I sit in Eric Fertman’s converted deli space studio in Greenpoint Brooklyn. The place is a smorgasbord of visual pleasures: pockmarked rocks, fluted vessels, wrinkled plaster sausage-like forms, bright orange buttons, knobs, and patterned wooden boxes are stacked on ceiling high shelves, filling every nook and cranny. From the ceiling, meat hooks still hang; a testament to its previous incarnation, and everywhere the room is filled with this kind of culturally diverse, vibrant, organized clutter…
AP: Where are you from?
EF: Winchester, MA — the suburbs north of Boston.
AP: What’s your family like?
EF: Small. And weird like most families. My parent’s house has an the most beautiful ancient Japanese maple tree in the back yard, better than any at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.
AP: When would you say was the period of time when you developed your distinct artistic style?
EF: Which part of my artistic style do you find to be distinct? I hope I developed something distinct as recently as today. I want to have a style, but I also want it changed over time. This is one of the characteristics I most admire in other artists; Philip Guston is a good example. I glued a lot of stuff together as a kid. I try to keep playfulness in my work. There were things I really fell in love with in college that changed the way I thought about making art — Chinese Art, furniture, of course, the rocks, and annoying art students. College is when I found a love for objects. I went object crazy. I’m an object worshiper. Since then I’ve had so many ideas that my hands can’t keep up. I also love early Soviet art, especially Malevich. AND MOVIES. Sorry to be so rambling but I could answer in so many different ways. It’s like asking – who is Eric Fertman? Unless you just want an actual date, in that case 1997. To summarize– playfulness + glue + philip guston+ Chinese rocks = ef’s distinctive style annoying art school students + a lot of old movies time+some other things
AP: You’ve spoken with me about how you make objects that are in some ways slightly off-putting yet acceptable, slightly grotesque yet pleasant. Are you trying to create a visual experience for people that they react to, experience in opposite ways?
EF: Yeah I guess so, I mean, in the end I want it to be enjoyable. I try very hard to make art that I hope anybody can understand. You know, if something is slightly off, or awkward , it can emphasize the parts that are more easily connected to by people, the cute parts. I like work that speaks to that little f*@#ed up tree growing out of the side of a mountain. Without the grotesque or unpleasant an object can never achieve profoundly cute status.
AP: What about Chinese art and culture do you find so inspiring?
EF: Classical Chinese artists had a totally different appreciation of the world. In much of the work that I like there is a deep connection with nature but also a very strange abstract quality that western art didn’t really develop. The Chinese loved weird rocks – and they made stands for them that were equally bizarre, they took their cue from nature but really perverted it in a great way. The lonely/pathetic quality I was talking about before was treasured by the Chinese……… In addition, what we call wetting the bed –the Chinese call drawing maps of your dreams! I love it!
AP: The lonely and pathetic quality in some Chinese art you like, can you tell me more about that?
EF: Once at the Met I saw a Chinese drawing with a poem inscribed on it. It said something like, “Tall ancient trees, broken banana leaves, sparse bamboo, bony rocks, and dying grass—does anybody notice this kind of scenery? Does anybody notice? It’s a great homage to garbage and rotten things. And this guy who wrote it felt that these forgotten objects were the height of poetics.
AP: Can you tell me what you like about scholar rocks?
EF: Scholars rocks are the rocks that generally have fitted stands made for them. They are mostly displayed indoors. They are composed of a rock that looks nothing like most rocks. In fact great pains are taken to make sure of this, many of the rocks undergo extensive plastic surgery, and like human nose job recipients, the surgery is generally kept very hush-hush. And then there’s the rocks stand that is also very strange. It is the marriage of these two elements that I find to be one of the ultimate acts of imagination. In the end it does not resemble anything but itself; it becomes an object which cannot be understood except for it’s eccentricities — this what I try to cultivate in my own sculpture. I think this is very much in opposition to most contemporary art.
AP: Who are some artists you like?
EF: Jean Luc Goddard, Philip Guston, Isamu Noguchi, Kasmir Malevich, Dziga Vertov, Jean Vigo, Marco Ferreri, Carl Dreyer Jacques Demy, David Cronenburg, William Blake, Mi Fu, Charles Baudelaire, Alexander Calder, Bob Breer, Prabda Yoon.
AP: You just finished working with Prabda Yoon on illustrations for his new book. So what were the materials you were given, and what was it like to move from 3-dimensional sculptures to illustration. Or is moving between mediums something that doesn’t faze you?
EF: Well it was hard actually. First I only had a week to do it, and then all the themes for the essays were things like “On Breaking Up with Girls”, “On Fake Buddhism”, “On Paragraphs”, and “On Robots”..
AP: So vague or conceptual ideas that weren’t so obvious, there was no “Oh, I’ll do that”…
EF: Well, “On Robots” was easy, but “On Breaking Up With Girls” was really hard. I guess it was a different way of thinking, but sometimes that’s nice. When I make sculptures the only limits are things like how much money am I going to spend on it, and how much space do I have in my studio. It was fun to have limits for a change, but it was hard coming up a drawing that wasn’t too literal. Now that I look back on it, I like how the illustrations came out, but I think I could have made them more abstract, and they still would have held together conceptually. If I hadn’t been trying so hard to stick to the topic, I would have gone a little bit farther out and made the drawings a bit looser. Some of the drawings are pretty loose anyway, but they stop short of hotdogs flying off a cliff to represent “Breaking Up with Girls”.
