Written by Manuel Bello
Manuel talks with Eric about his new work, why he hasn't shown in awhile and how he ended up at David and Patricia Arquette's house for dinner plus more.
A couple years back I attended a karaoke after party for Camille Rose Garcia. I was introduced to this guy named Eric, the resident M.C. for the night. Over the next six months or so I would see Eric around not realizing this was the Eric White, the same guy who has shared the stage with the likes of Mark Ryden, Joe Sorren and The Clayton Brothers among others. Needless to say I was surprised having seen his work for some time and being pretty moved by it. Eric's painting skills are truly unbelievable to say the least. His work transcends time, reality, science and logic. It is rich in content and is visually mind blowing. He finds inspiration in metaphysics, with trace hints of iconic pop culture of years past. We are proud to introduce the words and art of the illusive and always humble Eric White. -Manuel Bello
What was it like growing up as a child in Ann Arbor?
It was good, pretty idyllic. I don't really have anything to compare it to, but every time I go back there I feel really lucky to have been raised in a town like Ann Arbor. Little neighborhoods with tree lined streets. It was safe, and it had culture, but was still a small town. It was a perfect place to grow up, except for the weather, but as a kid that wasn't something I thought about.
How did you end up in Brooklyn?
I went to R.I.S.D. (Rhode Island School of Design) and after school most of my friends were going to New York. So I wanted to do that, but my girlfriend at the time had lived in San Francisco, so we went out there, and then broke up 2 months later. I had planned to leave but decided to stay, and it actually turned out to be a really good thing, and I ended up staying there for ten years. After a while the art scene there started feeling very small. I did have a really comfortable life in San Francisco, but I needed a kick in the ass and NY was definitely the place. I was thinking about LA but that wouldn't have been that big of a deal. I was spending a lot of time down there, but I thought it would be better to do the big scary move first. New York was really brutal for the first two years, it was just terrible, a really difficult transition for me to make. It's just a harder place to live. But once you get used to it and get your energy elevated to a certain level you don't even think about it anymore.
You graduated from the RISD in the early 90's. Describe what you took away from art school, the work you were doing in those days and how did you transition into the work you are doing today.
As a kid I always drew pictures and painted, but I never really considered it seriously until the end of high school, when two key people in my life strongly suggested I consider art school. I started thinking about it seriously, and I applied to R.I.S.D. because for some reason I had always been aware of it and wanted to go there. They make you decide your major after just one semester, and it was between painting or illustration. At that time I didn't even know what either one really meant. I tried to get feedback and ask people what they thought and everything seemed to point towards illustration as a safer bet. I sometimes wonder where I would be had I gone into the painting program, what my life would be like and where I would be, etc. But looking back, it seems like it was a pretty good route for me to take. After school I ended up in San Francisco and started getting illustration work pretty quickly. I started working with this magazine Mondo 2000, which was really my first good illustration gig. Mondo 2000 was sort of the predecessor to Wired. They paid nothing-Fifty dollars for a full page, but they had really beautiful printing, and they let me do whatever the hell I wanted. Bart Nagel, who became a good friend, was the art director there, and he gave me complete freedom, and I built up a pretty good portfolio. I started shopping it around, and ended up getting a lot of celebrity caricature work for magazines. I hadn't planned to do that kind of thing, but it was great, because I was setting my own schedule and working at home, and drawing and painting every single day. But after a while I got a bit bored and felt like a hired hand. I started exploring my own ideas and working on paintings on the side. A good friend of suggested I check out La Luz de Jesus in LA. At that time, all I had to show was my illustration work, but I brought it down there and the owner, Billy Shire, was really open to it. I did a piece for a group show in 1995 and the next thing I knew he asked me to do a solo show. He gave me an opportunity that no other gallery would have, and I'm really grateful for that. It was a really exciting time for me, to be a part of this developing scene in L.A., and to be finding my own voice through my work. I think the years I spent doing illustration work were kind of like boot-camp. It got my painting chops, and I learned how to motivate myself. I was able to transition from illustration pretty smoothly. There was some financial lag, but before long I was able to survive selling my paintings.
