For this interview with Eric Mistretta, F_AIR’s current artist in residence, I based my questions on an existing interview by Ross Bleckner to Felix Gonzales Torres on BOMB 51/Spring 1995, ART, that I happened to be reading during Eric’s stay at F_AIR. The existing interview has been subsequently adapted to our needs. For more info about Eric Mistretta, please visit his website, and our pages on this present platform.
This interview was conducted between February and March 2013.
Lucia Giardino: What kind of students come to your Thursday morning session, the art class you teach?
Eric Mistretta: Five American girls and one guy from Kuwait. Six young eggs ready to be cracked.
LG: Do you have any requirements?
EM: The only requirement is that you have to participate in whatever we decide to do that day. There are only six people in the class so everyone’s involvement is essential.
LG: What do you do when there are no classes around, that is on Saturday and Sunday, when the school is closed. (Eric lives inside the school premises).
EM: It’s pretty surreal having this entire place to myself on the weekends. It feels like it shouldn’t be allowed. I slide around in my socks a lot. The floors are very smooth.
LG: Do you ever take sleeping pills?
EM: I prefer to stay awake. Why, do you have some?
LG: No. Do you like drugs? Any sort of drugs.
EM: I like the idea of drugs, but I don’t like feeling like total shit the next day.
LG: Florence hosts some antique and flea markets on specific weekends (the second weeked of the month at the Fortezza da Basso; the last Sunday of every month at Piazza dei Ciompi). What is your relationship with those? Are they interesting venues for you?
EM: They’re pretty essential to my practice. In the States, I acquire a lot of my materials from places like this, or thrift stores or second hand shops. The reason I’m attracted to them is because the objects they sell are already instilled with such a visible history. But even though you see how old the stuff is, their evident history is still very vague or unknowable, so a lot of it is invented, which is an exciting part of the process for me. And to find places like that here allows me to create these narratives for a completely different culture.
LG: You were born in 1985. Do you have a personal story taking place early in your life, that you have heard from your parents, or you incredibly remember?
EM: I remember being extremely young and feeling a life or death need for my clothes to be suffocatingly tight. It got to the point where I would only wear lycra bicycle shorts. That dissipated after a while but now it seems to have made a strong comeback.
LG: Have you ever felt lost? Close to the end?
EM: (Laughs) Intense question. I feel like I should answer with a poem. Yes, I have felt both those things on occasion but not nearly to the extent that others have felt them. Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven. I don’t think I can compete with that.
LG: Do you ever feel intimidated by something/somebody? I can see you are extremely relaxed here in Florence, with all the people you get to know…
EM: I feel at my best when I’m conversing with other people. But I’m occasionally intimidated by ideas for artwork and figuring out the best way to execute a particular piece. That’s been something I’ve always struggled with, and even though I’m conscious of how detrimental it can be to productivity, it’s a hard notion to shake. But it’s really stupid, and a big waste of time, and has the potential to be paralyzing to creativity. So I try to remain aware of the fact that while it’s important to take an informed approach to each piece, you have to just shut up and make something.
LG: Have you grown more comfortable in the six or seven years after your first stay in Florence in 2006? What do you think you looked like then, and what are you now?
EM: I think I was a lot more annoying six years ago. Although certain people might dispute that.
LG: What is boredom?
EM: I actually think about this a lot when I’m bored. I think there’s probably a significant correlation between boredom and laziness, because there are always things to be done, but boredom is like a viscous tar that courses through your whole body and makes productivity seem very distant. So I try to escape from that before I get REALLY bored and start watching Real Housewives.
LG: Does the saying take your limitations and make them your strengths work for you?
EM: Personally I’ve always felt more comfortable and even excited working with some sense of boundaries or limitations. I think having a set of parameters exercises your brain in a way that promotes problem solving and turns on a kind of survival mode of creativity. I’m a very scatterbrained person so if there are too many options presented to me it’s difficult to focus. That’s why I don’t frequent buffets.
LG: The size of the studio is not particularly relevant to the work you do, is it?
EM: Literally speaking, not really, because I don’t work that big. And my answer here is kind of the same as the last one. In a slightly smaller space I think you are confronted by the work and forced into a position of figuring things out relatively quickly so the work doesn’t overtake you or become frustrating. I think having windows is more important than size. That sounds like the answer a guy with nice windows and a small dick would give.
LG: You started at the University of SUNY New Paltz as an art student and then you got your MFA at the School of Visual Art, right?
EM: Right. Going to school in New Paltz was one of the most instrumental factors in shaping the person I am today. I had two incredible professors, Emily Puthoff and Steven Bradford, and they were the first ones to really expose me to a lot of contemporary art. That’s when my work stopped sucking and I started incorporating actual ideas and concepts into my practice. It was when the prospect of being an artist actually started to seem like a tangible reality. And then going to SVA was an indispensable experience, for a million reasons.
