Erik den Breejen’s ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’ Showing At Freight + Volume Gallery [INTERVIEW]

Posted on: May 23rd, 2014 at 10:38 am by

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Erik den Breejen ‘As Pure and Strange as What I See (For Lou Reed)’

If you enjoyed Erik den Breejen’s lyrical Bowie mural at Rag & Bone, there’s more where that came from. A new solo show of paintings is currently on view at Freight+Volume gallery (Chelsea).  It consists of text portraits similar to the Bowie mural, and has to do with the early 70s.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On takes a commanding look back at the early 70’s and specifically explores the lives and work of creative revolutionaries such as Richard Pryor, Harry Nilsson, Marvin Gaye, Joan Baez, and Allen Ginsberg, among others. Den Breejen investigates the role of the artist as messenger from another state of consciousness. These artists, comedians, musicians, poets, and rock stars channeled their inspiration to confront the rules and norms of their time.

We caught up with Erik to pick his brain about the method to his artistic madness.

BOWERY BOOGIE: Can you walk us through the process for creating a mural?  
ERIK DEN BREEJEN: With a mural or painting on canvas, I’m looking for the right combination of image and text.  With the portraits, the text is usually the words of the person portrayed.  I’m thinking about scale the whole time and the relationship of the parts to the whole — the size of the words as they relate to the size of the painting.  I then group the text into a proportionate rectangle and begin coloring the words and letters to create the image.

BB: Do you end up picking your favorite songs and stand up jokes for your pieces, or do you try to have them epitomize the individual? 
EB: I’m interested in the historic and cultural significance of the figures I paint.  Sometimes, my interest in portraying them stems from my fandom, while other times I’ll become a fan during the course of my research.  For Pryor, for example, I selected what I thought were some of the most daring and funny bits from two albums.  My current show is an attempt to show a period in history — the early 70’s — as it is reflected and recorded by artists.  There’s a Riot Goin’ On is an album by Sly and the Family Stone that is frequently pointed to as an album that signaled the dark new mood of the early 70’s.  The comedown from the high of the 60’s.  I thought it was a fitting title for my show, especially as it was an answer to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which was released a few months earlier.

So, to answer your question, it’s a mix.  For Karen Carpenter, I used standout cuts which I thought best represented her work.  One of the Nilsson paintings uses one song about his drug addiction multiple times throughout the painting.  I love the song, but it’s also important to his biography.  The other, larger Nilsson uses the cover image and complete lyrics of his most successful album Nilsson Schmilsson.  Nilsson is an oddball figure.  Like Gaye, Pryor, Carpenter, Minnelli, and more, he is a “troubled genius.”  His work, while not overtly political, reflects the early 70’s in that he is making the most Beatle-esque music of the time in the wake of the demise of the Beatles, another letdown of the era.

BB: Were there any notable differences in constructing the Bowie mural at Rag & Bone, as opposed to your latest gallery show, ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On?’
EB: Some of the canvasses in my new show took over a month to paint.  I didn’t have that much time to paint the mural, so there are differences there.  The color in the mural was a little less elaborate, but it had a nice glow, and the increased scale took things to another level.

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The Bowie mosaic at Rag & Bone, June 2013

BB: What are some of the challenges you face designing your pieces?
EB: A big challenge is the concentration required to execute my paintings.  With my recent body of work, I was pushing the color in new directions, creating much closer relationships between individual hues, the differences of which were challenging to even see, let alone orchestrate.

BB: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
EB: The images and text I make my work with come from other artists, but that’s only one aspect of what I’m doing.  I am trying to use color to express emotion, feelings I get from stage lighting, or a sunset, or the ocean.

BB: Do you have a favorite mural?
EB: If you’re talking about my own work, my current favorite is probably the Richard Pryor painting.  It’s not technically lyrics in his case, but transcriptions of his early 70’s standup comedy, which I love.  If you’re talking about other people’s work, I loved the Maya Hayuk mural on Houston.  When her work was disrespected and vandalized, she painted over it and took the piece in a new direction, which I admired.

BB: What are you listening to right now?
EB: Nilsson, Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, The Carpenters, The Beach Boys, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, The Grateful Dead, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Kate Bush, Prince, Ariel Pink, The Small Faces, Gene Clark, Wagner, etc.

BB: Where do you like to hang on the LES?
EB: I’ve been having some great walks across the Williamsburg bridge lately.  I love to go to the LES galleries and get dumplings and/or pho afterwards.  I thought this year’s NADA NY was great, and that was in the LES, too.

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Erik den Breejen’s interpretation of Richard Pryor

BB: What do you hope people will take away from your works?
EB: I’m looking to engage people on the level of their perception.  My paintings have been described as “slippery,” in that they are unstable and fluctuate between image, text, and pure color.  We don’t think of “reading” the same way we think of “seeing,” but reading is also a visual activity.  I hope to engage both parts of the viewer’s brain and maybe change the way they see things a little bit.  Some people have also picked up on the emotional content of the work, and that makes me very happy.  I’m also hoping to turn people on to some of the great artwork that I use to make my own, be it music, comedy, poetry, film, etc.

BB: Do you have any cool stories related to your murals?
EB: When I did the Bowie mural, Iman Instagrammed it, then Bowie put up an article on his website. That was really cool, especially considering that my previous encounter with an author of a text I’d transformed consisted of being threatened for copyright infringement.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On runs through June 7. You can preview the pieces at Freight + Volume.

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