You have been in the figurative surrealism, pop surrealism scene for a good amount of years now. How has the art scene changed over the last ten years?
I sort of got swept up in that whole thing, and never entirely felt I belonged, though I was happy to be a part of it. The thing just started getting bigger and galleries started springing up everywhere. First came Robert Williams and the guys who really established the underground in L.A. and opened the door for others. I happened to come along at a really good time. I think I was part of the second wave. Now we're into the third and fourth waves, and the thing has gotten really big, with lots of people now embracing it and collecting this kind of work. My biggest problem with the 'movement' now is that a lot of the work seems very derivative. People who are biting established styles are becoming successful very quickly. I think things have gotten a little watered down. There is so much 'lowbrow' stuff out there now, and with a few exceptions, not much of it is that exciting to me.
What would you say is the primary influence in your work?
When I look at the work I've made over the years, I feel like there is one thing that has always been a part of it, that maybe I wasn't even aware of consciously, which is the sort of metaphysical angle that I am really interested in. The idea that there are things that exist beyond our perception is fascinating to me. It is something that I think about a lot, and it is not necessarily clear in most of my paintings, but I think it's the foundation of pretty much all of it. I've recently landed on an idea that will take me into my next body of work. I don't feel like I've had a cohesive show yet. The stuff from my show a couple years ago was to a degree, but in some way I just still see it as separate little groupings of work. So I'm hoping the next body will be consistent and cohesive.
Who is Casey Gallagher and how did the Casey Gallagher collaborations come to be?
Casey is the son of a friend of mine, who at the time was in the middle of a divorce. The theme for the show (Who Are Parents) hit me one night in the span of a couple hours. I went into a pseudo-meditative state and had this visual conception of the show, almost like it was coming from someplace else. Really weird. The whole thing just fit together perfectly. The work was about parents and dysfunctional relationships within families. My parents were divorced when I was seven, and my mom has been re-married and divorced twice since then. So Casey was around the age I was when my parents got divorced, and I really liked the idea of collaborating with a six-year-old. And his drawings were amazing, and much better than mine were at his age. His dad gave me a bunch of his drawings, and I painted them over the top of these romanticized portraits of Hollywood couples. I liked the idea of bringing the trauma of that event in my life into the present with a kid who was going through the same thing.
To me one of your most epic pieces is the Orgonomic Functionalism Conference, 1973. Some time ago I was checking that piece out and thinking what is Orgonomic Functionalism? I found some interesting info on it but it was really complicated. What inspired that piece, and in lamens terms what is "Orgonomic Functionalism"?
You're probably asking the wrong guy. I was looking through old photographs of my grandmother, who had died around that time. My dad thinks it's probably a sorority meeting. I usually work from photographs, whether my own or appropriated, and usually distort them in some way. In this case the photo was so amazing and bizarre that I didn't need to do much to it. I saw it and instantly thought of painting it. Plus it had some significance with my grandmother right in the center. I changed a couple of things, including the context of the setting. I decided to have them at a conference listening to Wilhelm Reich lecture on Orgonomic Functionalism.
The stuff is really out there, I read up on it for a couple of hours and I still could not figure out what exactly it was.
I tried to read his book about orgonomic functionalism, but I can't pretend to understand what the hell the guy was talking about. But I do think he was a very advanced human who was very misunderstood. He claimed to have identified the life force, or "orgone energy" as he called it. He claimed not only to have discovered it, but to have figured out a way to generate it. His story is pretty tragic. He was being pursued by the U.S. government and somehow the FDA got him on something. They arrested him and he said "Don't put me in jail, I have a heart condition. I will die if you put me in jail." But they did and he died. I have a bunch of his books but it is not easy reading. I think you can actually get plans to build an Orgone Generator. (laughs) You can order your very own, and create life force energy in the privacy of your own home.
