‘Automatic’, Eric White’s newest solo show of stunning works recently opened overseas at Antonio Colombo in Milan. Focusing on a series of paintings compositionally held within the contained spaces of car interiors, the works exude a kind of voyeuristic claustrophobia. Film characters from existing narratives populate these confined scenes. Lifted from their respective films, they appear spatially re-imagined beneath his vision, whether as doppelgangers or endless duplicates playing out alternate scenarios within the same space. As he was working on the last unfinished painting for the show, we were able to visit his studio and talk with him about his new work. View studio images and read the interview below.
How does your working environment affect your work?
All that’s really required is a comfortable space and music. For many years I worked at home, which ultimately became too comfortable, so I now have a separate space. Over the years I’ve filled my studio with books, images, weird relics and toys, a life-size cardboard C-3PO my brother gave me, a drum set I got from Joe Sorren, artwork from friends, and a few paintings of my own that I’ve held on to. I still have the old family coffee table where I wrote a report about Native Americans in fifth grade. I understand that some people prefer to work in an open, white space, but I think that would drive me crazy. I prefer to work amidst stimulating clutter. Maybe I’m just developing hoarding tendencies.
As for music, it’s essential. iTunes has made my gigantic collection much easier to manage. Thanks Steve. I attempted for a while to keep a computer out of my space, but those days are over, so increasingly I have video playing while I work, but nothing that’s too visually engaging. I won’t play films I actually want to watch—I save those for when I can be fully engaged. I stick mostly to documentaries and TV, things I can glance at occasionally. Lately it’s Larry Sanders. Again.
Do you work on many paintings at once or finish one from start to finish?
How long does a body of work take you to complete?Historically I’ve tended to put extreme focus on one at a time, though this summer I worked on a few fairly complicated ones simultaneously. It’s a much more fluid and efficient way of working. Instead of honing in on one and shutting everything else out I can move around and let things develop more organically. I also found myself making drastic changes, painting out fully realized elements in the interest of improving the whole, which I don’t do very often. Moving towards a freer way of working has always been a goal, so this feels like a positive change in my process, but I’ll always have to fight my tendency towards control and tightening up. I’ve definitely gotten faster in the past few years, though completion time varies depending on the size and complexity of the work. Somehow the work always expands to fill every minute of the allotted time before the deadline, and I always lose my mind at some point during the process, usually at the end, scrambling to finish on time. I’m trying to learn to stay calm…
I’m interested by the opposing landscapes you have in some of the new work, how there is an inner landscape (within the car) that holds a scene or narrative, and an outer landscapes that also holds movement or acts as an atmosphere assisting the inner narrative. Can you talk about what it is about these tight, anxious spaces you find appealing?
I’m interested in the artificiality of the space, and in the disconnect between the interior and exterior, which also functions metaphorically in obvious ways. I love the idea of attempting to pass blatant fake-ness off as believable reality—actors sitting in a half-car on a soundstage with a filmed street scene playing behind them. This work spins off of my infinite interior series, in which a vast complex of interiors extend indefinitely, and exist in a nowhere space. In the car series, the figures still interact dysfunctionally in a claustrophobic environment, but the car interiors are more cramped and impersonal than living spaces, and the introduction of motion and an actual exterior opens things up a bit. There is still confinement and disconnection, since there isn’t much of a relationship between the figures and the outside, and on some level we know that just beyond the exterior landscape is a brick wall. The paintings are an exploration of my own anxiety and alienation, and are symbolic of the futility of searching for satisfaction in the external.
How has film / film characters informed your new work?
