Loyal B/D reader, let me introduce you to Erik Beehn, a supremely talented painter, photographer, printmaker, and all around excellent artist. Erik’s work tends to focus on spaces, and the details that define those spaces. Says Erik, “It is the small details within a space, such as the lighting, textures, shadows, and even the balance of negative space between objects that grasps my attention. My work investigates the use of emptiness within a space, and its relationship to either its viewer, or its occupant.” Erik recently moved his studio to Las Vegas, and has been working like mad on several different projects, while always keeping his eyes open to the subtleties of the american landscape. I caught up with Erik the other day, and asked him some questions about his former life as a master printer, his unusual painting techniques, and his new life in Sin City.
What was it like growing up so close to Las Vegas? What do you think about such a crazy spot, can you get into the vibes there? Give us one good Vegas story…
Growing up in Vegas taught me a lot about self discipline. There is so much to get into in Vegas, for better or worse, it seems easy to lose track of reality. I don’t think I realized how crazy Vegas is until I left to experience living in other cities. With Vegas being such a transient city, and with so much tourism, I think it is rather diverse for its size. I can get into the vibes here as it gives you choices from scenic mountain hikes, to all night drinking binges. I can dig that. I have a lot of stories that take place in Vegas, although I am not sure it’s appropriate to share any of them.
What’s it like to live and make art in Nevada? What’s the art scene like out there? Do you think Vegas has any influence in the art world?
I find living in Vegas to be convenient. Everything is on a grid, easy to find, and easy to access. It makes everyday tasks like getting groceries much less time consuming, and allows me to be more productive in the studio. It is also a lot less expensive to live, which allows for more studio space. Nevada has a great arts council, although I still hope to see more resources for artists in the future. Las Vegas has a growing art scene that draws a huge crowd of young people every month, and I think that is a start. I find the Las Vegas art scene to be very local at the moment, similar to scenes like Portland, which has a big local scene as well. I hope the scene evolves into a national, or even international scene, but to do that there still needs to be more resources in place, such as a functioning museum, and more residency programs. I think Vegas had a splash in the art world within the last ten years and is evolving. Vegas has a lot of potential, and a lot of expansion left to do, but it could be influential to the art world in the future.
What’s your studio like? What kind of stuff might we find in there? Tell us about some projects you are working on right now?
My studio is in an industrial building downtown, and makes me feel like I leave Vegas every time I go there. It allows for a bit of separation from what happens outside, which I like. I keep a lot of wax, ink, various paints and copious amounts of paper at the studio along with all my homemade cameras. At the moment I am working on some new paintings that explore a softer side to urban landscapes. I want to have them done by the end of the year in hope of finding an exhibition for them next year. I am also working on a project for the Nevada Arts Council called Geographical Divides. They paired me up with an artist in Reno to make two collaborative prints that will tour on an exhibition initiative, along with 18 other artists.
You use some interesting techniques in your work, tell us about your process and how you developed your approach? How do you know when you are finished working on a piece?
The paintings came from a need to make photographs with no resources to do so, my resolve was to paint the images instead. Since I decided to paint from a photograph, rather than to use the actual photograph as the finished work, I felt it necessary to leave evidence of my hand being involved. I have a lot of experience in both photography and in painting, so it seemed natural to merge the two together. I use wax and ink as I feel as though I have a lot of control over the environment of a piece in doing so. I have always had a tendency to paint or draw things very tightly, and the use of layers is a departure from those tendencies; allowing me to keep elements tight while enabling me to incorporate a lot more gesture. I tend to use a multitude of media when working, most recently would be wax, acrylic ink, graphite, oil, gold leaf, and even some aerosol paint. I may start by transferring certain elements, similar to how I would sketch with a pencil and try to find my interest in the piece; that usually dictates where the work will go, and where it will end. Everything starts with a plan that is ultimately abandoned along the way as the work takes life of its own. I feel once I have become comfortable with the work, and am able to understand it, that is usually where I am nearing the end of that piece.
You went to school at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. What was that experience like? In your mind, what’s the benefit of going to an ‘Art School’?
I did go to SAIC and graduated in 2005. I enjoyed my time there very much. SAIC had a lot of great professors and a lot of great resources for the students. The format was very open, and allowed for me to cross disciplines as I found different interests. Art school was very competitive, and for me, being around so many artists, or people making things really pushed me further with my own work. At SAIC they did not give grades, it was pass or fail. I liked not having grades, as it allowed the professors to grade on effort and not personal taste. They structured the academic classes to coincide with the studio practices, so rather than taking chemistry for example, I took the chemistry of photography. It was great because it kept me involved in my studio practices even when I was not in a studio class. In my research of schools I found ‘art schools’ to allow more credit hours allotted towards studio practices, as opposed to other programs that required many more academic credits. The more time in the studio the better.
