Erik den Breejen, Smile III, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 86 in.
I’ve followed Erik den Breejen’s work for a while and have watched him become more focused and succinct, without being boring. I think this is really hard for some artists who really delve into a specific subject matter and he really pulls it off. As a painter, musician, and music enthusiast, all of these aspects are now soaked onto the canvas in a really nice synthesis. He’s also had a really fascinating real-life interaction with one of his heroes, Van Dyke Parks. For more, see my interview with him below.
JL: To say that music is an influence on your paintings would be a misstatement. It’s more aptly an essential element that’s integrated into the work from start to finish. How did this come about?
EdB: I had been interested in using text for a very long time, but whenever I’d use it, it would come off like labeling, and wouldn’t integrate into the picture. About seven years ago, I started making drawings using a block for each word, with the letters occupying the negative space. I like that you call it an essential element, because I see the word block as a kind of cell that makes up the body of the painting. And of course, the origin of these words is song lyrics, which I’ve now started forming into images that have to do with the music in various ways.
JL: When did it start?
EdB: I was making drawings of Kiss when I was five or six, then fantastical drum sets and stage setups in middle school. I started transcribing lyrics around then too, copying album covers, making images derived from lyrics. I think a lot of artists around my age have early work along these lines. Art school kind of taught me that these things weren’t serious art; that I should learn to respect things I didn’t understand, like Rothko, for instance. So I did. And for some time now I’ve been trying to merge the two.
JL: How much do you think about this notion of seriousness now?
EdB: I often wonder how my paintings relate to fan art and how I feel about that. I got especially close to that when I did the Dylan portrait because it was such a recognizable image. I think art world context can help “legitimate” something as serious art, and there’s always the whole high/low thing, but for me, I am concerned with the history of painting and in dealing with space and color in a serious way. In the Neil painting, I’m trying to create atmosphere or space through shifts of color, rather than surface, which is kept relatively even. In others, the more thickly painted, opaque text sits on top of a very washy background to create space. I’m fascinated by the phenomenology of different material combinations like that. Once I’ve figured out the text I’m using, it becomes very much about all the painting decisions, and that’s what carries the process and keeps it interesting, because it can be pretty labor intensive.
JL: Is there a particular musical era that is relevant or is it more about various individuals or groups?
EdB: The word “obsessive” tends to come up regarding both the way in which I make my paintings and my passion for what inspires them, and I don’t have too much control over the latter, but it tends to be artists from the past. Music was changing so fast in the mid to late 60s that it continues to fascinate me the more I study it. But the 70s too — the hangover, the downer years — and the great stuff that came out of that, like Neil Young. My feeling, with music as well as art, is that there was once an illusion of linear time, and each new movement was embraced as The Next Big Thing, and this started happening faster and faster, to the point where a “generation” of artists could be separated by three years, or even overlap.
Now, it feels like we’re swimming and circling in this Sargasso Sea of culture. Maybe that’s just the nature of the present, but I think about some of the new bands who I like, and they put out an album every three years. So in six or seven years’ time, you’ve heard three works, displaying mostly the same aesthetic. In less than that amount of time, The Beach Boys scaled Mount Olympus AND came crashing down. Maybe that’s not a healthy artistic ambition, but it sure makes for interesting subject matter.
JL: How would you explain this innovation of the Beach Boys to someone who knows very little about them? What makes their position in musical history unique?
EdB: Well, their hits from ‘62 to ‘66 do a great job demonstrating this on their own, but to break it down very briefly, the initial innovation of The Beach Boys is to take rock n’ roll and surf music and put jazz vocal harmonies on top. I think that alone would have secured their place in history, but very quickly, composer/producer/singer Brian Wilson was pushing beyond this style, looking to one of the leading American hitmakers of the day, Phil Spector. Brian then began incorporating some of Spector’s grandiose techniques, and even his studio musicians, but he took these influences and made them into something else entirely.
Then, right after that, this group from England called The Beatles, who are on the same record label as The Beach Boys, comes over and quickly eclipses them in terms of popularity. Brian feels the need to keep up, and he does, with “I Get Around,” which goes over very well in Britain as well as the States, and the two groups influence each other and continue to grow at an alarming rate. But on an emotional level, I think one thing that’s so special about The Beach Boys’ music, even back in the early stuff, is its ability to make a person feel alive, because the music itself is so alive. In a song like “Be True to Your School,” the subject matter might have been repugnant to me in high school, but the music transcends this and is so overwhelmingly beautiful that you even start to buy into the narrative. By Pet Sounds, that “alive” quality is pervasive — relentless, even — and the use of different instruments and sounds has exploded. It’s like the music is just churning, and all the elements are in conversation with one another.
