ERIC ASHCRAFT juxtaposes nature and technology, painting and sculpture and the found and the original in his mixed media work emphasizing the blurry, rich spaces between the binaries we often use to define things. His work has been shown most recently at The Missoula Art Museum (Missoula), Mt. Comfort (Indianapolis) and as a part of a two-person exhibition Poseur at Grizzly Grizzly (Philadelphia). Upcoming exhibitions include Taste at Small Black Door (New York). Eric lives in Yakima, WA.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Many of your pieces are paintings on modified found objects, so they are part painting-part sculpture. But juxtaposition seems to be an even stronger defining strategy driving all the work.
Eric Ashcraft: Lao Tzu once proposed that truth is apprehended through the understanding of fundamental binaries. Often, when one considers how best to describe the interactions of things around us, “discontinuity” proves to be a valuable signifier. A thing or event becomes best described by what it is not. The mind works to separate things, to classify, in order that it may abstract experiences into symbols, and orchestrate symbols into concepts. This is what we see in language, i.e. not dark but …, not soft but …, etc. It is no coincidence that a recurring theme in mythological constructions is that the fabric of nature itself is comprised of the interaction between opposites. It is also fascinating to me that nature—as described by quantum field theory—works in much the same vein as many of our mythologies would suggest. The laws of nature are very nearly symmetrical with respect to particles and antiparticles, which provide—for lack of better terms—a balance between the fundamental components (interactions) of reality.
When it comes to drawing lines between sculpture and painting, I often think, loosely and imperfectly, in terms of the classical binary opposition between mind and matter. In a limiting way, I relate properties of painting (surface-illusion) with mind, and properties of sculpture (form-space) with matter. In this context, I then enjoy attempting to erase the lines of separation, suspending knowledge of their respective attributes, which brings me closer in affinity with the traditions of mysticism. In moments of illumination, these systems of opposites are transcended and dissolved into a homogeneous continuity. And there, interconnectedness is laid bare and inarticulate.
On a basic level, I don’t see much of a difference between the two; one easily becomes a surface for the other. Both are composites of thought and action. Both manifest as objects, limited by the material of which they are comprised. Both inevitably decay in time and are defined in accordance with the limiting symbols of language and difference. And importantly, both are constantly being redefined as the parameters in which they exist, evolve, expand and reconstitute under new paradigms. And so these half-painting, half-sculpture “hybrids” are a kind of articulation of this malleability of form and classification. In general, this perpetual fluctuation of category is a continuing drive for me.
OPP: So, do you identify as a painter, sculptor or as a conceptual artist?
EA: If I had to choose between being identified as a painter, a sculptor or a conceptual artist, I would choose to be a banana. When it comes down to it, I’ll use whatever method necessary to allow an idea or experience to come to fruition, and usually concept takes priority. It is also probably obvious that I have a debilitating fear of being categorized, but it is important for me to allow myself to creatively wander and be a bit delusional. Truly, I think it would be best to not consider myself an artist at all and circumnavigate the issue.
OPP: Touché. A specific juxtaposition I see over and over again is the combination of the untouched, romantic landscape with various forms of technology: in My Kind of Romance (2008) you added a neon dress shirt, and, in Entertainment Tonight (2008), you put the painting on a TV set, and in Tell Me if I am not Happy (2011), the landscape covered the jacket of an undisclosed VHS tape. Could you talk about the recurring combination of the romantic landscape with technology?EA: It really comes from numerous places. Some of the most visible to me are a consideration of the history of beauty and the seduction of the observer, the manifestation of both as signs, and conflict between immersive space and the obstructive tactility of our urban detritus. I remember, in the case of My Kind of Romance, being really interested in different materials and images employed in order to seduce. The image of the untouched landscape, which in this case, was a kind of compendium of historical influences varying from Corot, to the tyrant of our grandparents’ walls, Mr. Thomas Kinkade, and the physical presence of neon. Both have qualities that entice. One, an image that satisfies a kind of escapist yearning, relates to desires for purity, and the other, neon, is a more urban material. It's eye-candy, employed to catch one’s attention, reeling one in to consume. The shirt also stands in as an abstracted modern presence within a nostalgic and fictitious ideal.
Perhaps a general interest in the sublime is a more apparent source of the combination. Technology, in a way, embodies a new experience of the sublime, one that provides awe through a shear overabundance of information. Where we once could stand on a precipice and feel the awesomeness of a great expanse, belittled and terrified by the vastness of space and unharnessed nature (in some places this still happens, especially in relation to outer space), we can now feel a similar phenomenon via the great expanse of information that confronts us through our exponentially generative technologies.
EA: I was interested in revealing the form or material under the advertising or image. I was sort of trying to reveal the essence of the object by taking away its skin. In doing so, the material and form became both reduced and more coherent in the modern sense. By cutting away at a structure, you can begin to understand how it works. You can break it down and simplify it. These works were kind of dissections in a very superficial sense.
OPP: So, is the tendency towards deconstruction as a way to comprehend related to the experience of vastness and awesomeness of the sublime in whatever form?