Some of your pieces have proper names for titles. I know Joshua Chamberlain was a real guy, civil war vet from maine. What inspired that piece and what are those pearlescent figures doing to him?
The Ken Burns Civil War documentary inspired that piece. He almost looks like an actor playing a civil war general. He had a giant fancy mustache and all that. Again, it was just a photo that really appealed to me aesthetically, but I didn't want to do a straight portrait. I'm always thinking about different levels of perception, and wondering if there are other forces at work here. Are there entities assisting us or manipulating us in some way? I have read some interesting books on the subject, and talked to psychics and other people about spirits, possession, etc, and I wanted to bring some of that into this piece. I was also thinking about what could have possibly been going through his mind the moment that photo was shot. He looks so damn contemplative. The guys on either side of his head are these sort of 1950's businessmen. I've also read a lot about our perception of time and how maybe time is not actually a linear progression, but rather all occurring at once. So the 50's element is mixed with this image from almost 100 years earlier. Time warp.
I have heard about this and it makes me think about how everyone says as you age time passes faster but this could also be something that is just perceived.
It true, it is a universal thing. Everybody says that. I think our understanding of how things work is so limited. Our understanding of the brain for example-I don't think we have any idea what the damn thing is. All we've ever been able to do is compare it to the most advanced technology that exists at the time. They used to equate it to a steam engine. Now it's similar to a computer. I sometimes think about déjà vu and wonder if it's not so much a lapse in memory, but rather jumping around in time. If time is circular then what is happening right now has already happened, and everything that has happened or that will happen is always happening. (laughs) There are a lot of things that science cannot explain. It's a simple example, but what about knowing who is calling before picking up the phone. The other day I thought of a friend who I don't talk to very often, and the moment I thought of him, the phone rang, and it was him. That kind of thing happens a lot, and to a lot of people. How do you explain that? It's a small thing, but it asks a bigger question.
Honestly, if you think about what science has discovered and how technology has evolved, why wouldn't we have these telekinetic abilities to some degree. What is the difference between that and wireless internet or that and your friend sending you a message through thought subconsciously, just by calling you.
Yeah, I think that stuff is real. Or 'real'. But some people just don't want to believe in it, which is understandable. I think for some it is just goes too far beyond their comfortable sense of reality. That leads back into the idea of unknown entities controlling us. I can remember a particular time driving in Ann Arbor one night. I had to make a left turn up ahead, but something told me to get back in the right lane. Just as I reached the top of the hill there was a car in the wrong lane coming towards me, and if I hadn't changed lanes I would have been fucked. Where did that instruction come from? Logically I had absolutely no reason to change lanes. That's the type of thing I try to tap into with my work. Whether I succeed or not is another question.
So I know this trick where you invert images on the computer and I have taken a couple of your negative inverted paintings. As I flipped them, in their positive state they were almost perfectly photo realistic. How crazy are you?
That's a really satisfying thing, and it's usually the first thing I do when I finish a negative painting. I flip it back to it's positive state. It's a lot easier to paint than it looks. I actually got the idea from this Richard Hamilton painting from the 60s. I think it's titled White Christmas, from the movie with Bing Crosby. It's a negative film still from the movie, with Bing standing there. It's a beautiful painting. I basically ripped him off. I heard that Hamilton looked at the positive picture and just figured out what the exact opposite colors were. I don't know if that's true, I sure hope not. He may have worked from a negative... I use the computer. Because I can.
Your last solo show that I know of was in 2004 at Earl McGrath gallery. I also see your work in a lot of group shows. Most notable of them is the Wonderland Show in Paris with Mark Ryden, Marion Peck and the Clayton Brothers. Can you give some idea of when we can expect another solo show.
I'm having one in Portland at Quality Pictures in April. Late 2008 or early 2009 in New York. I hope. Still looking for the right gallery here. I really need to get into the new work first, then I'll worry about where to show it.
Why so long?
