July 21, 2011
Art in a Concrete Jungle
Erik Sommer sprung onto the New York scene about five years ago and has since cemented himself firmly in the contemporary art world. “Cemented” is a pun, because Erik is best known for using concrete as a medium in his paintings to depict how the layers of time piling up against an urban backdrop. We recently caught up with him to hear what he had to say about making his work bigger, the beauty of cities, and the great thing about impermanence.
So, why concrete as a medium?
Erik Sommer: I use cement because I am attracted to urban grittiness. I like cement’s subtleties, and its various tones and shades and textures. I enjoy manipulating it to create broken, peeled pieces of beauty.
Does this relate to the layers of an urban environment?
Absolutely. I view the layers in my work as being layers of time, with the older layers underneath being more worn out and faded. This relates to an urban environment where new buildings are built upon and next to older structures, walls are painted and re-painted with previous layers visible in cracks, pavement fades due to weathering, and stucco buildings crumble and fall. It is the natural cycle of human creation, this deterioration of physical entities. I am interested in capturing the passing of time and preserving it as a reflection on mortality.
Are you interested of exploring cities to further investigate this process of decay and rebirth?
I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an urban spelunker, but I am constantly noticing my urban environment. It’s fun to travel to different cities and see the similarities and differences that exist, especially in some of the older cities in Europe. I think that is one of the reasons I am so attracted to New York, this unspoken beauty of urban decay. I’m just naturally attracted to the effect that nature and time have on structures, streets, bricks, sides of buildings, etc. I love the way a sidewalk naturally and accidentally chips and fades, or the way a stucco building flakes and peels. I attempt to recreate these processes in my work, giving my work this accidental or organic feel. The key is to make them appear to have “just happened,” which is actually very difficult.
So there’s a lot of deliberateness in your work. It looks spontaneous and accidental.
Yes, and in a lot of ways that is the toughest part. I rely on the chance reactions of the materials, but I have learned to manipulate and encourage certain outcomes. While I am never certain as to how the mixed mediums will react, I am able to anticipate the outcomes slightly, and if I am not pleased with the look of a piece I will “fix” it to achieve a more formal composition. It is this combination of allowing the work to occur while conducting or encouraging a certain type of outcome, all while making it appear natural or unintentional.
Enough about cities, do you ever go outside the urban environment to take a look at nature?
Probably not as often as I should. I am originally from northern Minnesota, a land filled with trees and lakes and beautiful forests. Unfortunately I don’t make it back there as often as I would like. But I definitely share an affinity with such places.
Are you exploring any new mediums or methods to represent your ideas?
I would like my work to become even more sculptural, larger and installation-like. I am always looking for new materials to use, and in fact haven’t used proper “paint” for the past few years. I love scouring hardware stores for industrial pastes and using them in an unintended way. Right now I do work on canvas but as my work gets larger I will find a new surface, something strong but not too heavy. I’ll just keep mixing things together and see what happens.