Remaining Fearless in the Face of Art: Interview with Artist Eric N Mack

Eric Mack in his studio during the Rauschenberg residency

Currently on show at Simon Lee Gallery is Misa Hylton-Brim, the first solo London exhibition of New York-based artist Eric N Mack. He’s been called an ‘emerging star’ by artnet, and for good reason. Just in the last year, 30-year old Mack received the BALTIC Artists’ Award, had his work shown in various prestigious international galleries, has been highly praised for his backdrop design for the London Men’s Fashion Week early 2018 and was invited for a 6-week Robert Rauschenberg residency in spring 2017. In fact, it was during this residency that Eric and I met. We were housemates during that time and it was a real pleasure to get to know him better. I found out that he’s not only a wonderful and kind human being with a great sense of humour and a unique fashion style, but he also takes his art, and actually art in general, very seriously. Before the residency, Eric named Rauschenberg as a source of inspiration and it’s not difficult to see resemblances between these two artists. Just like Rauschenberg, Eric is full of energy, is eager to break down barriers and willing to traverse various art disciplines.

Although textiles seem to form the core of his works, Eric is usually referred to as a painter with mixed media. During the residency he made assemblages, collages and sculptures using textiles he either shipped in from New York or picked up at local thrift stores, but I also saw him apply paint (spray-painted or painted directly on the fabric), photographs, metal objects he had picked up from a local scrapyard that also Rauschenberg used to frequent, long dried leaves found on the estate, shells from the local beach, lead ballast and even the tallest ladder he could possibly find on the whole property.

Eric-Mack-installation-interview-Dutch-Girl-in-London

His works could be seen lying on the floor, pinned to the wall or even suspended from the ceiling. While I would tiptop around his work laid out on the floor, he would, almost carelessly, walk over them or take them apart and reassemble them in a completely different manner. This made me reflect on the sense of preciousness of art. I had never been this intimate with works of art before. I’ve never seen an artwork being created, deconstructed and reconstructed, so being able to witness this process was something very new and so fascinating to me. What made it even more special to me was to be able to ask the artist about this process and it was always a great pleasure to hear Eric talk about his work. He puts a lot of thought and deliberation in his assemblages and speaks about it all with great thoughtfulness and motivation. Apart from our many more informal conversations, we sat down for this ‘proper’ interview midway through the residency. Eric’s current solo exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery in London (on until 12 May 2018) seemed the perfect time to publish this article.

Your bio says painting is a point of departure for your work. But should this be interpreted in the literal sense of painting on the textiles or are the textiles the ‘paints’ you use for creating your ‘canvasses’?
I think there are some times when it’s very literal in that painting is applied directly onto a surface, but usually the way that it goes about has to do with the paint absorbing into the material, to change the material so that it’s no longer this plain white piece of cotton. With a dyed application, if the dye is yellow it becomes a yellow piece of cotton. I like those kinds of transformations. I also choose fabrics based on their almost ready-made relationships to colour and texture. I think the way that those things are relating and connecting is like a distortion, or reorganisation of the same kind of principles of thinking about dye as the operative medium or the agent of change.

Do you find that your time here and the facilities have in any way changed or influenced your regular process of working?
I think it kind of encouraged my regular process. I like to do a ton of different things in a day and not have to think about it or overthink it. There are times I feel like there are parts of the practice in which things really slow down and usually this happens when I have to stitch something, or mostly when I’m sewing. It can be really fast when I use a sewing machine, but often to get the precision that I need I usually hand-sew. It’s really meditative. And then I kind of break that and then move some things around. You know, it’s just doing a bunch of whole different things, like ‘Oh I’m gonna bleach something in the basement, or I’m gonna go read a little bit more of this essay, or interview that I had on my list of things to do for the last six months’ or I go to Sanibel [the nearest ‘big’ town from the Rauschenberg estate where Eric would visit thrift stores] to look for more fabric so I don’t feel like I’m working in a deficit of material ‘cause I think sometimes it feels kind of drastic when you need to make the most of these three things that you have. That’s a kind of a puzzle that doesn’t really work. I don’t like to force things like that. So I know that if I have a few more things at hand, it optimizes my chances of making something meaningful. And not everything will be meaningful, but usually there’s this really good start to things.

Eric-Mack-Rauschenberg-residency-interview-Dutch-Girl-in-London

Has the art of Rauschenberg or his approach to art have an influence on your own work?
Yeah, for a long time it has, in very exciting ways, like points of affirmation, like points of enquiry, like questions that he came up with, the points of resolution in the studio. He’s been very important and it’s been quite a thing for me think about how to really connect with that ‘cause I think it’s hard to think about it. I’m kind of inside the question now, being here in his studio. I think it’s going to make more sense when I leave. I’ve kinda been really rebellious, against the ideas and relatedness that I had to Rauschenberg. It felt like a relationship that was maybe too easy to think about and probably didn’t make the space for who I was. What I am trying to become. But it’s nice to be here. It’s good it exists.

