Erik den Breejen

Erik den Breejen was born in Berkeley, California in 1976. He is a graduate ofCornell University, where he received his MFA in 2006, and California College of the Arts, where he received his BFA in 1999. Recent solo exhibitions include Song of the Earth at Freight+Volume (NYC) and Image, Music, Text at the Untitled art fair in Miami Beach (2012). Den Breejen has exhibited internationally, and his work is in collections throughout the world, including the Kistefos Collection in Norway. He recently completed a two-story mural of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, commissioned by the label for their new headquarters in New York. Den Breejen is a 2015 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Painting and has completed numerous residencies including the DNA residency in Provincetown, MA. He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. 


Erik den Breejen

I have had a long-standing interest in the possibilities of combining visual and verbal language and have used text to varying degrees in nearly all of my work for the past decade. While covering a lot of formal and conceptual ground, I have insisted on keeping my characteristic hand-painted blocks of text in most pieces. The text block has allowed me to view words and letters as visual modules with which to construct a painting, be it abstract or representational. In many of my recent paintings, I am utilizing and playing with scale shifts of the letters, which is a new development from my previous body of work, which used a uniform text size to aid in making an image. By being less bound to the task of creating the likeness of a subject, I am able to play with the scale and other formal elements more, which in turn loosens up the reading of the work and the viewer’s ability to create new meaning from the source material.

The first painting in my new body of work, Forest Interior, was abstracted from my own photograph of an unspoiled wilderness on Shelter Island where I had a profoundly serene experience. I compiled a diverse group of environmentally conscious poems, quotes, and lyrics from authors such as Yeats, Cezanne, Wendell Berry, John Ashbery, Thoreau, Kahlil Gibran, Osho, Joni Mitchell, and John Muir. The original line breaks of the poetry are gone, allowing the eye to be led around the piece by the many color shifts, picking up phrases and letters as it goes and creating new combinations along the way. The scale of this vertical piece is slightly larger than the human body, which deviates from the traditional window or epic horizontal landscape format, allowing for a more personal, one to one immersion into the environment of color. The tangibility of the image ebbs and flows, as does the space of the painting. The words are there if one wants them, but they do not get in the way.

The text of Tuning My Colors, Tuning My Eyes is based on my own stream of consciousness writing, and begins with reflections on mixing a wide range of greens for the previous painting and compares adjusting the colors to the tuning of musical notes. The writing then expounds upon twelve-tone (or atonal) music, such as Alban Berg and Schoenberg, eventually segueing into observations about the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and opera. My initial objective for this piece was to use varying sizes of text in a simple, systematic manner. I've often been inspired by the way Sol LeWitt explores every possible combination within a pared down set of variables, and thought along those lines as I devised the "rules" for this piece: the under painting goes from dark to light blue, the word blocks go from small to large, peaking in the middle and going back again. The reds go from light to dark and back again, while the greens go from dark to light and back again. Both colors become more saturated in the middle. This approach feels like a more scientific or systematic approach to color, one less concerned with the idea of taste than with color’s phenomenological possibilities. It also feels a lot like musical composition, and I referred to the nine greens and nine reds as scales of color.

The title of my recent show -- Song of the Earth -- comes from Gustav Mahler's vocal and symphonic work Das Lied von der Erde. The text used in my painting of the same

name is an English translation of Hans Bethge's German renderings of ancient Chinese poetry, which Mahler used for the lyrics. I was initially attracted to Mahler’s title and the unique musical form he developed for the piece, something that combined elements of both a song cycle and a symphony, two previously disparate forms. The deeply nuanced, complex beauty of the music and lyrics was something I drew inspiration from as I attempted to create movements, patterns, rhymes, quiet passages, and crescendos within the painting. By the time the text arrives in the painting, it has already changed languages, forms, and cultural contexts several times. I find the persistence and repurposing of a text through time and space fascinating and fruitful. Visually, my objective was to integrate the work I had been doing with pattern with the work I had been doing with landscape. I based the landscape area on a still from the film Apocalypse Now in which the jungle is being napalmed. As rendered, the image is elusive. If the viewer recognizes a landscape at all, the reds and oranges would perhaps suggest a bucolic Northeastern scene of fall foliage, not the colonialist eco-trauma that it is. What this image has to do with the text, or its history, is something I have ideas about, but I leave it up to the viewer to come to their own conclusions.

