KK: So you loved pop music? Any other kinds of music influence or inspire you? Did you ever play any music yourself?
EB: Yes, I love music! I am devoted to the visual arts, but music is to me the most perfect art form. I always have music playing at home especially while I am working. I listen to all kinds of music, but over the last few years I have become very interested in John Cage. I'm also a big fan of jazz. When I was a kid I discovered that I share a birthday with John Coltrane and that opened my eyes to the whole world of jazz, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. I find that Coltrane's work resonates with me - even the really experimental stuff. I also am a big fan of DJ Spooky, who does a sort of sound collage thing.
I find it inspirational. I studied music quite seriously at one point in my life. I played piano, drums and the coronet when I was little and then at age twelve began playing guitar. I had several bands in Lansing and then had my stint in Los Angeles, the highlights of which were playing the Sunset Strip a few times and recording an album at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. I still play occasionally, but just around the house. Keeping a band together is very difficult and I often felt as if I were forcing things. Painting is much more natural to me, my true calling.
KK: When did you start painting? Have you always used abstraction, text, found objects in your work, as you do now, or how has your work evolved?
EB: I started painting seriously in 1994. In high school I knew a couple of artists, both of whom were so good that I didn't think I could compare, so I stuck with music and writing at that time, though painting always intrigued me. Much later on, and with the encouragement of a friend who recommended a book, "The Artists Way" I decided to try my hand at it again.
I soon met my mentor Michael Jacobs who took me on as an apprentice and taught me the proper use of the materials, color theory and composition. At first I copied his style closely, a very hard edge, narrative style in gouache and watercolor. I painted a lot of flowers! I got pretty good at that but was looking for a way to combine text and image more like the Chinese scroll painters, that I truly admired.
When I discovered the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg I felt like I had really gotten on to something. I always believed in the power of objects, relics and the like, and feel like these things have a story to tell all their own.
Soon after moving to the Bay Area my brother-in-law gave me my first canvas which allowed me to incorporate these objects in a way not possible with paper. From there on it has been a study in materials and process. Each canvas is another in a series of lessons.
KK: Not many artists get the opportunity to work as an apprentice in this day and age. How did that work? What was the process and experience like for you?
EB: An apprenticeship is rather anachronistic, isn't it? Well, it came about on a whim really. I met Michael at an Easter Brunch which is ironic since he is a Rabbi. When I learned that he was also a professional artist I asked if he might like an apprentice and he said sure, come to my studio next week. My first lesson was how to properly sharpen a pencil! Basically I did odd jobs for him at first and helped him with all aspects of his Judaica shows. This was a novel experience for a Catholic boy like me. He had been apprenticed himself much earlier to an artist in Iran who did miniatures on bone. His first lesson was in boiling camel bones, so pencil sharpening seems pretty tame by comparison. He used to grind all his own pigments, do his own frames, etcetera, so I learned about the art business from the ground up. I worked hard and studied hard and it was a fantastic experience. In addition to painting and schlepping I studied Torah and Cabala with him and this added a sense of spirituality to my work which carries forth to the present. It was a golden time that is very dear to me.
KK: That sounds awesome. I like that personal and intimate way of learning, so I think it sounds like a good deal. Let's talk more about your influences. I can see how, with your Midwestern background, you would be drawn to American landscape and regional styles. Also the combines and text work of Rauschenberg and Johns. But what about the Eastern influence in your work? How did you come by that?
EB: I seem to have always been aware of Asian art. My mother had a small collection of dishes and cups, little cloisonné's and things that had that aesthetic and craft particular to Asian art.
Later I was able to travel to China and visited an art university at Nanjing which was incredible. I was very interested in Buddhism and was able to discuss this with the students, specifically how it affected their work. When I returned to the States I enrolled in college (ostensibly to study medicine) and took an art history class which really focused on Asian art, particularly scroll paintings, which turned out to be very fortunate for me.