You worked as a master printer at Gemini G.E.L., a fine art publishing house in Los Angeles – Tell us what it’s like to work at a professional printing press? Can you explain to the readers how the prints make it from the artist’s mind onto a piece of paper?
Well, it was hectic to say the least. I think it was a great experience, and more of a learning experience than any. Something even school cannot fully prepare you for. There was a certain amount of prestige that came along with the job, which was enjoyable. The shop would invite artists to come work with us, Richard Serra, John Baldessari, and Julie Mehretu are a few among many. There was always one collaborator chosen to work directly with the artist as an assistant, but the entire shop would become involved during the proofing process. Some artists came with an idea, and some worked out the idea once they arrived. What type of work the artist made, or what sort of ideas they hoped to explore would dictate the approach and process, some artists worked very traditional, while others explored nontraditional routes. The artists came in and did drawings at Gemini, having the collaborator as their assistant during the process. The printers make the matrix, be it plate or screen, and then proceed to proof the work, making adjustments according to the artist until the artist is satisfied. Once the artist approves the work, the artist leaves and the shop may begin production. The printers make the work one print at a time, and upon finishing, the artist will return to sign all the work.
What were some of your favorite projects to work on? What was the most challenging project you ever worked on?
Some of my favorite projects would include making large scale etchings for Richard Serra, an eleven foot long lithograph for Ellsworth Kelly, working with Ann Hamilton, and making lithographs for Ed Ruscha. The most challenging project I worked on was my collaboration with Ann Hamilton. Ann visited the shop for two weeks and we had an extensive proofing session, the project ultimately encompassed 4 etchings, over 20 lithographs, as well as three dimensional multiples, and unique pieces. The project took over 2 years to fully complete.
What’s it like to collaborate with super successful artists during the printing process? What are some of the difficult parts?
The collaboration is intimidating at first, but the collaborator and the artist tend to build a relationship over time. The artist needs to be able to rely on and trust that the collaborator will stand up for their vision whenever necessary, while having a good understanding of what that vision is. The collaborator becomes an extension of the artists voice in the shop, especially when the artist is not at Gemini, which is mostly in production. Working with the artist was always an inspiring experience, as they all had very unique ways of going about their art making process. It made me feel good to be a part of it. Every time an artist was in I left the shop with a burst of energy. The difficult part for me was the orchestration of a project, that is to keep so many things going at once, with so many directions, and so many people involved, that is possibly the most important experience I took from Gemini. I think there was often a lot of pressure, either to meet deadlines or to meet expectations, but that was part of the gig.
You are also an avid photographer – Tell us what types of things you like to take pictures of? What interests you about photography, and how does that differ from other methods of image making?
I tend to take photographs of empty spaces, and very seldom are there any figures in my images. I am very interested in transitional spaces, moments that take one from their personal space to a public space, and the levels of comfort that are associated with that transition. The possibilities of photography are endless, and that is what appeals to me. I enjoy the immediacy over that of a drawing, and I enjoy the process of developing or printing by hand, it’s a meditative process. I think photography has a lot of similarities to other ways of image making, but the one thing I feel separates photography from others is the ability to sustain one specific moment. In painting or drawing, I feel as though the material is an extension of the artists arm, the hand being a vehicle from thought to action; in photography the camera is an extension of the artists eye. The time between thought and execution may be very small, and a lot of the decision making goes in before taking the photograph, as opposed to during the painting process.
For you, what makes for a really good photograph? Tell me about the last really good picture that you took?
I enjoy low resolution photographs, and most often I would lean towards images being out of focus. It all depends on what I am going for, or what I see as being possible with an image. Atmosphere is always of my interest, and I appreciate an image that tells me something that was not obvious before. I snap a lot of photographs. The last photograph that I really like came recently on the way home from Reno, I was caught in a very harsh wind storm, which in the desert gets pretty nasty. I wanted to stop several times to shoot photographs, but I couldn’t convince myself to do so. Nearly half way to Vegas I found a rest station, and stopped. The wind was blowing around so much dust, and dirt that it put a haze over everything. The image is a very saturated desert landscape that has a sign reading “Enjoy your stay in Nevada”, which seemed very appropriate at the time.
Three favorite things to do in Chicago
Browse Museums (MCA, AIC etc.), Meditate in Millenium Park, and Cubs games…
Three favorite things to do in Los Angeles
Griffith Observatory, Taco Trucks (kogi and taco zone being my favorite), and Dodger games…
Three favorite things to do in Nevada
Meditating in Red Rock Canyon, Off Road Excursions in the desert, and I am diggin’ Fremont Street with all the old neon, its pretty awesome.
Three artists who’s work makes you say “yeah!”
Robert and Shana Park-Harrison, Cai Guo-Qiang, and William Kentridge are on my mind at the moment…