My smaller paintings could be described as confounded aphorisms. In this work, I tend to use short, catchy observations and phrases from song lyrics presented as food for thought or “universal truths.” Some of these quotes are the kinds of things one might read on a bumper sticker, but here they merge with unexpected combinations of color and shape, suggesting new ways of reading--backwards, forwards, up, down, and around. A familiar catchphrase or “one liner” ironically becomes complicated and difficult to read, requiring engagement from the viewer. I love the work of pioneering text-based artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, but don’t want to make the use of text the forefront of my work. Instead, I prefer to integrate it into the other formal elements.

Rather than paying homage or tribute to my inspirations, I want to synthesize diverse influences into unique works. I internalize myriad sources and allow them to ferment and mutate. I feel that my unconscious mind is constantly at work, trying out various combinations and possibilities, until it presents solutions to the conscious mind, which then experiences an epiphany. The sources have significance for me, and I make my own connections between them, but I don't want them to over-determine the viewer's experience with them, or the connections they might make.


Q&A with Erik den Breejen

Questions by Emily Burns

Hi Erik! The text in your work feels very precise, but also influenced by your hand and imperfect at the same time. What strategies do you employ to design/plan/sketch your compositions? Are you using any computer software or tools to assist in the layout?
Lately, I've been going straight to the canvas once I've decided what the variables are. I also make drawings and take notes. I do a lot of math. In some of the previous ones, I would initially use Microsoft Word to lay out all the text to fit into the rectangle I wanted to use, then take it from there. Everything is hand painted—no tape, no stencils, no projections.

The surface of your paintings seems smooth from a distance, but close-up the woven texture of the linen is seductive. Can you talk a bit about the importance of surface and its relationship to the color in your work?
I feel very sensitive to the surface. The tactile qualities, both in terms of the weave you mention and the paint density, are very important to me. I am attracted to the grid of the fabric's weave as it relates to that of the painting. It's like a foundation or an echo. The painted edges of the word blocks are subtle, but felt. The letters are not painted, but painted around, allowing the background color to come through, and I think the viewer experiences the space created by that.

Are the letters in your work totally hand-drawn or are they based on a particular typeface?
They are based on the principle of carving out each letter from a box. I'm not looking at any particular fonts, just making the letters as plainly as I can by hand. 

Text in your work begs to be read, but value shifts and brightness makes reading the work challenging. Can you talk about the ease/difficulty of the legibility in the work and what this means to you conceptually?
It really varies from piece to piece, and I don't have reasons for making some more legible than others. The more complicated, imagistic ones, will inevitably be harder to read than the smaller, straightforward ones, but it doesn't have to do with which text I'm using.  A lot of the recent work has been exploring unconventional layouts of text—down, backwards, upside down—which can be very hard to read, and I do like the idea of challenging the viewer in this way, but I'm more motivated by how the whole thing looks and functions overall.

Your work creates compositions and landscapes that exist as abstraction, outside of the painted text, but also the text re-emerges over and over as its impossible not to attempt to ‘read’ when written language is presented. Is this difficulty of separating words from image something that's important to the work?
I've always been interested in the formal, visual qualities of text. My initial reason for making a box around the text was to be able to use it as a building block from which to construct a picture, be it abstract or representational. A lot of text-based work uses verbal language more straightforwardly. I see the verbal and the visual operating in unison in my work, but perhaps they are also at odds. 

In your statement, you describe the painting depicting a "still from the film Apocalypse Now in which the jungle is being napalmed. As rendered, the image is elusive. If the viewer recognizes a landscape at all, the reds and oranges would perhaps suggest a bucolic Northeastern scene of fall foliage, not the colonialist eco-trauma that it is.” Is this double reading something that occurs often in your work, and can you tell us more about how this functions for you?
I'm attracted to images that are elusive, or could be read multiple ways, which is related to my larger project of an image made of text. A lot of the portraits that I made had very sympathetic relationships between the subject and the text—they were typically made of the subject's words. In the recent work, I'm interested in unexpected combinations of image and text and the new meanings they could create. In musical terms, this could be described as an overtone, but also dissonance. 

