Kris Chatterson interviews painter Eric Freeman.
I first encountered Eric Freeman’s work in the summer of 2003 at his first show in the main space at Mark Moore Gallery in Santa Monica, CA. I was shocked to see painting that had such an economy of means. They were relatively simple, yet I could not shake them off. In the spring of 2004 I was able to meet Eric at his second show in LA with Western Project. We became friends and when I would make my yearly trip to New York we would meet up and do a studio visit. At that time Eric was known for making color field paintings that looked like a Mark Rothko turned inside out and the volume turned way up. High contrast played a big role in creating illusions that seemed as if the edges warped or curved. Over the last year or so I have watched Eric push through to a new direction in his work.
Over the past decade Eric has shown in New York, Los Angeles, Brussels, Budapest, Helsinki, and Stockholm. He is in the Saatchi collection and will be in the upcoming show Abstract America.
I decided to interview Eric on the occasion of his current show at Wetterling Gallery in Stockholm, Sweden, which will be the first major show of work in the new direction. This interview took place via email after I visited Eric’s studio just before the work shipped out.
Kris Chatterson In the past your work has taken on basic forms in the format of color field painting, such as horizontal bands of light, squares within squares and vertical bars of light all created with colors that contrast each other or in gray scale that is really not quite gray. When I think back to your 2005 show at Mary Boone, that work tended to really sit in the room and radiate light out into the space. This new work is radically different. For starters, the paintings seem more like windows into a space filled with colored light that defies the laws of physics. There are allusions to some kind of structure or architecture, and you also seem to focus on using one color per painting. How did this fundamental shift accrue in the work? Was it something you were going after or did it happen organically as you moved from one painting to another?
Eric Freeman I’m always trying to reduce the elements in the paintings to the bare minimum. I made a conscious effort to make the light more ephemeral and abstract. The new paintings attempt to take the image off the surface of the canvas and instead have it act as a window into a space that contains light behaving in certain ways. I believe that the monochromatic nature of the work helps to make the painting more abstract and reductive. With only one color the image begins to pull apart like fabric breaking down into individual threads creating basically an image of nothing.
KC An image of nothing is a great way to think about it. It’s true because there is nothing really tangible to hold on to. It’s all air or some sort of vapor that seems to move as the illusional qualities of the work take effect in the retina. Creating a window and illusion with regard to abstract painting is a provocative idea. In looking at these new works I feel like they have a relationship to Caravaggio in terms of how the space is constructed. The way the edges are treated guide the eye into the window and we become a part of the interior of the painting. Are there historical pre-modern artists that you think about or feel may inform your work?
EF Yes, there are artists who I think about but who don’t inform the work directly, Caravaggio being one of them. Others include El Greco, Poussin, the Hudson River School, and Goya. I’m more directly informed by modern artists.
KC Absolutely. To my mind, particularly the West Coast Space and Light artists of the ’60s. I’m thinking Irwin and Turell. Which modern artists would you say more directly inform your work; and would you say space and light are the subjects of your paintings?
EF Yes, space and light are the main ideas that I am working with. The obvious influences are Irwin, Turrell, Flavin, Richter, Albers, Malevich, Reinhardt, Serra, and Barnett Newman. In a way I think of the paintings as painting sculpture.
KC And most of those artists were highly conscious of how the work was shown and seen, which brings me to my next question. When you’re painting for a show, do you think of the work as a group, creating a whole experience? I ask because I feel like your work is highly experiential, along with space and light as a subject of the work I would add the sensations created in looking at the work. Often the color is so sensitive that works hanging close by begin to interact.
EF I think of each painting individually as an experience. Since the paintings are made at the same time and are worked on in close proximity to one another they inevitably begin to relate and affect one another. Each color is very sensitive to its environment whether its another painting, the amount of light, etc. In the end I don’t think there’s a conscious effort to make all the paintings speak to one another. It’s more of an organic thing.
KC I am interested in how these paintings are made. There is a lot going on in the tension between light and dark whether in a single painting or in the diptych pieces. There is also the ambiguity between the simultaneous nothing/sculptural quality of the space. How do these ideas play themselves out on your process and how do you typically get started?
EF I always use as little paint as possible to allow light to pass through the layers of paint to the surface of the canvas. More transparent areas tend to push out whereas areas that are more densely painted have a tendency to push in. This is how I create the sculptural effect. Also everything is relative, when making paintings that are monochrome essentially, one area can appear light until something lighter is placed next to it, then it appears darker and vice versa. So using this idea I can make the images ephemeral and therefore give the appearance of something and nothing at the same time.
KC I am really taken in by the red painting. For me it’s such a hard color to work with. Red wants to be flat or pop out, yet in this painting I float right in. It’s an exquisite painting. Your color is very artificial, as in there are no earth tones relating to nature or flesh. The light seems to be made by electricity and have the effect of the glow from a TV screen. What is your relationship to the colors you choose to work with?
EF Everyone has colors that they find difficult to work with. I happen to find red one of the easiest and most enjoyable to work with. To me there is something very clear about the color red. In the red painting, “Humanism” (6×6, 2009), you are referring to, and in all the red paintings I make, I use a combination of reds that work together in a way that gives it dimension. As with all my other paintings, the red paint is applied very thinly which helps avoid the issues you seem to have with the color. The colors I choose have to have several qualities; a certain intensity, an ambiguous relationship to natural light and artificial light (leaning more towards artificial), colors that have a wide range of hues, and colors that have limited intimation.
KC I think we are opposite, because I work easiest with green and I tend to work in more opaque and translucent paint layers. The funny thing is I just mixed up some red and added it to a dark purple painting. Every time I come out to visit your studio I can’t help but be faced with the history of artists that have lived and worked on the east end of Long Island. You recommended that great book De Kooning’s Bicycle by Robert Long that chronicles the creative history of eastern Long Island. Something about the light changes as you leave the city on and head east. Once you reach the Montauk highway you’re in a very different place. The sky seems bluer and denser; the sunsets are eclectic with radiant oranges, blues, and violets. Most people leave for the winter yet you stick it out. What is it about this place that you like as a painter and does it have an impact of any kind on your work?
EF I moved out to eastern Long Island full time in Winter 2000 to concentrate on work. I thought there would be very few distractions. Turns out I was right. I love the city but find that I can’t concentrate or focus on work the way I can during the very quiet off-season out here in Sagaponack. This is my main reason for being here and working here. I know exactly what you are referring to when you speak of the light changing the further east you go. It sounds trite, but the light here is special. The flatness and proximity to water of the Hamptons provides light that permeates your head. It’s a kind of light that is electric even when it’s not bright, a kind of light that occurs and is a result of open space: large open skies or oceans. This relation of light and space together has influenced my work; I try to attain that feeling.