AP: Is book illustration something that you would like to do more of?
EF: I’m really interested in that, I hope there are more, Prabda and I are doing something in September for a Japanese magazine, and the tentative theme is “Bangkok Lunch Boxes”. .
AP: Why “Bangkok Lunch Boxes”?
EF: Well the subject of the whole magazine is Bangkok. So we just picked something fun that had some sculptural potential and also had something to do with Bangkok.
AP: In Bangkok, are the lunchboxes there pretty sculptural?
EF: No, we invented it, it’s our own idea and I don’t mean lunchboxes like American kid’s lunch boxes, but more like Japanese bento boxes, they’re not even that, they’re our own unique kind of lunchbox.
AP: You’ve been living in this kind of converted deli space for five years. How do you feel about it as a workspace, how do you feel being an artist in a deli?
EF: Well part of me hates it because there’s no good light, or ventilation. Its just one really crowded big room, and I would like to be able to look at my sculptures in isolation. But on the other hand I like it because I like saying “I live in a deli”………………Chinese seals often carry the owner’s name. But a lot of times they say something poetic, something like, “Lonely fisherman waiting for a bite.” Loneliness is a kind of lofty pursuit among Chinese scholars. My seal should read, “Lives in a deli.”
AP: But you did build windows into the wall of your room space, what was the idea behind that, just to give it more ventilation?
EF: So I knew when morning came around, so I didn’t live in this sleep chamber, so there was a hint of..
AP: ..natural circadian rhythms?
EF: Yeah, but it doesn’t really work. I don’t know we need to get a rooster or something.
AP: I heard you designed a honeycomb-inspired table for an exhibit in Japan, and the Princess of Japan liked it very much, can you tell me more about what transpired?
EF: You’re mixing up two different stories but I like it, so I won’t bother to correct you.
AP: If you could transport your work anywhere in the world and show it, where would that be, and how would you like the work displayed?
EF: In the nine thousandth nine hundred and ninety-ninth room of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Just a quiet little installation.
AP: You choose a small humble place to show your sculpture, just this quiet little place.
EF: In my opinion the Forbidden City is one of the least humble places in the world. I like the Forbidden City because it is this monster place, but you could just come around this one dusty corner and bump into my little sculpture. . I have a lot of fantasies about where I’d like my work to be shown. I have this one fantasy: say the Antiques Roadshow is still on in 2075, and someone brings in one of my sculptures and says- “My grandfather had this thing in his attic and we don’t know what it is. The appraiser would reply, ” I have no idea what it is either, but the material might be worth ten dollars. There is definitely not a market for this thing. Maybe you should just keep it for your family.”
AP: So what do you think about high art/low art. Or do you even care?
EF: I don’t care. I mean I care, because I don’t really think that everything is art. It has to be thoughtfully constructed, or I guess I think it has to be constructed period. Ideas are important, but art is something else.
AP: Do you have a craftsman’s point of view in some ways?
EF: I do, but I think that the craftsmanship should only be present to the level it’s needed. If you want to make something you should invest exactly the right amount of craft, it shouldn’t be about the craft but it shouldn’t be so shoddy that all you can see is the tape peeling off of it. A kind of efficient construction is important. Even if it took 30 seconds to make it, that it was a considered 30 seconds. There are also very beautiful accidents.
AP: Do you think that you can tell the difference between something thoughtfully created and something that is just a meaningless assembly? And does it bother you that art like that gets pushed as art and it’s so obvious that it doesn’t have much value?
EF: I like work that, even if it didn’t take very long to make, achieves a certain level of style. You could make something in a few seconds that was totally thrown together but if you had style, that’s an achievement, and in some ways that’s the highest level of achievement.
AP: Have you had periods where you felt you were creating in that mode?
EF: Yes, but its never really that easy. I have to work really hard and do all kinds of horrible chores, then at one point, something will just sneak up on me, and all of a sudden I’m putting things together.
AP: And then what do you feel after that happens?
EF: I don’t know, I feel really good. I feel my antennas are totally out in outer space picking up crazy signals. (Laughing.) I don’t know how to talk about it really.
AP: When you go to a junk shop, do you have a certain way of going around and picking up objects for your sculptural endeavors? You’ve been going to these shops for a long time now, do you know the people there, and do they pick things out for you?
EF: Usually I look for objects that have a kind of unfinished quality that I can exploit. I don’t usually buy something that can stand by itself. I buy parts. Then I like to make new parts, so in the end maybe the original object, if not totally obscured, at least has a hole through it. I also like stuff that reminds me of Asian objects. When I see a pipe stand, it reminds me of the stand for sushi hand rolls. It also looks like an ice cream cone holder. And then I think “Oh, I’ll make my own crazy sushi hand roll/ ice cream cone/Fertman sausage stand”. And as to the people who work there, I don’t think they have any idea what I am doing. No one as ever come up to me and said, “I found this thing and you’re going to love it!” Usually what I pick is really garbage.
AP: How do you feel about the color Bright Orange?
EF: I like it. But I don’t think I would paint my house with it. Well maybe. I like it because it can have a kind of radioactive quality. A quality I would like my objects to have. You know that object I want to display in the 999th room in the Forbidden City? I want it to be in the corner of the room emitting weird radiation.
This article appeared in the Arcade Project during the Summer of 2002.