I was instantly taken with Erik Sommer's deconstructed cement paintings, which immediately made me think of slices of New York City walls carved out and brought to the studio. Torn posters and peeling paint give the sense of time passing, of weather-worn surfaces that we're accustomed to finding in urban areas. They emulate, or could even be said to copy walls in a literal sense, sort of like a Boyle Family street corner, but they become more like 3-dimensional snapshots of the urban environment. Check out this great interview, and links to more work below!
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Hi Erik! First, can you tell me a bit more about yourself?
I grew up in Minnesota, but moved to New York City for my MFA program. When all of my friends moved to Brooklyn, I went uptown and currently have a studio in East Harlem. I work with cement, and create both cement installations and paintings that are full of deterioration.
What first interested you in making art?
After my undergrad degree I moved back to Duluth and started a band with some friends. We toured for 3-4 years, but during that time I realized I was drawn more toward creating objects that were physical and tangible. From the start I knew I wanted to create pieces that were full of texture, and that were decaying and broken; I basically broke every 'painting rule' from the start.
Your canvases use heavy-duty materials like drywall and cement, and you incorporate found materials like street posters, which suggest an outdoor urban environment or architecture. When did you start working with these materials?
I have always been interested in the 'urban-ness' of New York City; the sidewalks, broken stucco, torn-down buildings. I started using faux material to try to recreate this look and feel, but eventually began using real cement and drywall. The pieces are heavy, but surprisingly not that much more heavy than 'normal' paintings. As the pieces have gotten larger I have moved from canvas to wood supports. It is a compliment that people think I simply take a section of a wall or find these paintings; the truth is that I make every part of each piece look old and aged and broken and deteriorated. I can do in 3-4 months in the studio what normally takes years out in nature.
The street poster aspect is relatively new. The first/ bottom layer of each painting is always paint/ color. I then layer other material on top before scrapping it all off. Recently I realized that I can use the aged/ peeled street posters that are illegally put up around NYC as my base/color layer. This gives me the natural/ aged feel that I am after.
What is your favorite thing about your chosen media?
I like using cement because I am able to create soft, quiet pieces with this heavy, ugly material.
Are there any challenges that you've come across with these materials as far as installation, or production?
One of the most challenging parts is how slow the material is. After each layer I need to let the cement dry before adding the next layer, which usually takes a day or two.
What is your process like? Do you plan ahead very much, or work intuitively? Do you work on more than one piece at a time?
I work on several pieces at once, with each piece laid on the floor. I use a butter knife to spread on each layer to prevent painterly marks. I spread a layer on, let it dry, then add a new layer, let it dry, etc etc. The layers are acrylics, oils, gesso, and cement, drywall, plaster, street posters, and paint. I do have a general idea about each piece when I start it, but also allow for intuition/ accidents/ opportunities. This is especially true for the paintings. The cement installations I try to make as accurate and real as possible, so they are much more planned out beforehand.
What is your studio like?
I have a nice space in East Harlem. It is in an old textile building, with these huge industrial hallways and tall ceilings, and an old elevator that rarely works. It is great. See a studio visit via MoMA PS1.
Do you have a go-to if you find yourself in a creative rut?
What's the best piece of advice you've been given so far?
To take my time, and not get caught up in trying to be 'cool' or making pieces just to sell. Basically be true to yourself and everything else will fall into place.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging or difficult about pursuing an art career? Or an obstacle you've overcome that was a doozie?
My first show in London was a bit rushed; I had a short amount of time to create a large amount of work. Looking back I am only happy with about 70% of the work. I wish I would have delayed the show until I was more prepared. Sometimes it is OK to say No.
What is the most rewarding part of what you do? What compels you to keep making?
When I finish a piece and I am the only one who knows about it; I love those first few days when the piece is still a secret and no one has seen it yet. It is still only mine.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're currently developing?
I am lining up my next cement installation piece for the summer, hopefully in Milan or London. There is also talks of an exhibition of my paintings in Brooklyn... Stay tuned.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you! This is a great resource. Thank you for letting me be a part of it.
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