Erik den Breejen
Frieght and Volume
May 1st to June 7th, 2014
By MARIA CALANDRA, JUN. 2014
Erik den Breejen’s work has had a long lasting love affair with the seductive poetry of popular music and rock and roll, finely tuned painted marks, and hues that are turned on by complimentary and sometimes less than complimentary color schemes. In the event of his recent show at Freight + Volume gallery in Chelsea, I had the opportunity to talk to him about his perspective on this new body of work and what was involved in making it. I am no stranger to Den Breejen’s paintings — believe me — but still I learned quite a lot from asking him questions a few weeks after the show’s opening.
Maria Calandra: Your 2011 solo show at F + V was all related to the Beach Boys album Smile. In your current exhibition we see varying artists working in multiple disciplines as a kind of collective inspiration. How did you arrive here?
Erik den Breejen: I thought the Smile album was rich enough in mystique and myth to carry a whole series of paintings, which I still believe, but I started to realize that I was limiting my ability to be understood by using a reference a lot of people wouldn’t get. I didn’t necessarily improve on that problem by painting cult figure Harry Nilsson, but that sparked an interest in artists from the early 70’s. Once I thought to do Richard Pryor, the rest started coming pretty quickly. I wanted to put together an eclectic cast of misfits; a rogue’s gallery, if you will. I used people from different artistic disciplines that didn't necessarily go together, so that the viewer might try to figure out connections or reasons for the juxtaposition.
Calandra: It seems like this is a scholarly endeavor. So you must have stumbled upon strange moments in your research where the individuals related to one another in more ways than just their shared era. And discovering connections can then act like a divining rod leading you to spots for new or continued digging. Can you share any of these connections with us?
Den Breejen: Well, Vietnam looms large across the source material, both directly and indirectly. There were lots of surprise connections — Joan Didion wrote about Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, while Richard Pryor was associated with them. I included Billie Holiday, even though she was an earlier figure, since the song I used for her turned out to be a staple of Liza’s early 70’s concerts. There were also music trivia things that came up, like "Walk on the Wild Side" by Lou Reed and "Jump into the Fire" by Nilsson having the same bass player.
Calandra: Did you become obsessed with any of these figures like you had with Brian Wilson?
Den Breejen: Definitely, but I approached a lot of the subjects less out of fandom and more out of an interest in their importance -- the shadow they cast. I became a fan as I delved into the work.
Calandra: What excited you about that?
Den Breejen: Everything! I was blown away the first time I heard those 70’s Richard Pryor albums all the way through. I had no idea... And I hadn’t seen Cabaret since I was a kid. It’s such a beautiful film visually. That had a lot to do with my use of it.
Calandra: I know you like to share your current discoveries with friends and cohorts. Did you find yourself jamming out to Richard Pryor records with them or reciting Ginsberg instead of breaking down the nuances of "Surf's Up" in the months leading up to the show? I feel there is a performative aspect to the work.
Den Breejen: Yeah, I subject a lot of people to the things I’m into, whether they’re prepared for it or not. I get obsessed and hope my enthusiasm is contagious. It does feel a bit like performing when I’m playing a record for a captive audience.
Calandra: Think you could recite any comedy bits like you once did for the entire Pink Floyd album The Wall at F + V back in 2007? That was quite an epic and bizarre moment.
Den Breejen: I’ve thought of re-performing a standup comedy album, but that could be very challenging. It would certainly change the context to do it in a gallery, and I like the way the authorship of the performance would get confused, especially since comedians can be so proprietary about their material.
Calandra: I am sure everyone asks you this, but the paintings take a heavy amount of concentration and kind of obsessive repetition. Did this, coupled with the studying of some of these “rogues”’ lives, ever make you feel crazy during your process?
Den Breejen: Yes.
Calandra: How did you arrive at the specific images you used for each portrait? They have such particular expressions, almost eerily breathing life as they are stuck in their moment of time and text.
Den Breejen: I've used both familiar iconic images and more personal ones that are still recognizable. Pryor, Ginsberg, and Minnelli were all carefully selected from stills I made of their films and videos. I chose those images for their potency and revealing quality. The big Nilsson painting of him in his bathrobe is from an album cover, but it's still so quirky, so Nilsson. Marvin Gaye in a black leather trench coat played nicely off that and fit his personality too.
Calandra: Did these choices influence the color you used for each canvas? This show is much about color as anything else, which really helped set the mood from painting to painting. Before there was much more range in one work. There is a unique yet familiar rhythm to each piece now. The rhythm being a specific grouping of colors. These groupings even sometimes speak to the time in which the artist lived. I am thinking of the Ginsberg painting in particular.
Den Breejen: I see the paintings as having three equal, interconnected parts: the words, the image, and the color. The color operates as its own language, but it's usually based on some pre-existing lighting situation, and it occurs on the words as it creates them, as they both create the image. It's hard for me to pin down what the most engaging part of the work is for me, but as I'm making them in the moment, I'm most concerned with color. Mixing the colors and playing them off one another feels very musical to me. Instead of using lots of chords, per se, as I did in the past, I'm now using fewer chords, but they're bigger, more complex chords. Listening to Wagner had a lot to do with that. I’m thinking of the color as a key, as it relates to the image, as it relates to the subject. It's very interconnected.
Calandra: Dude, whats next then? I guess that is an unfair question, but really what is next? Portraits are an important investigation and you were able to approach them in the context of both cultural and art history. Do you think the work will ever return to the more abstract place that it began?
Den Breejen: Yeah, I don’t see why not, but not in the same way as my earlier work. Also, I feel like they’re plenty abstract even with the subject matter, but I know what you mean. I feel like I can go anywhere with this system. It’s like I’ve taught myself how to paint in a new way and different approaches or subjects are just grist for the mill. I’d like to do another landscape at this point, because I’ve been almost exclusively doing portraits and figures for the past two years.
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Maria Calandra is the Brooklyn based artist and writer behind the blog Pencil in the Studio. She visits artists in their studios for a full day while drawing their space and talking to them about their life and work. www.pencilinthestudio.blogspot.com