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The Nature of Spray Paint: Erick Sandlin finds the world within the can

 Remembering how to wiggle the key to unlock the door, 2019

By JANIS HASHE, April 2019

Erick Sandlin creates his work with spray paint. He is self-taught, and his highly textured, abstract paintings seemingly have little in common with the classic concept of plein airAnd yet, as Sandlin channels his inspirations onto cotton canvas or wood in his backyard open studio in Houston, always finishing a piece in one day, the very air around him directs and sometimes commands the work.

Harvey, 2017

“I pay close attention to the weather,” Sandlin says. “The humidity or rain makes different effects occur, and I use them.” One of Sandlin’s best-known works, Harvey (2017), was actually painted in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, as a light rain continued to fall. His backyard had been underwater for days, and the swirling blues and turquoises of the painting reflect the tumult of water and wind. Yet, at the same time, their intersections evoke a feeling of something beyond that tumult.

The patterns of the natural world, its constant change, the idea that a mountain was not always a mountain as we see it now, are all part of what he tunes into as he wields his spray cans, purchased from the local Home Depot. “Home Depot was pretty suspicious of me at first because I was buying so much spray paint,” he says, “but now they’re used to me.” He doesn’t buy in bulk, preferring to choose color to match to whatever mood he’s in at the time.  

Hold Your Breath, 2019

Through experimentation, he’s learned that certain colors react differently in certain weathers, and he uses that in the moment as he paints. “Aubergine…if I don’t shake the can, sometimes it will come out very thick and even add a cracking effect,” he explains, allowing the other layers of color to reveal themselves, adding depth. Once, when trying to clean a canvas, he put paint thinner on it, sprayed it with water, and wound up inventing a new technique. White is always the last color he adds to a painting. “It changes the ways the layers relate to each other,” he notes. Sandlin is drawn to the work of Mark Rothko, and both the Rothko Chapel and a fine selection of the artist’s work in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston give him ample opportunity to study it. Another inspiration is Willem de Kooning, and also the work of his wife, Elaine. “I saw it for the first time in the Museum of Fine Arts,” he says, and was attracted to its spirited, improvisational feel.

“It’s all about the process for me. But I recognize the final object should have meaning, should be beautiful, or provocative…people should be curious about it. Once it leaves my hands, that’s just as important,” he says. 

A sly humor emerges in some work, such as “Barroom Speeches (2015),” in which livelier color at the painting’s top seems to descend into murkier, whiskey-glass dregs toward the bottom. In other pieces, glowing colors explode off the canvas at the viewer, as in the enigmatic “Often Dangerous (2016),” weaving through and pushing past one another. In “High Waters (2015), blades of gray face off against each other over brilliant, bubbling color.

Best Intentions, 2019

Sandlin’s journey to professional artist has traveled its own path. He loved fooling around with art as a child, but admits, “I can’t draw, and I can’t paint with a brush.” This left him feeling he couldn’t possibly create art, at least not by the standards he was told were necessary. He went to law school and became an attorney, a career he continues to pursue and enjoys. 

“In 2008, after I finished law school, I picked up a spray can, and found something that was not how I was taught,” he says. The juxtaposition of the analytical, rule-bound legal work with the uncontrolled, rule-free painting process gives him access to both right- and left-brain experiences, with likely a little crossover from time to time. 

Hear Me Out, 2019

For example, his upcoming solo show at Jack Meier Gallery in Houston, “Eavesdrop,” was inspired both by the comic-yet-ominous wooden figures looking down on visitors to Hampton Court’s Great Court, and by the invasive nature of modern technology. “[It sometimes feels that] everyone is eavesdropping on you,” he says. “Even the paintings on your walls are watching and listening…when you aren’t listening to them.”

Sandlin accepts commissions, and in the beginning, would often create two paintings and offer the buyer a choice. “Lots of times they bought both,” he says. What he’s discovered works best is  letting the process take its course, and if, occasionally, the buyer doesn’t want the finished painting, he offers to paint a different piece. “What I won’t do,” he says, “is change the piece.” He also has no interest in recreating earlier work. His style has evolved, and because he works so completely in the moment, “I can’t even remember how I did that,” he says. And although he recognizes that at some point he may move on to other surfaces or other techniques, he still hasn’t “reached the end of what I’m doing currently.”

Long Forgotten, 2019

One new possibility under discussion is working with a local dance troupe — but not painting sets. “We’re talking about doing pieces where the dancers run through the paint onto the canvas,” he says. 

As for the idea of painting full-time, Sandlin says he’s often asked about it, but enjoys the balance his life provides as it is now. “I don’t want painting to turn into work,” he says. “Right now, I haven’t had to treat it like work. I like the freedom.”

Erick Sandlin’s solo show, “Eavesdrop,” opens May 2 at Jack Meier Gallery, 2310 Bissonnet St., Houston, TX. To see other examples of Sandlin’s work, visit www.ericksandlin.com. WM

Janis Hashe

Janis Hashe is a freelance journalist, covering the arts, travel, the environment, politics, and, occasionally, tea. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunset Magazine, Monocle, and many other publications. She is the former contributing editor of Chattanooga’s alt-weekly paper, The Pulse. Her current home is Richmond, California, where she contributes frequently to the East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, and Alameda Magazine. The Ex-Club Tong Pang, her first novel, was published in 2014.

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