I had not then taken up painting myself, I was writing a lot, and I was fascinated with the idea of combining poetry and landscape. I guess it laid the seeds for my later work, and opened me up to the idea that one could develop many types of art - indeed that an artist should be at least familiar with several means of expression, you know, film and music, ceramics and drawing, painting and poetry.
KK: So you were originally going to study medicine, but you had wide ranging interests and decided to put them together in making art?
EB: Medicine was a possibility for me at one time. I am much happier doing art!
KK: I notice that you have a painting up at Mercury 20 Gallery now called "Dr. Robert". Is that the Beatles’ "Dr. Robert" or someone you know?
EB: "doctor robert" refers to the Beatles song as well as a good friend of mine, also named Robert who will earn his doctorate from Berkeley in the spring. The painting was done for him.
KK: Tell me something about how your work has developed and progressed over the years? What themes have you worked with?
EB: I have worked with several themes in an academic sense, landscapes, still life, representational, etcetera, but for me the themes all come to one thing--that of trying to make some sense of the world. And in my opinion the way to do that is to embrace the subjective.
I am conscious of the limits of my time. I use my art to mark the path of my life. Each painting is a diary of some amount of time or other and in looking at older works I can recall what was happening in my life, what I was learning.
As for making progress, well - I don't know if I am the one to judge it in those terms. Technically I am moving forward, in the manner of handling materials and in my ability to bring what is in my head onto the canvas, but as for progress...someone else will have to determine that I think.
KK: That brings up ideas of memory and history. Your paintings use image, text, abstraction and assemblage to weave narratives about your own past and the history of the people and places you've experienced. Tell me how you delve into and work with memory. Where do you get your source material? How does your subjective experience relate to history?
EB: Memory is a big motivator in my work. I find myself conversing with my ancestors a lot while working, I talk with my father who passed away six years ago, and my brother Jim, who passed in 2007. I talk with the canvas a lot, too. Some paintings are easier to get along with than others! I make a narrative during this process which I hope translates to the viewer in some fashion.
As far as materials - I find them everywhere. I have trouble going for a walk without returning home with pockets full of stuff. I am a collector. I love ephemera - always have done. Other things have found their way into my work for sentimental reasons. I used my father's WWII European Theater ribbon in a painting called "das kind" (the child). How could I have made that painting without that ribbon? That painting was all about his experience in the war, or rather my imaginings around that experience as he never spoke of it to me, or anyone as far as I know. In talking with other children of WWII veterans I have found this silence is common.
This is what I meant by using subjective experience to relate to history. History is all about the subjective transposed onto a larger scale, but at the end of it all, history is an interpretation, isn't it? And that interpretation cannot help but be personal, idiosyncratic and incredibly subjective. Everyone's personal experience is valid. My aim is to find some commonality with the viewer.
KK: Can you take us through the process of making a painting for you? So, there you are talking to the canvas (laughs). How do you choose and work with the images and objects?
EB: (Laughs) Talking to the canvas might seem rather odd, but I see it as a living thing, a collaborator. As Picasso once said, the painting is stronger than I am, I must do what it wants. My way of discovering what the canvas wants is something akin to conversation. Generally I begin with a solid wash of color to eliminate some of the tooth of the canvas, and as that dries I start to poke around for things to add. There are times when I have a found object in mind, but mostly I figure things out as I go. I often make marks with charcoal, add to that or subtract from that, manipulate things on the canvas. I like the finished product to have evidence of the work involved. It often seems that the work is a process of adjustments.
KK: How do you find coherence? How do you want the painting to look?
EB: On the whole I try to let my subconscious rule, at least initially, until I begin to see the thing take shape. I find coherence evolves through the use of color. I make several washes of a single color to unify the composition and hope that I have sense enough to stop when I am at a good point. Many times I have gotten off track and gessoed the whole canvas over and started again. I don't consider that a loss really, in fact it tends to give the canvas that much more depth and a history of process. I am a big believer in the happy accident.