Film is one of my biggest obsessions, and I had been collecting car scenes from film for years without knowing how it would find it’s way it into my work. I rediscovered this archive at a point where I felt stuck creatively, and it helped me transition into a new series. I’m referencing film imagery directly here, but I’m filtering the images and sequences through my own paranoid delusions and psychology, manipulating the narratives and giving them new life in an alternate world. American culture hasn’t existed very long, so I consider postwar Hollywood to be our classical period, and I find it endlessly inspiring and aesthetically compelling for a number of reasons. Metaphysically speaking, a movie is an invented, projected reality, and I equate this with the idea of physical reality as a projection of consciousness. The Hollywood starlet to me represents an idealized mother figure, and this has been a major part of my work for years. I’m fascinated by infantile psychology operating in adults, and the fact that decisions made before the age of two, invariably involving the mother, can determine the direction and scope of our entire lives.
There are also more fully realized versions of doubles than in your previous works, acting as fully formed beings and existing within separate moments within the same space. Can you talk a little about this metaphysical element?
The repetition and mirroring of the figures compresses a narrative sequence into a single instant, depicting the passage of time in two dimensions, and symbolizes self-reflection, and varying phases of relationships. Combining multiple elements from film stills is a way of translating the dynamic and temporal nature of film to the static form of painting. It’s also tied to the idea of simultaneous time and multidimensional reality. I’m fascinated by the idea that time is not linear and everything is happening all at once and all the time, and that while we’re awake, there may be a part of us that exists in the dream state or in an alternate reality. It may sound like bullshit, and could be, but the ideas are endlessly entertaining to me.
How do you choose your color palettes? It seems you alternate between color and black and white. Does this depend on the time period of the film you are accessing?
Except for one painting in which I took a black and white film and invented the color, in this series I’m emulating the palettes of the films I’m referencing. More generally my palette depends on the mood I want to convey in the piece. The washed-out color of faded photographs, the intensity of Technicolor, and the stark contrast of black and white are all appealing to me, and I like the combination them within one body of work. Sometimes black and white can be more powerful and effective than color. The use of black and white is for me a symbolic representation of our limited perception of our surroundings. We can understand the difference between black and white and color, but what exists beyond color? Just because we can’t perceive it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Have you ever tried to talk to a dog about the existence of color? It’s very frustrating.
How does being from Detroit inform the use of cars within your works?
Both of my grandfathers worked in the auto industry in Detroit, on opposite ends of the spectrum—one was a press operator at the Dodge Main plant, the other was an automotive engineer who developed patented brake components—so I think on some level that must be imprinted on me somewhere. My parents were both born in Detroit, but I grew up in Ann Arbor. My mom had a mustard yellow Toyota Corolla (I assume this was an act of rebellion), which thankfully drew only dirty looks when we would go to the city. In those days you could drive for miles in Detroit without seeing a single foreign car. Japanese brands were especially reviled, and were prone to having tires slashed and/or windows smashed. I’m about as far from a gearhead as they come—my interest in vintage cars is strictly aesthetic. I once visited Robert & Suzanne Williams, and the conversation about hotrods ended abruptly when they saw my Acura.
How important are the titles of the work to understanding the content?
Not very, but in this particular series they do serve a specific purpose. I’m using the year, make, and model of the car as the main title. This information is available thanks to a worldwide online community of car freaks who scan through films and identify every vehicle on screen. It’s also a commentary on our war culture and the Pentagon’s (and by extension the media’s) emphasis on specific characteristics and capabilities of aircraft, weapons, etc. This may be due in part to a technological obsession, but also seems designed to distract us from the gruesome violence and death inflicted upon innocent people during wartime, which now apparently is all the time. In the paintings the titles focus on an incidental aspect, as a way of diverting attention away from one’s own psychological horrors. The title of the film is in parentheses to credit the source of inspiration and appropriation. Peripherally the paintings are tributes to these films, some of which are personal favorites, but the imagery is used to address deeper concerns.
What do you consider to be the true heart of your work?
We all walk around in a hypnotized state and are conditioned to live with such a narrow view of the universe. I am interested in anything that shakes me out of this state of waking unconsciousness. I’m not saying my work necessarily does this, I don’t really think it does. I just hope my work somehow subconsciously conveys the notion that our perception of reality isn’t necessarily the truth.