It's been a combination of things. One is that I was in a creative slump of sorts for a while. I have been exploring galleries in New York and meeting people and making a few connections. I have had five or six offers in Chelsea, but nothing has felt quite right. I've just been waiting for the right place and waiting for the next body of work to reveal itself. I did the Paris show with Ryden and the Claytons, which was great, and I've been doing some group shows. I have been doing some commissions out of financial need. But doing them takes away from getting to the next body of work. There is something to be said for just diving into one idea and just exploring it in a bunch of different ways. I feel like I have traditionally done one-offs, or series that never last beyond one or two pieces. Now I'm focusing on a batch of paintings with a singular theme that will hopefully make sense together in a white room.
I understand that you have sold some work to a few hollywood heavy hitters. Can you enlighten me and name a few?
There have been a few. Gail Zappa bought what is probably my favorite of my early pieces, from my very first show. Leonardo DiCaprio has bought quite a few things over the years. Patricia Arquette bought the collaboration I did with Joe Sorren, and her brother David bought a piece. I wrote him thank you letter, and he wrote back and we started talking. They were kind enough to invite my over when I was in LA. During dinner, Courteney (Cox) whispered in my ear: "I have a commission I want you to do based on the painting that David bought". She wanted a portrait of David as a high school student to go with the one they had bought (Margo Lefferts). The best part was that David called me up months later to say he was taking the paintings on the Tonight Show. I found it hard to believe, but he actually did it. Towards the end of the segment he starts talking with Jay about art and sure enough he pulls the paintings out from behind the couch, and says: "these are by the painter Eric White" and is holding them up on national television. I could not believe it. So surreal. It was such a generous thing for him to do. The Zappa thing was great too. I was working on this little book when Frank was still alive and I had decided to dedicate the book in part to him. I knew he was ill, but I didn't realize how sick he really was. The plan was to send him a copy of the book when it was released. Unfortunately he died before the book was published. I was always really sad to have missed meeting him and thanking him for his work. When I was about to have my first show at La Luz in Los Angeles I wrote Gail a letter. I really put a lot into the thing, and it took me about a week to write. I mailed it and literally forgot about it. Then a few weeks later I am at my opening at La Luz, and there isn't a soul there but my mom and brother and a few other friends. My first solo show, nobody knew who the hell I was. About halfway through the opening I look over and see someone that looks like Gail Zappa might look. But I couldn't imagine she would have come. Then I look again and maybe see Dweezil? I didn't think it was possible. But sure enough, it was them, so I went over and introduced myself. I just couldn't believe that they had come. And then she bought a painting for $4000 dollars, which at the time seemed like a huge amount of money. If that weren't enough, she invited me to the house. My brother and I went the next day and met the whole family, who were all really great. Frank has been such a huge inspiration to me, and it was really incredible to be inside his world. Gail and I are friends to this day. Viggo Mortensen bought 'Untitled." He also published my most recent book. He's a really amazing guy, and a great artist. I can honestly say that all of these folks have been unbelievably supportive and generous.
What was the deal with the reference on the OC?
That was such a bizarre thing. I was at an opening and a friend called me and said: "I was just watching the OC and they said your name", and thought she was bullshitting. Then over the next couple of days I started getting calls and emails from friends, and all of them pretty much said the same thing: "I don't usually watch, but I just happened to last night, and they mentioned you". So I had heard about it but didn't see it until it was released on DVD. I was flattered by it, but the show makes it sound like I'm a household name or something. Hilarious.
Does Eric White have any words of wisdom?
You can also catch Eric White this month showing at sloanfineart.com in NYC with The Clayton Brothers, Vince Contarino, Nicholas Cope, Elizabeth McGrath, Kristen Schiele and Aaron Smith.
Sloan Fine Art- NY,NY
Opening Reception: January 30th, 6 to 9 pm
On Display: January 31 to February 16, 2008
Interview conducted by Fecal Face's NYC correspondant, Manuel Bello. He can be reached at: manuel(at)fecalface.com