok in his paintings can easily be compared to the sound of feedback of a guitar coming unplugged from a live amp. Except the noise created is pleasant to the ears, in this case fascinating to the eyes.
His show is up at Acuna-Hansen Gallery, titled High and Wide, it runs from September 6th to October 18th. The gallery is at 427 Bernard Street.
A little bit of background about yourself? Where did you grow up
and go to college and grad school?
I was born and raised in South Dakota, first Sioux Falls, then on to
the Black Hills, Deadwood area, ya know, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity
Jane, the wild west...after high school I moved to Kansas City to
attend the Kansas City Art Institute, and after that I spent five
years making art away from school, one of which was at the Roswell
Artist in Residency program in Roswell, NM...Then on to Richmond
Virginia for grad school, VCU
What was your first experience with art?
I come from a pretty artistic family, my mom's parents were both
talented drawers, my grandma still likes to paint to this day. My
dad's mom was an interior designer a long time ago and has always
had a wonderfully decorated house. Both my parents went to college
for art but left early once they started a family. My mom still makes all
sorts of things, mostly craft based, but paintings too. My dad can
build anything and is a great drawer too. I can still remember a few
paintings of his that were around when I was younger, political
pieces from the 60's, one of a young black man with a huge afro in
front of an american flag, and another with a Trotsky-esque figure
surrounded by different symbols of peace, war, communism, and also
some random designs. I just always remember thinking art was
Influential artists or movements?
My early influences before I knew any significant art figures were
skateboard graphics, cartoons, and album cover art. I practiced re-
drawing my favorite images from these things all the time, and tried
to come up with my own logos and such too. I've always loved
Picasso, Basquiat, Baselitz, Guston, I guess all the real painter's
painters....I've been looking at a lot of DeKooning and Gorky
lately...I spend a lot of time at the MOMA in New York and think the
collection there is outstanding. There is a new Van Gogh show up now,
and his surfaces are pretty awesome....
If you weren't a painter, what do you think you would be doing?
I wanted to be a professional skateboarder when I was younger... I
love the outdoors, plants and such, and I love design and order, so
maybe a landscape architect or something...
If another medium was it for you, what would it be? Any ideas of
exploring something additional to the painting work?
I like photography, but haven't done any projects in quite a
while...I've often thought about sculpture too, but I never know
where to start, so I make the paintings as if they were sculptures...
How do you come up with your titles? They sound political or from
the media, Is this important to you or do you want viewers to
understand their references?
I look at the paintings for hours and hours as I make them and also
after their finished, and eventually something starts clicking in my
mind, maybe a phrase, maybe just a word, but from there I look at
dictionaries a lot and also song titles. I usually end up picking a title
that I think says something about the painting, maybe highlights a
certain aspect of the piece, but also one that is not too didactic...
because I'm also hoping to say something that is poetic in some
sense, and maybe something that is ambiguous too. The three paintings in
the Acuna Hansen show have titles that can definitely read as political,
for instance "Stockpile" can allude to hordes of weapons, but I initially
came up with the title while I was thinking about beaver dams and
the act of stocking up something for the winter..."Fair and Balanced"
is obviously the same phrase that the Fox Network uses to describe its
news coverage, but it also sounds humerous to me, because the idea
of something being fair or balanced in a painting seems likes
something a painter may think (or over-think) sometimes.... also
that specific painting really looked to me like some strange
object that was having trouble keeping its legs below it...In the
end I want the titles to exist similarly to the paintings, and that is to say,
somewhere between familiarity and poetic ambiguity...
Your paintings go through a lot of reworking, and we've talked
about this before,it brings to mind the issue of "doubt" that Guston
wrote, taught about,and worked through his entire career.
What I prefer to call a healthy distrust, what are your
thoughts on this?
Some paintings come easy, most come hard though, and for me I
often feel most comfortable when I am uncomfortable with the
painting. A major part of my process is to set about challenges that
must be dealt with, ie, how to make a geometric shape coexist with
anorganic blob, or how to reinvigorate old dry clumps on a canvas, or
how to get rid of the best part of the painting and still make it work.