JL: In 2010, you began a series of paintings on their album SMiLE, the original recordings of which went unreleased in cohesive form until 2011. Was this the first time you devoted a whole series of works to an album?
EdB: Most of my paintings had explored single songs, or even portions of songs. I made one rather large painting that used the entire lyrics of Pink Floyd’s The Wall a few years ago, but SMiLE was the first time I’d tried to do a whole series around one album. There are so many aspects to the music and the myth that it was a little overwhelming to deal with. I feel like I could have made multiple shows out of it, really.
JL: From an esthetic point of view, how did this allow you to explore your visual language?
EdB: I started on the project thinking that I was going to try and do something to reflect the vastness of the music itself and the surreal wordplay of the lyrics. But I also wanted to deal with the stories surrounding it, which kept the music alive for so long through the passion of the fans and scholars, the caretakers of this “lost” music. As I delved into the mystery, it became unclear what the definitive versions of some songs were, or if some songs even existed, or ever had, and there were hours of different takes and plenty of conflicting information. I wanted to somehow get that into the paintings. I’ve done a fair amount of work involving visual appropriation, usually pretty mundane stuff like a series I did of 45 record labels.
In the SMiLE series, I did things like reproduce the paperwork for recording sessions, or various texts from magazine and newspaper articles from the time. These works ended up providing some context to the main event, which were the big word paintings, mostly derived from SMiLE lyrics. The first two of these took the entire lyrics of the album, evenly spaced, and made color changes based on when the music was changing. I would intuitively pick a color based on my feeling towards a given musical passage. I was very pleased with the way that this created a pattern whose parameters were set by something that wasn’t initially visual. It also formed a kind of map of the album. The third large canvas featuring all of the SMiLE lyrics was a key painting in that it was the first time I colored the different word blocks to create an image, and I’ve been exploring the possibilities of this ever since.
JL: Van Dyke Parks, the lyricist for SMiLE, came across this series and surprisingly, had an issue with your using the lyrics from the album. What was his core issue or concern?
EdB: He claimed copyright violation — piracy, even — and felt that I was exploiting his work and compromising his ability to profit from it.
JL: What is your rebuttal?
EdB: I wanted to refer to another artwork, not make a forgery of it. The fact that I am working in a completely different medium and have transformed words that were originally sung into images makes it seem like a clear case of transformative fair use. I’ve always felt that the use of appropriated text in my work raised questions of authorship, which was interesting to me philosophically, but I didn’t expect to see it play out in a non-theoretical way. I suppose the work was more effective in asking those questions than I had imagined. But it did hurt.
JL: As a devoted Beach Boys and Van Dyke Parks fan, how did this effect you?
EdB: I had a picture of Van Dyke and Brian writing together on my wall the whole time I made the SMiLE paintings, and it was an inspiration, as were all the stories of them working together. So that was a letdown, but maybe he was hurt as well. I feel that if the roles were reversed, I’d be flattered that someone was so inspired by my work.
JL: Do you have a different view now of people who are considered heroes or legends? Why/why not?
EdB: Ever since I was a kid, I would hear stories about how rock starts were “assholes” in real life, and it always seemed like an inevitable consequence of fame to me. “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long awaited friend,” as Neil Peart put it. I’ve never seen Brian Wilson in concert because I think it would be hard for me to reconcile the difference between who he is now and who he is in my mind when I listen to recordings of him when he was young and at the peak of his powers. For me, it’s a very personal, fantastical world I get into with music. I did have the impression that Van Dyke was more of an “artist’s artist,” and that he’d appreciate my work, but that clearly wasn’t the case.
JL: How has this interaction manifested itself in the works that followed?
EdB: Well, I initially made a painting that commented on it in a subtle way. It used text from a Yeats poem that had haunted me for years. Beautiful writing, and not under copyright control. But other than that, I haven’t stopped using text from song lyrics and have no intention of doing so.
JL: What’s next?
EdB: I’m doing a solo booth of paintings with DNA gallery at the Untitled fair in Miami next week, so I’m super excited about that. I also have a two-person show in January with Jeremy Couillard at this great new gallery called One River in Englewood, New Jersey. As far as inspiration for future paintings is concerned, there are a lot of things cooking, but I will tell you this: his first name is Harry.
ALSO SEE his blog for more.
Erik den Breejen, Neil Young (Thrasher), 2012, acrylic on canvas, 54 x 74 in.