EA: You know, I have never seen a connection between them; perhaps you are picking up on something. I sort of think of the sublime as this moment where things can’t be reduced or taken apart, as being in affinity with rapture. It can only be talked about and deemed a sublime experience after the fact. So there is a rift between experience and understanding. First, one experiences, then knowledge is extracted from that experience once it is decoded into a language of logical understanding. Deconstruction is a utility for obtaining knowledge. The experience of the sublime is a state of dissolution into the unknown. So, perhaps they are connected in the sense of being complements.
OPP: There are some fascinating anomalies in your oeuvre: The Cracked Picket (2009) and Summertime (2010), for example, represent extremely different styles of painting. They are so distinct that it seems to be a conscious choice. I'd love to hear more about these pieces, and why you chose to paint the way you did?
EA: Painting has an immense history that is nearly impossible to ignore, to the point that virtually any mark you make on a surface can carry a cultural and political significance. I like to visualize aesthetic approaches as varying tools in the toolbox; you can build content through renegotiating the terms of a thing’s representation and by questioning the validity of a thing’s historical definition or stature.
I think of style as really organic in this way. Different styles can be used to express different ideas. Some things are simply more effective rendered in a particular way. In The Cracked Picket, I remember trying to navigate between styles in such a way that the overall aesthetic wouldn’t fall into one category or the other, sort of walking the fence between cartoon and realism, humor and seriousness, abstraction and representation. Even the paint application was stuck somewhere between thick and thin. The combination of the perspective and the abundant thickness of the painting’s layers made the house feel like a real object in person, as if it were poised to fall off the surface. The fabricated quality of the house was magnified by rendering it in a synthetic medium: acrylic. Also relevant was its scale; it was much too big to be an illustration and too small to be a completely immersive illusion. It almost felt as if it should have been inhabited by hobbit-sized dolls.
I painted Summertime through a childhood memory of a confrontation with the decaying corpse of an entangled and unfortunate cow. There are a lot of contradictions at play, conceptually, physically and in regard to taste. I was trying to achieve a balance between an evasive apparition-like quality and a solid mass. The paint needed to be more of a mutating agent, accented by moments of heaviness shifting into transparency. The method of paint application was influenced greatly by the subject. I was revolving around death as a subject and a metaphor for painting as a whole. I was considering ambiguities in form through the use of an extremely plastic and fleshy material, mainly oil. I wanted to represent Death, unveiled as an elapse of time rather than as something instantaneous and foreign. I saw this concept as being in conjunction with the character of painting itself. A painting is built in time and ultimately decays in time, much the same way we do. A painting represents an expanded period of time. The time of its making is inherent in the “finished” work, in the layers of its construction. But it is never truly finished until it ceases to exist.
OPP: What you are saying leads me to think of your work through the lens of contemporary remix culture, which is something close to my own heart. Throughout art history, new work has always drawn on old work, but your work makes this creation of meaning through juxtaposition more apparent because it is less concerned with having a definitive, "original" style. I'm enjoying thinking of your work as painting remix, similar to sampling in Hip Hop or the creation of new narratives in fanvids, mash-ups and supercuts. Is there any connection between your work and these non-art-world forms?
EA: Definitely. I enjoy that connection. All of these methods mix and clash material from a nearly inexhaustible and ever-growing media archive. Everything is up for grabs. The exchange of information has become so fast that classified channels of expression don’t have much of a shelf-life. There is always something new being born from the old, and I see no sign of it slowing down. So many turning points in history really come from separate languages combining into new forms. In a way, these “non-art-world” (non-art-world-yet?) methods pay homage to older methodologies of creativity, particularly appropriation in Cubist and Dadaist collage.
I think material that has a real physical history can be “remixed” as well. As our experience of media and technology becomes more integrated with the physical, the barriers between real and virtual begin to seem less distinct; it is truly hard to distinguish what is original from what is synthetic. I’ve begun to think of the two as unified harbingers of information.
As the exchange of information becomes increasingly more rapid, I see a possibility for material and image manipulation to expand to encompass increasingly more collisions of aesthetics. I envision the future of communication as a vast array of interweaving symbols that no longer function on a two-dimensional level—as current language does—but instead a multi-dimensional ocean of layered meaning and non-meaning, abstraction and image, symbol and space.On another note, if you choose to sample something, you can sample and still put your twist on it -- in fact it’s hard not to, the way you can still hear a characterizing finesse behind a great DJ’s flavor of blending chosen source material. Originality can be found in the idiosyncrasies. When you are taking influence, or even straight up stealing, the result doesn’t have to be derivative, and even that isn’t always a bad thing. I still entertain the idea of uniqueness, but one doesn’t need to be original in one way. You can be creative through multiple mediums and even multiple identities. You don’t need to wave a banner around with a singular product to be successful.
OPP: What new development in your art practice are you most excited about right now?
EA: There are a lot of avenues I’ve been exploring that are particularly rewarding. I feel as if right now I’m in a state of transition between multiple platforms, and new methods of expression have begun to unveil themselves. I’m beginning to try to fuse disparate platforms of expression that I’ve used in the past with new visual languages I’m trying to develop. In this respect, digital methods of production and explorations into new fields are especially enticing. In this approach, I have been making these twisted erotic drawings and digital works I haven’t shown anyone yet. I really don’t know how to describe them, which is exciting.