Many of your paintings seems to depict the earth in some capacity—whether it be a topographic map, landscape, outdoor scene, or heat map. Is ecology or climate-change, or the future of the earth themes that are central to this series? If so, what do you hope translates to the viewer?
I wanted to avoid being overly didactic or propagandistic, but still have a clear message in the text. Looking at Goya's Third of May, for example, I'm now far from the original political context, and am unsure which side I'm supposed to be on. Goya intended to portray the Spanish as victims of French aggression, yet the real subject is the horror of war. I'm striving to convey the universal truth of caring for nature, which transcends politics. The degree to which I am overt is varied. The message of Last Great American Whale is quite clear if one reads the text, but you could also just experience the color relationships. Or interpret it as a heat map, as you suggested. After I made that painting, I saw its structure as a metaphor for overpopulation—the words become increasingly packed together until there is no space left on the painting. I want to provoke thought, not tell the viewer how to think. 

Where did your interest in type come from? Were you ever interested in typography or design?
My dad worked for a newspaper and would show me the actual type they used to print the paper. He made a cool collage using some of it too, so those were early impressions. I've always been attracted to book and record cover designs and their use of type. But as far as a formal discipline, I'm more interested in approaching typography in a naive way. I'm very interested in the way space is broken up, both inside the letter block and the way the blocks break up the canvas. 

What is a typical day like for you?
I've been lucky enough to be able to work in the studio most days. I try to get in a full day each time. It's a labor intensive process and the idea generator has to be very patient to see its impulses come to fruition. I usually ride my bike to the studio and have afternoon tea. I strategically vary my lunch options and am a creature of habit in that regard. 

What do you listen to while you work?
For years it was nothing but music music music. Now, I like to mix it up and listen to podcasts as well. There's something nice about getting to work early in the morning and putting on a podcast, like the morning news or morning commute radio, except you can now get really specific in finding stuff you are interested in. WTF with Marc Maron was the first one I got into. I couldn't believe I was getting such direct access into the minds of so many creative people. I've since gone on to be a regular listener of The Canon, All Songs Considered, 2 Dope Queens, and many more. I'm interested in most forms of music and have an insatiable appetite for new (or new to me) sounds, but will also play the same record over and over again, especially if it's yielding productive painting sessions. 

Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
I recently went to Spain and was totally blown away by Velazquez, Goya, Greco, and Bosch. As well as the Islamic art and architecture in the Alhambra and other sites. Before that, I had a similar experience in Italy, particularly with the site specific frescoes. Caspar David Friedrich and Rothko are other artists I think about a lot. 

Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
I'm currently reading a book chronicling the history, evolution, and art of brewing. Before that was Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful—a book about Jazz that takes its own improvisational flights of fancy and  exists somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. left a strong impression. I'm always reading about music, in books and magazines, and have been chipping away at a hefty tome on the Dead. I like to learn about the lives of other artists. As for film, I've been coming back to 2001: A Space Odyssey for most of my life and keep seeing it in different ways. I like work that allude to ideas of transcendence. What does that word even mean? I like the big questions and the small details.

Any advice to recent grads who are interested in getting their work out there and exhibiting?
It's clearly become very difficult to operate as an artist in New York, and the real estate conversation is inevitable and exhausting. However, there are also more opportunities than ever. I think it would be unwise to approach being an artist the way one would a typical career. There doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason as to how the exhibiting aspect works. I think you have to really want to do make your work. If you're lucky enough to go to school with artists whose work really inspires you, stick with them.

Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
The stuff you do that looks good to you? Do that! The stuff you do that doesn't look good to you? Don't do that! 

What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?
Kerry James Marshall at the Met Breuer, Raymond Pettibon at the New Museum, EJ Hauser at Regina Rex.

What is your relationship with social media? Do you have a favorite or least-favorite platform?
I try to have a healthy relationship with it. I don't want to be a complete hermit, but also try not to get too caught up in it. I like to know when shows are happening and see images from them, and love posting pics of shows I like. I want my work to be "out there," but try to avoid the trap of thinking that my painting sucks if it don't get enough likes.

Do you have any projects coming up?
I'm in the early stages of a mural for a public school in Queens for Public Art for Public Schools and am in a couple upcoming group shows, one curated by Jennifer Coates and the other by Robert Otto Epstein. Artist curated shows are the best!

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us!
Thank you! It's been a pleasure. 

To find out more about Erik and his work, check out his website.