AF: Thanks for taking your time to talk to AF. Can you talk about your background in the arts?
EDB: I’ve been painting since I was a child. Using text and lyrics in my work dates back to when I was a pre-teen, though my current word blocks did not come into existence until 2005. I did not use the word blocks to form a recognizable image until 2011. I studied music and art at UC Santa Cruz, before transferring to California College of Arts and Crafts, where I received a BFA in painting in 1999. I moved to Brooklyn in 2000 and received my MFA in painting from Cornell University in 2006. I have been working with Freight and Volume since 2006. This is my fourth solo show there. In June 2013, I was commissioned by Rag and Bone to paint a mural on their Houston Wall outside their boutique on Houston and Elizabeth. I chose David Bowie as my subject. This received a lot of press, including a write up on Bowie’s official site and an Instagram of it from his wife Iman. I wrote songs, played keyboards, and sang in various bands from 1997 until 2011, but have focused entirely on painting in the last three years.
AF: Tell us about your current show There’s a Riot Goin’ On at Freight & Volume?
EDB: It’s the first time I’ve done a full show of text portraits, which emerged from my more color field oriented text paintings. The cast of characters consists of a lot of who you might call troubled geniuses, and the setting is the early 70s. I was already drawn to subjects from that time period and decided to delve deeper into it and use it as a loose framework for the whole show. I’m interested in the different ways these artists record and represent their time period and how fresh and vital their voices still are. The title of the show comes from the 1971 Sly and the Family Stone album, which itself comes from the Leiber and Stoller song “Riot in Cell Block #9,” but was intended as a response to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” released earlier that year. I definitely like those layers of reference and the repurposing of the text. That album is emblematic of the vibe I’m interested in here: the end of 60s optimism and the reality check of what was going on.
AF: How long did you work on the paintings for this show?
EDB: I worked on the show for over a year, but also worked on some other projects at the same time. The earliest one is Harry Nilsson (All My Life), which I made in early 2013. I usually work on one painting at a time, but think about the body of work as a whole. The larger canvasses can take a month to paint, and that doesn’t include all the research and planning that I do.
AF: How do you decide what words to use on the paintings?
EDB: The texts are the words of the subjects, sung, spoken, or written. The figures and texts I’m using in this show play off one another. Karen Carpenter’s love songs, for instance, are very different than Richard Pryor’s observations about race. Taken together, I’m hoping to suggest the different realities that existed at the same time. I’m attracted to the way the texts change once they are put on the painting. Pop songs can become surreal; jokes can lose their humor; melodies are lost and meaning is reshuffled.
AF: I love the Richard Pryor painting. Can you tell me more about that piece?
EDB: I’ve been interested in standup comedy since I was a kid. Bobcat Goldthwait’s Meat Bob was one of my favorite albums growing up. I’d seen parts of Pryor’s standup movies and some of his film appearances, but was blown away by his 70s albums when I finally heard them. They are just as relevant today as they were when they were made, and his honesty is still startling. It became clear to me that more people were familiar with his celebrity (including his attempted self-immolation) than his actual art, so I wanted to attempt to spread the word. I found some transcriptions of his standup and made more myself. It’s amazing to me that he was able to present radical politics as entertainment and be one of the funniest people that ever lived. On stage he could be completely intimate with thousands of people, and I wanted to suggest that vulnerability, courage, and heart in the portrait. I took scores of stills from video of him performing in order to capture this feeling, and I think it’s more effective this way than if I had used one of the frequently reproduced, more familiar images of him.
Erik Den Breejen: There’s a riot Goin’ on
530 W. 24th St.
New York, NY
PHONE: 212 691 7700
FAX: 212 989 8708
Interview by Jamie Martinez
photography by Max Noy