“Full Phase”, 2014, oil on canvas, 78″ x 96″
Eric Sall returns to Kansas City with an exhibit, Full Phase, at Haw Contemporary. Sall is an artist we have followed for a long time. We have discussed enthusiastically here on MWC; and we reprinted an interview he conducted with late Kansas City artist Lester Goldman, but we have never spoken to Sall himself. With this new ambitious body of work, it seemed like time to reach out. The paintings in Full Phase has a lot in common with the paintings he’s made in the past. The Day Glo colors, stripes, gooey paint, more stripes are all there. He’s also absorbed some new forms. The most exciting new twists evoke traditional blankets and patchwork quilts. Key parts of the interview that follows discuss his process and the material parts of his paintings. I want to thank Dennis Helsel for suggesting a question or two in this interview.
Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself.
I grew up in the small city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In high school I lived out in the Black Hills in the Lead-Deadwood area, where Western legends Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane used to reside. I then went to the Kansas City Art Institute for college and later on went to [Virginia Commonwealth University] for my Master’s in painting.
Many of us don’t grow up with painting and art as part of our daily life, our routes into the fine arts are circuitous. Was that your experience? How and when did you say, ‘I’m going to do this’?
I always loved to draw as a child but I probably really got into art through skateboarding. I was pretty bad at traditional sports so it makes sense that I was so drawn to the culture of skateboarding which seemed to embrace all the “different” kids, especially back in the late 80’s/early 90’s when skateboarding was more counterculture. Plus my older sister Emily was hanging out with all the punks and skaters and I desperately wanted to be cool like her and her friends. It turned out that I was actually pretty good at skateboarding, and like most teens I thought I could become pro and that was my dream. Skateboarding introduced me to new forms of music and different styles of visual art, and most importantly it gave me a sense of independence, focus and determination that I hadn’t had before. That is probably when I first started thinking like an artist without even knowing it. A big part of skateboarding is about learning your way through constant exposure, absorption, interpretation, trial and error, and lots of failure. In a way it is very similar to painting.
Coinciding with that, I attended a pretty small high school but I had a fantastic art teacher who gave me a lot of freedom in class to try knew things. I remember having huge amounts of Utrecht oil paint available to us, and I was one of the kids who liked to use a lot of it up, so I was experimenting with texture and surface and process all through my four years of high school. I knew about the Kansas City Art Institute after having spent a year living in KC during my early teen years, and I basically just assumed that I would go there after high school. Fortunately I got in because it was the only college I applied to.
“Frazada”, 2014, oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″
What is a day in the studio like for you?
I don’t have a set routine as far as hours spent working or anything like that, but I do have a routine when I get in there. I change into work clothes, put on my Crocs, put on some music and then just get busy. Sometimes I have to clean up a mess left behind from a previous session. Or sometimes I just want to spend some time looking at what I’m working on. I don’t have a lot of leisure time in my studio so I try to make the most efficient use of any time I get. My wife [Rachel Hayes] is an artist too and we have two small kids at home still. We both work full time on our art, so we have to find a balance of being in the studio and being with the kids that is pretty organic. Sometimes I go for weeks not being in the studio if Rachel is working on a deadline and vice versa, but that is okay, because there is always plenty of work to do that doesn’t necessarily take place in the studio. Emailing, researching, working on applications, sourcing materials, running errands, etc, etc etc.
Tell us about one useful thing you were taught or told.
How to build a stretcher. Something we were taught as sophomore painters at the Kansas City Art Institute. I made my own stretchers for years, and then when I lived in Brooklyn I payed someone to make my stretchers out of pure convenience. Time is everything there and I never seemed to have enough. But there is something deeply satisfying about building your own great stretchers and I’m happy to have made several recently.
What is the hard part of painting for you?
Walking away from a painting and calling it finished.
What is the fun part?
The beginning of a painting, making the first moves on a new canvas.
What are you getting better at?
Walking away from a painting and calling it finished.
Are you an improviser?
“Hodgepodge”, 2014, oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 78″ x 96″
A friend suggested I ask what your thoughts are on the current state of abstract painting. It’s a great question, but let’s put it a little less “wide angle.” Thinking about larger contexts; about the ideas and forms being used or neglected by current abstract painters; about pressures to be allied with, or opposed to the work or motivations of one’s contemporaries– how useful is that to you? Does that way of thinking have a role in your work?
I definitely like to be aware of what’s going on with contemporary painting and think it is important to know about, especially since I have been living in the middle of nowhere for a while. But honestly it has almost zero affect on me in the studio. I actually make better work when I’m not obsessing about other painters or comparing my work to other work. There is just so much work being made now, good and bad, abstract and not, painting or whatever. And we can see it all so easily online, on our phones, on Instagram. Sometimes I see work that I think of as being a similar type as mine, and then I see work that seems so different than mine. I think you kind of find the things that you’re drawn to and that move you regardless. I guess I’ve never really felt like I had to take a stance against a certain type of painting or had to align myself with a certain group. I just don’t think it is that important anymore.
Your paintings overall have kind of a friendly, playful, maybe nostalgic vibe. But there’s often a little gritty, grungy bit in there some where, in terms of color or texture, things that look wiped down or scraped out. I am curious to know more about those bits. Is this something that’s done totally intentionally, like you walk into the studio one day and say, “now I’m painting the messy part?” Or is it more a part of the process, evidence of an earlier state that’s been interrupted or overridden?
It’s a little bit of both, but I might describe it a little differently. I wouldn’t say that it is an attempt to paint the “messy” part per se, but there are times where I feel like things need to be agitated in a way…that could mean doing something like dragging thick paint over the top of a flatly-painted area, or scraping out a specific shape in order to obscure it somehow. These things also happen when I think something is failing in a painting and I just want to wipe things away or scrape off bad areas. It is just a gut reaction, and often those bits are just a real part of the process. Wet paint drips. Thick paint clumps. Colors bleed into each other and make new colors. Sometimes chunks fall down and land somewhere else on the canvas. But then I’ll do something intentional like painting a hard-edged geometric shape on top of an area of thick texture or heavy impasto. It is a constant dance between intention and accident, and that is one of the reasons why I am such an improviser.
“Grey Painting”, 2013, oil on canvas, 66″ x 50″
Is there anything else we should be asking you about, that’s relevant to your work right now? Do you ever see deer in your front yard, or where’s the best place for coffee around there, anything like that we should know about?
I’ve been living in Roswell, NM since last summer with my wife Rachel Hayes and our two kids while Rachel and I attended the Roswell Artist-in-Residence program. The compound is pretty rural, all of the houses and studios sit in the middle of 40 acres of desert brush landscape. So yes, we do see deer, fox, roadrunners, lots of lizards, scorpions, tarantulas and plenty of other exciting stuff! There is an incredible sense of open space here, which for me feels great. I feel very free in life and very focused in my studio. But that will inevitably change and who knows what the effect will be. We seem to move somewhere new every year or two, and from here we are moving to Tulsa, OK for another residency where we will live and work right downtown, and I know that will have a different influence on my work. Each place does.
Thank you, Eric! Best luck on the show!
Read more MWC artist interviews here.