KK: I wanted to ask you one more thing about history. I sometimes feel resentful of history because it tries to tell me how to think about events. That's why I'm conflicted about seeing the movie "Milk". I have my own memories and experiences of that time period which are very meaningful to me. I also was lucky enough to be able to incorporate the shared perspectives of trusted friends and allies from those days into my own knowledge. I'm afraid, because its Hollywood, a specific moral perspective will be presented in that film. Even though there is clearly a moral dimension to those events, I would like to judge myself rather than be manipulated. I prefer art that stands as witness. But if I hadn't lived through those events, how would I respond to an artistic representation? How do you feel about those issues? Your paintings seem present information that is open to interpretation.
EB: I’m a big fan of ambiguity. I feel it presents a more accurate sense of reality than static "facts", and allows for interpretation and growth. I invite the viewer to join the dialogue of a painting. Each person looking at a painting brings something new to the work, and it is my aim to engage with them in some fashion. Allowing for interpretation is a hook and I hope people will bite.
As to history, it is very easy to become resentful since it is given to most of us as an incontrovertible set of facts. Certainly the strict facts, which side won the war, and so forth, are inarguable (for the most part), but the underlying reasons for that war, for that policy, etcetera, are open to a multitude of interpretations. My work, particularly for the Vexing History show, is about my personal history and although it is highly personal it is also part of a larger experience shared by many. If someone responds to my work enough to open a book and learn about the decline of the family farm or the migration to urban centers then I would consider that painting a smashing success.
KK: Well, give us a preview of what you'll be showing in your upcoming show Vexing History. You have made a video as well I hear?
EB: Yes, this will be the first public showing of my video work. I have been working in this medium for some time and it is even more difficult to resist continuously editing this kind of thing than any painting I've ever done. The video is a companion to the paintings for the show. It is very kinetic and represents a bit of my life since arriving in the Bay Area. There is some old footage of my son from about five years ago (he's now twelve) after he lost his front baby teeth. That clip is pretty dear to me! The project as a whole is the result of my experimentation with video. I really love film, although I am always a painter first.
The paintings are an expression of memory and imagination relating to my Midwestern roots. The largest is "nutmeat tonnage" - a reference to how tree nuts are sold, and it includes a burlap sack from a Michigan bean farmer that I picked up along the way and a horse bridle which is set into the canvas. I like to break the plane of the canvas when I can find a good reason.
Another painting is "anselm", which is something of an homage to Anselm Kiefer, a German painter I admire. It is a painting of one of those bleak Michigan horizons I spoke about earlier.
And lastly is a painting called "black" which is about my memories of the house I grew up in, the kitchen wallpaper, the heat register, and the dinner table.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to display this body of work and to be showing with Charlie Milgrim is an extra bonus! (Laughs)
KK: Charlie is the bomb! I think your work will have some nice connections with hers. Can’t wait to see the show. Thanks for speaking with me…
interview with Kathleen King
portrait by Peter Honig
February 27, 2009
Kathleen King: Hello, Eric. Thanks for letting me ask you all these nosy questions! So tell me…where are you from and what was it like growing up there?
Eric Bohr: I was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan. Lansing was at one time the world headquarters of Oldsmobile, now defunct, and the site of the first automobile assembly line--(Henry Ford and Detroit were actually later), so it was very much a blue collar factory town.
Growing up in Lansing was actually more exciting than the Midwest might seem. Lansing is the capitol city and just next door is Michigan State University, which, during the late sixties and early seventies was the scene of much cultural revolution and anti-war protest. At the time I felt like I was born too late to really understand the significance of what was happening, but I can see how those times have left a deep impression on me.
I discovered art early on, although at that time I was primarily interested in music. I am the youngest of my siblings and used to make my oldest brother crazy by stealing his Beatles records and barricading myself in my room to play them over and over on my cheap little stereo. I always had deep wonder for painting but did not pursue it seriously until much later.
Lansing did not possess the most fertile of art communities and the idea that a person could simply be an artist was not even a consideration. I was told by many people during my high school years that I should seriously consider moving to California. While these comments were not intended to be helpful or complimentary, it turns out to be some of the best advice I ever received.
These days I find myself grateful for my Michigan roots and while I have little interest in living there again, I am very proud of that heritage.