Eric Mavko in Conversation with Jacob Hicks

Eric Mavko floating through the cosmos and interrogating space with his mind.
Eric Mavko 

Eric Mavko is a Brooklyn-based painter.  He received his MFA in painting from the New York Academy of Art and completed his undergraduate work at The University of Arizona.

Eric’s work encloses an audience within a muted, austere architecture.  Inside his paintings the viewer becomes haunted by the serial, the sequential, the narrative, and the horrific zeitgeist of our contemporaneous American (anti)culture.  The gaping presence that fills up these constructed rooms is a breathing, livid nothingness desperately pushing toward embodiment; the anxious sensitive spine of a void you are captive to and imprisoned by that is demanding examination. His architectonics are confining, a cage to lock you within an angry chasm resonating through a bounded metaphysical frozen cinema.  Like a Francis Bacon room, whose suggested barriers are a mesh of skinny whispering lines, Eric’s paintings are metaphors for what wants to inhabit, warp, ease, delude, and reconstruct the dreaming mind that is entrapped.  Like a Matisse, each painterly decision is interested in an intelligently-edited precisionism, in creating form for every speaking inanimate object within.

Eric Mavko, Untitled (White Haze), 44x60"
Eric Mavko, Untitled (White Haze), 44×60″”, 2014

What follows is a back and forth e-mail conversation concerning Eric’s practice, influence, and thoughts.

QAR: We did a residency together in Leipzig; how did that period of art-making in a foreign place effect your production?

EM: In the past I’ve studied or lived/worked in Italy, Czech Republic and Spain, so Germany really didn’t feel too overtly “foreign,” though the language was a challenge.

The Spinnerei, where we had our studio, is such an international hub for artists that English was practically the local language, and our studio seemed dominated by Americans a lot of the time.  It was definitely interesting to talk to and hear perspectives from artists who live and work in other countries – Croatia, Netherlands, France, Finland.

To directly answer your question: my production while in Leipzig was exponentially greater than it generally is in Brooklyn, likely due to a combination of factors: less distractions, more time, stimulating environment…

QAR: What is your favorite work of art, who are three artists dead that you love, three living that you love?

dead: Goya, El Greco, Motherwell, Kippenberger, Bacon, Giacometti (paintings and drawings).  That’s more than three.  Living: David Salle, Michael Borremans, Jasper Johns (early work), Jim Herbert (most recent work)…. it’s hard for me to limit this….arrgh.

Favorite work of art: no idea.  What thrills me about art is the ever-shifting, multifaceted necessity of forward motion.  This means that there is no endgame; no ultimate work.  No single work of art could ever sum up the significance of what any artist is doing/has done.

All that aside, probably the most intense experience I’ve had with a single work of art was with Caravaggio’s “Beheading of St. John the Baptist”.  I was lucky to be in Florence, Italy while it was on display after having conservation work done.  Normally it never leaves Malta.  It blew my mind.

Eric Mavko, Untitled Interior, 2010
Eric Mavko, 48×60″”Untitled Interior, 2010

QAR: Tell me what beauty is, and does beauty contain the horrific?

1. Loaded question.  It’s hard to answer this, within a critical/artistic framework, without referring to Kant or to Dave Hickey, or something else in between.  I’ll say up front that I love Hickey’s turn of phrase on the subject, that beauty “describes the pleasure we take in something that transcends the appropriate.”  I think that’s such a spectacular description, I can’t help grinning every time I read it.

The usual definition has beauty rooted in aesthetic judgement, a seeking or sense of consensus, and disconnected from any morality.  It is, by necessity, deeply ingrained in the western mythos.  I guess I would argue that what is most fundamentally compelling about the concept of Beauty (I just decided that I needed to capitalize it), is its’ inherent transience, hence our desire since the beginning of history to capture it somehow in painting, sculpture, etc.  Beauty is tied to a moment.

2. If you’re referring to horror as examined within culture/literature, particularly in Julia Kristeva’s essay “Powers of Horror”, then I would have to say no.  Horror has become a specific term in the critical discourse, analogous with abjection, and there’s no tie that I can see or am aware of with aesthetic judgement.

If you mean something more like macabre, or grotesque, then I would say absolutely, as this ties in with the transience of Beauty that I mentioned earlier, and is in fact, especially in nature, direct evidence of it.

[I’m sure that a smart person could poke a lot of holes in what I’ve written above, but it’s a pretty good elucidation of what’s in my head on the subject]

QAR: What work is your opus to date?

I don’t mean to cop out, but, referring to what I said earlier re. not being able to pick a favorite work of art, I really don’t consider anything of mine to be an opus.  If all my work doesn’t function together somehow, or point to a new direction, or at least lead me to the next work, then it’s useless to me.  In the past I’ve certainly considered certain things I’ve done to be special, even great… and then those works always became a roadblock.  As I said before, there is no endgame in art.

There are a couple of recent pieces that I felt were particular achievements in terms of getting past some barriers that I’ve realized may have been inherent in the source material to which I’d been so attached – the big triptych that I did in Leipzig, and one from a couple months ago titled I remember a view of the Lake (there might have been trees).

QAR: Describe the room you paint again and again.  Tell me its contents.