Rauschenberg was someone who dealt with so many different facets of art to such a degree that there’s not even a real understanding of what was quality or what quality even meant for him then. It was like he felt not just open but almost like in a constant state of hunger, trying to acquire all these different skills. I can’t see all those things being so natural in an individual, especially in the fifties/sixties. I feel like there was actually a lot of hard work that took place, but he kind of made it look easy. I don’t know, there’s something about that that the art world puts a lot of weight on, you know. His work – which is definitely an achievement – is almost like a monolith that no one could penetrate or get past or something like that. It’s a mark of history that would be silly to repeat and I’m trying to challenge that, to rethink it, to open it up, to be something that’s just not opaque or mysterious but more about a way of working, a way of thinking and perhaps that’s really contemporary.

To me it’s very interesting to see the works in progress here by several artists. Not only to be able to talk to you – it’s very interesting to hear you talk about your motives and thoughts about it – but also to be able to touch the work. I guess that this might be a new approach to you? I mean your studio is kind of closed-off but is still very open to visitors. Has this also influenced the way you’ve been working here?
It’s tough, but it happens when you’re in a kind of community situation. I mean right now my studio is kind of open to two other people that have to walk through, or get to the bathroom. I mean it’s cool, they’re my friends, I know them, I know their motivations are very different than mine and they’re in a different studio. So it’s nice to talk to people, talk to your friends kind of randomly because the work that they’ve been seeing is unconsciously in the corner of their eye and surprisingly, or not surprisingly, they’ve been thinking about it on their way to the bathroom and they have opinions about the certain changes it goes through. That’s always nice. But I mean yeah, it’s really nice to feel this is a safe place and that people are doing really different things. At such artist residencies you always need a little bit of time to feel comfortable and get ready to make the moves that you need to make, like getting the tallest ladder and hanging something from the highest point, having to take many steps back in order to see it in the right way. But that’s very personal, it’s about goals, it’s about moving past, getting to a larger perception of a work. Sometimes when you’re conscious of all the people around you, you can’t make those big decisions. So it’s nice to be able to be audacious.

Eric-Mack-interview-Dutch-Girl-in-London-Rauschenberg

I was curious, just personally, that it’s very obvious from your fashion style and your work and the talks we’ve had that you have a big interest in and lots of knowledge of fashion. Have you ever considered to move towards fashion?
Yeah, in some ways. I like communicating with the fashion world. I think it’s a part of what the work can do and it ends up being inevitable. But fashion is so hungry that it often devours visual art. One moment it’s all ‘so spring 2017’ and then it never ever happens again. It has its moment and then it’s locked up in the vault. Often the artist doesn’t even know they’ve been the certain subject of a collection.  It’s one of the things where I think there’s so little leverage as a creative in the fashion world. It’s not all I’m interested in so I’d rather invent my own game and that’s kind of what I’ve been doing. And when I have the opportunity to work with designers and stylists, I definitely do but I’m also interested in using the skills that are inherent in the work in lots of different ways. I’ve done some consulting for a label and done some things like modified garments for them as well and it’s been really nice to kind of go in and out again.

It might be difficult to reflect on this beforehand but besides your physical objects or installations, do you think you’ll be taking any other elements from this residency, even if it’s just an approach or way of thinking or handling materials, with you afterwards?
I always try to remember how to be fearless and how to take hold of what it is I’m trying to approach and feel like I actually have the tools to do those things. And it’s been nice to kind of reflect on that, what that means to me, here. You know sometimes it just feels like that when you’re in a big city and in the middle of your work, it’s very hard to reflect.
I’ll be definitely taking physical objects home with me. It’s nice that so many things I found or made here have their very own specific identity. ‘Cause sometimes you will feel like ‘Oh this could be from anywhere’ and it’s not really true. Or if you did find it somewhere else it would be very expensive or you’d feel like you couldn’t change things about it that easily because there might be too much value placed on it as an object. Maybe it’s too precious or something. I always appreciate the place where I live, but when I come back from a residency, from a place where I’ve been for a long time, I’ll be like ‘I missed New York! Right, this is why I like this place.’

Eric Mack’s solo exhibition Misa Hylton-Brim is on view at the Simon Lee Gallery in London (12 Berkeley Street, W1J 8DT) until Saturday 12 May 2018.

Eric-Mack-interview-Dutch-Girl-in-London-ladder