I've been reading the deKooning biography, and there is a part that
talks about how long it took him to paint Woman 1, something like two
and half years working nearly everyday on the same surface, and the
biographer states the difficulty for deKooning in finishing the
painting "lay mainly with excavating an image that satisfied his
feeling for a buried truth." I think that says a lot about what it
can mean to make a painting. You don't always know what your
searching for or striving to depict in the process of painting, but
sometimes, hopefully more often than not, you just know when it feels
right, and that is often the hardest thing to articulate. The crazy thing
is that I've looked at Woman 1 so many times at MOMA, and to me
it still looks as if it was painted yesterday and only took a few hours tomake.
As a fellow painter, I know that this business of 'what does finished look
like' is a strange affair, your paintings seem to always be in a perpetual
state of 'in progress', do you feel that if the painting is an opponent
who just won't stay down (like in a boxer who lost the match rounds
ago), how would describe your relationship to this idea?
I think I may have answered this in the previous answer...but I will
add that even though most of the paintings do eventually become
finished, and I'm usually very happy with the results, I do feel that
each painting has an infinite number of ways that it could be worked
and finished, and in that regard I guess that is why some paintings
change so many times before I finally consider them finished. In a
way I think that this is very similar to the idea that any person's
life could take any number of paths from beginning to end, and it
still is just that one person's life. Remember that movie "Eternal
Sunshine of a Spotless Mind", they tried to erase their memories, and
after going about new versions of their lives, they are still drawn
to each other...maybe no matter how you paint the painting, you get
to a result that was intended all along...ok, this is sounding a bit
new-agey or something....
What's the biggest change or event to happen most recently in your
work and life? What are you excited about that's going on?
Some of the recent paintings I made, none of which are at the Acuna
Hansen show, were easily the hardest paintings for me to finish in a
long time. Many of them took a good year to make, and I guess it
goes back to the desire for struggle, or some sort of challenge to find
meaning in the process. After I finished that group of paintings,
I made a newer group that I finished very quickly, essentially allowing
the paintings to happen in just a few painting sessions. I find that the
paintings can carry as much weight as some of the others that are
worked over so much more. It's not necessarily something new for
me, and I'm not abandoning making paintings that take a long time
to finish, but there is something refreshing about the quicker ones...
What's next? Talk about some shows coming up.
I will be back in LA next month to do 2 group shows, one at Rio
Hondo College that is organized by Chris Acuna Hansen (of Acuna
Hansen Gallery), and another at an alternative space called Fakespace
LA, over at the Santa Fe Artists Colony, which is a new space that
some dear friends of mine started. Also in October, I will have a few
new pieces in a group show of gallery artists at ATM Gallery (NYC) that
will open at a brand new space for them. I have a few other things in
the works but they are too new to discuss....
Aside from that, I am moving into a new studio in Brooklyn any day
now at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Studio Residency Program, which is a
free studio for a year.
Right out of grad school, hell before, you really hit the ground
running...How did you deal with the pressure that must have caused
or did it just create more motivation to keep rockin' in the studio?
I firmly believe that I developed a very strong work ethic as an
undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Institute, maybe even a mid-west
work ethic, where I have always felt that the work (painting)is the
most important thing, and that if I just continued to work hard and
push myself, the rest would fall into place, for better or worse. Now
of course you know it doesn't just "fall into place" per se, but if
you really believe in your work, it makes it easier to deal with the
stress of the successes and the failures, because its not always a
romantic and exciting world to be involved with. I know that what I
do is a fragile thing, and it is sometimes crazy to expect anything
out of it other than self satisfaction. Most of the pressure that I
do have I put on myself, to continue to challenge myself, to try new
things, to stay interested and excited...and I am not a stress free
person because of it, I definitely have anxieties, but somehow I am
able to keep that out of my studio when I am working. I guess in the
end I just love doing what I do, and don't really know many other
things that are as satisfying to do. I do take breaks from making
work though, to visit family and friends, or if we can travel
somewhere for fun, these things are important. We used to have a
yard and I would spend a lot of time outside planting things and
hanging out with our dog, watching things grow. Those are relaxing
things to me, and in turn a good way to deal with pressure and stress.
Alright, now just for fun; What kind of music do you play while making your work?
I love music and listen to lots of different things when I work,
basically anything from classic rock, indie rock, soul, funk, jazz,
hip hop, dub, noisy shit and ambient nothings, and anything in
between...basically the itunes is on shuffle, but I always work with
music on, always....
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Dennis Matthews is an writer, painter and art historian that went to school on the East Coast and got his Master's degree from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. firstname.lastname@example.org