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Q & A with Erik Bender

Bay Area artist, Erik Bender, in his studio. Photos by L. Herrada-Rios

Bay Area artist, Erik Bender, in his studio. Photos by L. Herrada-Rios

First Amendment Gallery
REAL ICKY

Erik Bender
Opening Reception - August 3rd 7-10pm
Showing Through - August 30th
info@firstamendmentgallery.com

Interdisciplinary artist, Erik Bender, has had an exceptionally busy year. Between two solo shows and a quiet relocation, there has been a lot of dust for the emerging artist that finally seems to be settling. Among the hustle and bustle for Bender’s upcoming solo exhibition, “REAL ICKY,” First Amendment was able to catch up with Bender in his Oakland studio and had him break down the processes and reconcilement of ideologies for his latest series of 2D and 3D works.

Interview by L. Herrada-Rios

The materials you use are very specific, especially your self-described tablet pieces. Did this practice get developed by the accessibility of the materials or was this a methodical way to dive deeper into your concepts?

 When I began this work, I was making drawings mostly and trying to figure out the most organic way for these figures and shapes to move into painting. It started to make sense that I would produce work that was more physical— connecting to the monumentality of the way these forms and figures are rendered. I started by troweling drywall mud onto panels, which worked pretty well, but felt a bit artificial for some reason. Around that time I was (maybe not) coincidentally given an assignment where the only prompt was to use a whole bag of plaster, which I hadn’t ever worked with, and it all kinda clicked. I started pouring it onto the faces of panels and making drawings while the plaster was curing. The process has refined itself a lot but overall it still feels mysterious to me, like I'm discovering something rather than making it. 

You have mentioned to me that you have been inspired by artists like Nicole Eisenman and Dana Schutz and movements like the dawning of graffiti in the 1970s and ‘80s. Your work is truly a unique blend of fine art abstraction intertwined with the physical and dynamic world of street art: robust and familiar yet inconspicuous. How do you see graffiti and street art evolving within a fine art context and where do you see your work within that paradigm?

I used to be a pretty straightforward figure painter; painting from life and photos, matching color, etc. And for the longest time had intense reservations about letting my graffiti anywhere near my art. It felt especially sinful in the wake of the street art wave which, truthfully, has always been corny to me. (I also think there is a very distinct delineation between street art and graffiti, but that's another conversation...) I could already hear the scoffs from all sides. But there came a point (in school of course) where I was doing a lot of research, considering where my urge to make really comes from and what I’m truly excited about, and it just made sense to let [graffiti] in. It’s a tricky thing honestly, and still feels off sometimes, but there are people who do it poetically and subtly and those are really the people I am looking at. I am as inspired by what’s inside MoMA as I am the shitty tags in the alley outside of it—it’s kind of all the same to me if I’m being honest. 

Very much like graffiti and street art talk to the world-at-large, your shapes and characters are often entangled in some sort of conversation, it seems. There’s tension, light-heartedness, and even curiosity peaking through every line and crevice. What kind of questions or conversations are these subjects proposing? How do you interject your voice into your works?

I think the work and it’s elements come from an intuitive and very personal place. Just like the style and techniques are idiosyncratic, the subjects and their expressions tend to be as well. It’s really a mythologizing of my reality, with works referencing each other and building the story. The work ends up having a conversation about itself almost. The good and bad tensions, push and pull, it’s all stuff that passes through me—trying to reflect the plurality of human emotion. And it may end up connecting to larger, more complex social conversations as well—considering graffiti’s origins as a social/youth movement and continued function as an act of an anti-capitalist reclamation of space, and also with works that involve critical depictions of the police. 

You’ve spent the better part of your adulthood fully immersed in city life and have recently moved to a more serene yet isolated town where you now confront elements of the natural world more often than when you were in an urban environment. The title of your upcoming show - “REAL ICKY”- is in part an acknowledgement of your personal readjustment to your new surroundings. Do you think your new environment will have an influence on your concepts or connection to the materials you use?

I think the work was making that shift before the move. I was already letting more things in, including references to the natural, as a sort of vehicle for me to explore more abstraction in the forms and to push the plaster works into new areas. The title was something I came up with instinctually and casually that ended up a sort of self fulfilling prophecy (as things often do.) 

Living in a third floor walk up in downtown Berkeley I hadn’t really seen a bug in my house in like 4 years, but in our new place I see them all the time. I started to think of them as little mascots, emblematic of change and adjustment. Sometimes creepy sometimes just goofy, and ultimately just things you get used to. I see the bug-forms in the show as an embodiment of the same tension or wonky energy that flows through a lot of the work already, just referenced within new subjects.

Thanks to Erik Bender for having us at his studio ahead of his new exhibition. First Amendment Gallery invites you to join us for the opening reception of “REAL ICKY” on Saturday August 3rd from 7-10pm at 1000 Howard St. San Francisco. For further inquiries on the artist or available works, please contact info@1amsf.com.