All kinds of junk.  Ha.  I really don’t edit anything out of those cluttered interiors.  I initially thought that’s what I wanted to do, but I found that I couldn’t achieve the kind of compositional rhythm or compositional narrativity that I wanted without all the junk.  For a long time I’ve been interested in how the spaces we inhabit can function as models of consciousness, and they function that way more so the more that it’s a space that’s inhabited solely by one person.  However, not all the spaces in my work are really depicting the same room.  Over time certain elements that held my interest began to function as a visual grammar, and I’ve included them in paintings over and over.  This leads into your next question: it becomes an investigation into the structure of experience or of memory.

The room that is most literally depicted in some works is a studio that I had about 5-6 years ago.  It was only 8 feet wide, and about 12 feet long – too small to do much painting on canvas at the scale I felt I needed to be working.  Though I did make a lot of work there (smaller), I spent just as much time screwing around with mirrors and a camera, building an archive of reference material that I’ve been using off and on ever since.

I had a palette and some coffee cans that were screwed directly into the wall on one side, and a wastebasket underneath the pallet that usually overflowed with empty paint tubes and beer cans.  An 8 foot x 4 foot piece of mirror-polished sheet metal hung on one wall.  I had cheap low-pile industrial carpeting on the floor so I wouldn’t ruin the hardwood, then a lot of trash/detritus all over that – always those damn plastic bags, wadded up paper towels, extension cords, etc.  My brushes were always falling off the palette.

I had polaroids, magazine clippings and small works on paper pinned up all over – those are definitely visible in some of the paintings; that’s something I don’t have in my studio anymore – so much visual clutter on the walls.  But I still have stuff all over the floor.

Eric Mavko, Untitled (Studio), 84x48"
Eric Mavko, Untitled (Studio), 84×48″”, 2012-13

QAR: You achieve a phenomenological oddity that is central to your work through mirror refraction and visual skewing that is easier to achieve with modern technology than it is to capture with a mirror and a camera.  Why are you devoted to this visual phenomenon and what does it mean?

Yeah, I get a lot crap about this.  I definitely appreciate the phrase “phenomenological oddity” in place of “fun house mirror effect.”   I’m not necessarily devoted to it, but it has been a useful tool.

OK, here goes:

Like I mentioned before I’d been interested in interior space as a kind of psychological model.  At first, I was creating empty spaces, constructed with a one or two point perspective, and then trying to put stuff in them – stuff that would hopefully create the kind of sensation I was after.  I think it was inevitable that this would become forced, or maybe it was forced from the beginning, or maybe I just got too stressed out being confronted with an empty space that I needed to make more interesting.  Too often, adding things made the space less interesting, and painting a bunch of empty spaces wasn’t what I wanted to do.  So, I moved to an examination of my immediate surroundings, but I quickly ran into a problem.  Sitting and rendering every single thing that I could see didn’t really work for me either.  It felt like painting 100 still-lifes inside a single canvas, rather than getting at what it really felt like to inhabit the space, to experience it physically and mentally.  At the time, I was becoming more motivated by ideas of a narrative construction of the Self, of memory, of reality (I’d been reading Jerome Bruner).  It’s no secret that our memories are atrociously faulty, and no two persons’ recollections or recordings of an experience will ever be the same.  Apply that fact to a notion of a narrative construction of the Self, or of reality in general, and it led me to realize (among other things – I’m simplifying, a lot) that our sense of our selves, even our sense of reality is not only defined as much by what we forget, or want to forget, as by what we remember, and it’s all inherently malleable as well.  Call it an existential quagmire.

Far be it from me to think that I could actually capture all of this in my work, but it moved me forward.  I decided that I needed some kind of method or tool that would get me closer to a physical sensation of all this stuff that was in my head; a physical sensation of forgetting, even.

When we move in and out of the spaces we inhabit every day we don’t, and can’t, notice every damn detail in tight focus all the time.  We’d never be able to move.  Our memory certainly doesn’t function that way – at least not on a day-to-day basis.  The most obvious formal answer was/is some kind of distortion or blurring, or something like that.  I wasn’t satisfied with what I got from just pushing paint around, and certainly not with digital manipulations that I tried.  The mirrors got me closer to what I wanted to portray.  It was a way to create a sensation of a space that’s more akin to how they exist in our heads, as well as being a useful analogy – it’s a reflection, a simulacrum.  It was a way to approach the problem sideways, maybe catch the whole thing off guard.

Or maybe they just look like fun-house paintings.

I don’t for one minute think that the work actually lives up to all the ideas outlined above. The bottom line is that I wanted to make a bunch of paintings, and that’s what moved me forward.  The mirror-referenced works have led naturally to other things, and in the end that’s the point.

Eric Mavko, View of the Lake, 56x84"
Eric Mavko, I remember a view of the lake (there might have been trees), 56×84″”, 2013

QAR: What is a monster?

Wow, I’m almost done.  OK.  I have to relate this back to the question about beauty; about transcending the appropriate.

Consider a monster as something that, like something beautiful, transcends the appropriate, but where beauty has stopped and found a delicate balance, the monstrous has gone further undaunted, and dares us, challenges us, to look upon and accept it.

Too poetic?  Maybe too poetic, but it kinda works.