Eric Wert creates still life as you've never seen it before. Vibrant, psychedelic and detailed to a fault, Wert’s portraits draw inspiration from 17th and 18th Century Dutch Masters and provide a fresh introduction to an archetypal form.
Your style is quite reminiscent of European Impressionism, in particular the Dutch Golden Age, however there's also a postcolonial quality to your paintings. Is this a conscious choice?
I am most interested in the period of renaissance and baroque European painting, when artists first opened their eyes to the natural world, having until that point only been concerned with specifically religious themes. There is a quality of not only rational observation, but almost childlike fascination, curiosity, and amazement in the work of artists like Durer and onward to the Dutch Golden Age painters that I find endlessly inspiring. With Durer, you feel as if he is seeing a beetle, a clump of grass, or a rabbit for the first time, and the scales are being lifted from his eyes! I try every day to experience my subjects with this kind of wonder.
I have access at my local supermarket to flowers and vegetables from all over the world. Online, I have access to images of textiles from museum collections all over the world. I try to make sure that the subjects of my paintings have some sort of connection beyond merely aesthetic - such as an 18th Chinese tapestry behind an orange that was originally cultivated in China around the same time. To be honest, as an American with access to all the treasures of the world... this doesn't seem "post" colonial at all...
How do you go about setting the scene for your pieces?
I'm hesitant to let your readers know how disorganised and messy my process really is. I often think of Vasari's description of Da Vinci's studio full of rotting specimens and how "...he suffered much in doing it, for the smell in the room of these dead animals was very bad." My situation is not so gruesome, but it's true that there are often many flowers and vegetables well past their prime. I always look forward to spring when I can open my windows.
Your art has often been described as a collection of stories. Is there a particular narrative you endeavour to tell in your art?
Not so much a particular narrative, as a scene that implies some sort of action or outside presence. My work is most successful when viewers are able to create their own stories. Someone posted one of my pieces on an online forum a while back, and the commentators had very different impressions, from sexual to mouth-watering to gruesome to psychedelic. All of those impressions had passed through my mind at some point while painting the piece, and I was happy to see people relate to the aspects which spoke to them.
You've cited inspiration drawn from sci- fi, horror, fine art and science. How do you fuse these elements together?
The aspect of these elements that I respond to most strongly is a feeling of fascination toward the unknown. Often after months of painting every tiny leaf and vein of an everyday houseplant, it feels as if I understand it much less than I thought I did when I started the painting. There is a certain kind of horror that comes from studying anything, even the most mundane object, when you realize that however well you think you understand it, it is ultimately unknowable through your senses. It has its own experience entirely alien to your own. I don't mean that as a nihilistic statement, more an affirmation of how incredible the world is.
What inspires you about your own work?
In the studio, I am most energized when working on a subject that seems overwhelmingly complex or somehow unpaintable. It seems that Inspiration is often represented as a feeling of exhilaration – the artist working feverishly while Vivaldi plays in the background. In my own experience, the feeling I think of as inspiration is more of a sinking feeling of deep anxiety, like "what have I gotten myself into?" Day after day of failing, starting again, failing again, etc., slowly digging out of that hole until something interesting and natural emerges is ultimately life-affirming.
Is there a parallel between realism and surrealism?
I think if you spend day after day looking at even the most prosaic object, it can’t help but begin to represent every aspect of your experience. Have you ever had a dream where you see something mundane that is impossibly beautiful, delicious or terrifying? I suppose I want my subjects to feel more like this dream than a photographic representation. I'm often surprised where the painting goes, and I've learned over the years to allow space in the process for my understanding of the subjects to evolve over time, taking on more of these unconscious associations.
You've exhibited work in Mykonos, Tokyo and various cities across the United States but you've received attention from all over the world. Do you have plans to exhibit your work in other countries?
I had a piece in a group show at Galerie Artistik Rezo in Paris in July. My paintings are much more well-travelled than I am, and I have been very lucky to have work shown and collected around the world and across the US. It's funny, the part of the US where I have had the least exposure is in my native Pacific Northwest. I'm happy to say that I will have my first show of paintings here in Portland, Oregon at Hellion Gallery this coming November.
You're currently a fine arts professor. What lesson do you impress upon your students that you wish you'd had when you started out?
I haven't been a teacher for several years. I do enjoy it, but the time pressure of the studio became too much. If I have any useful advice, it’s to take mistakes and failures in stride. They really are necessary to improve and correct your course. These days, I see each painting as an attempt to improve on the failures of the last one, and hopefully one day I will have failed enough to be good painter.
What does the digital art movement mean for postmodernism?
I think of postmodernism as a breaking down of artistic categories and hierarchies. In my own career, the value of this has been the opportunity to show my work alongside, and to find parallels with, many different kinds of artists working in many different media and platforms. As to the digital influence, the opportunity to easily gain exposure to what people are doing all over the world, at any time, should be nourishing for any artist.