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Painter Eric White On Pop Culture, Watergate, Vietnam And Time Travel

Eric White in front of East (1973 Plymouth Fury), part of Triage at GRIMM New York. Photo © Molly Krause/Molly Krause Communications


By KRISTIN SANCKEN
January, 2019

Artist Eric White recently presented Triage, a solo show of new, large-scale paintings at GRIMM Gallery in New York City. The seven works on view, which touch on the anxiety and angst of 1970s socio-political climate in the United States, manage to express commonplace American fear culture in an anecdotal and playful manner that allows to viewer to enjoy both the quirkiness of the subject matter and the aesthetic merit of the work.   

I spoke with Eric about the backstory behind the series of paintings, the significance of the year 1973, and the role of pop-culture ephemera plays in his day-to-day life.  

KS: What is it about 1973 that inspired the year as a central narrative in your new body of work? 

EW: In 1973, I was quite young and only peripherally aware of what was going on politically, so any perception I had of it was limited, but I distinctly remember sitting with my dad watching Walter Cronkite and eating Stouffer’s welsh rarebit and feeling terrified. I obviously have more clarity on it now, but it’s crazy to think that Watergate and Vietnam were going on then, and that if my dad hadn’t figured a way out of the draft I might not exist. It was also the year of Roe v. Wade and the beginning of the womens movement and I think about how that was affecting my mom. It also marked the beginning of the dark corporate shenanigans that may eventually lead to the undoing of this country.

By escaping into my imagination and creating little worlds that were completely under my control through drawing, I found I could manage the chaos, at least internally. Today I think there’s a certain satisfaction in working the same way—very technical, controlled painting. It’s probably the same psychological dynamic at play. 

Exhibition view of Eric White's Triage at GRIMM New York. Photo © Eric White Studio/GRIMM

What made you decide to use a generic, secretary-esque woman as your main character?  

I have been thinking about this character off and on (mostly off) for over 20 years now. Had the idea manifested itself any earlier the work would have been drastically different. This is what I wrote early on in my notes for the current show:  

“As a means of coping with the current tumult Im transporting myself back to the year 1973 and staging an uprising in the avatar of a woman working at a nondescript corporate concern who is having an epiphany/delusion and resorts to a self-formulated paganism to rectify the ills of society and her current circumstance.”

I don’t think of her as generic, but I chose to make her anonymous because I liked the idea of revealing her character through her actions as a reaction to internal and societal unrest, rather than her specific look or personal circumstances.

As an aspect of the healing rituals she is performing, the character begins secretly making shrines out of cultural material inside the walls of her office building, and then progresses to larger and more elaborate ones in the public forum of the parking lot. Her ritualistic behaviors and the expression of pagan symbolism are a response to the doom she feels surrounding her. She truly believes that her actions, which undoubtedly appear bizarre to the outside world, are a benevolent and productive way to mitigate chaos.

North (1971 Ford Torino 500) at Eric White's Triage, GRIMM New York. Photo © Vladimir Weinstein/BFA

How did you go about researching and deciding on what cultural ephemera resonates the main character? Do any of these objects have a particular, special meaning to you?  

When we temporarily relocated to New York, I happened to walk by Mercer Street Books, went in and walked around a bit, and randomly picked up JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, the title of which I was only familiar with thanks to the Danny Brown album. My only previous exposure to Ballard had been reading Crash years earlier. On the train back to Brooklyn I read the the first paragraph and was astonished to find it contained a shocking number of subjects I’ve explored for years—world cataclysm, Freud, Elizabeth Taylor, dreams/nightmares—and upon further reading saw that it also contained a reference to a white ’68 Pontiac and Liz Taylor Billboards.  

Exhibition view of Eric White's Triage at GRIMM New York. Photo © Eric White Studio/GRIMM

The other day I found an early entry in my sketchbook for the show which asks “all pre 1973?” Many of the books and records and all of the films on the billboards were actually released that year, and nothing pictured in any of the works existed after 1973. Most of the records and some of the books pictured have impacted me to a great degree, while others were simply chosen for their aesthetic properties.  

Cars have factored heavily in my work for years, in part due to my upbringing in proximity to Detroit and my family’s employment in the auto industry. In this case, there is one from each of the “Big Three:” GM, Ford, and Chrysler, plus and AMC for good measure. The same make and model (and angle) of each one is in all three works, and there’s a repeating old lady (who is the only other character present aside from the central woman) with a Toyota Corolla, which was our family car in the 70s, and was conspicuously non-domestic and anxiety provoking in Detroit back then. The cars all face in random directions in total disregard of the parking lot lines—another visual representation of her internal chaos. WM

 

Kristin Sancken

Kristin Sancken is a New York based writer, curator, and art consultant. 

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