LG: Can you name a few?
EM: The classic ones are all true: the constant dialogue with other artists, being surrounded by creative people, learning from professors who have accomplished things that I’m striving to accomplish. The parties.
LG: Have you ever wanted not to make objects?
EM: I always want to make sculptural objects, but the process of painting is very attractive to me. I like the idea of showing up to the studio knowing that you’re going to work on a particular painting all day and spending time with it until you feel like you’ve figured it out. But whenever I try to do only that I always feel weird after it’s finished, so I take that as a sign that I shouldn’t be a painter. But I have a very undying affection for the format of painting. For the rectangle, and the classic notion of a flat image on a wall. There’s something very sexy about the compactness of a work that adheres to those standards. So by also making mixed media work I feel better about indulging my painting fetish.
LG: As Felix Gonzalez Torres said in an interview “You cannot find a style; you develop a style. You have a need to say something in a certain way and that becomes later what is called, “your style.” Do you agree with this? And what does this mean for you?
EM: I had a painting professor in New Paltz that used to literally yell at people during critiques when they would even mention the word “style”. And I always liked her adamant refusal to let such young artists maintain that they had developed a style at that point in their lives. She wasn’t trying to be mean, but it was exciting to hear someone who made it extremely clear how premature it was to assert that you had developed your work enough to have manufactured a particular style.
LG: Which location in NY would you really like to have a show, and which here in Florence?
EM: I get excited about the prospect of showing work anywhere, because I love the experience of an opening. I love seeing lots of people that I know and hanging out in the presence of artwork, especially if it’s mine. Here in Florence I’m pretty enthralled by the juxtaposition of historical spaces and contemporary artwork. It’s something I’m not used to seeing in NY. Like at Villa Romana, not only the interior gallery but the outdoor grounds inspire a whole different approach to ideas that excites me.
LG: What do you think of performances?
EM: It’s not a medium that I feel compelled to work with. A performance has the ability to ostracize the audience in a much more uncomfortable way than other artwork because if it sucks, you’re usually trapped in a small space and can’t walk away from it in horror like you could a painting or sculpture. But I’ve seen some good ones.
LG: Your work has a melancholy to it. But you also have a humor in your work that I love.
EM: It’s a classic duality that feels essential to me. Comedy and tragedy activate each other in a very dynamic way, and one usually necessitates the other. The Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson do it so well in their films. When humor has an underlying sadness to it, there is an additional dimension that creates a fuller, heartier experience. It’s a dichotomy that your brain learns how to navigate without you even realizing it.
LG: Are you afraid of keeping mistakes in your art pieces?
EM: With a lot of the work I do it’s kind of fashioned so that the whole thing looks like a mistake. There’s a nonsensical absurdity to some of the compositions that cause your instinctual reaction to be “no”, which hopefully turns into “oh wait, yes”.
LG: Have you accomplished anything in your life so far as an artist? Tell me in what way ‘yes’ and in what way ‘no.’
EM: I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve had at this point in my life – in terms of showing my work and meeting the people that I’ve met. Going to SVA was crucial to accomplishing most of those things. Having been chosen by Marilyn Minter to participate in the first exhibition at Maurizio Cattelan and Massimiliano Gioni’s Family Business gallery in NY was an experience that I never take for granted, and I’ll always be grateful for my inclusion in that. And that opportunity turned into a multitude of other exciting opportunities, which is the way you always hope things go. Being selected as the artist in residence here in Florence was a holy shit moment for me, and the reality of being able to live here and make work is something I am incredibly conscious and appreciative of. That being said, I still have a relentless, voracious appetite for more, and that enthusiasm fuels the work.
LG: Is the work of yours, I’m Gonna Believe Everything You Say From Now On, I Don’t Care What It Is (2011), a work about love? If so, what type of love?
EM: I think I’ve adopted this image of the tropical sunset as being representative of a general kind of unwavering idealism. It feels very optimistic to me in a cliche sort of way that I like a lot. And true love definitely falls under the umbrella of that idealism. I like thinking about most of my pieces as love letters. It makes the process of creating them much more engaging and heartfelt. And the fact that their aesthetic is often one of being in shambles or a state of deterioration adds that component of underlying despair or futility that complicates the message. But for me they feel very hopeful.
LG: Could something about love become a political message?
EM: I typically think of politics as being an arena completely devoid of love, but the act of making art and exposing it to others is pretty political in itself. You’re authoring some type of message and imparting it upon the world, and you have to be prepared to defend that message.
LG: Do you think your work is sentimental? And do you think, as Feliz Gonzalez Torres said, that “all great art has sentiment”?
EM: The fine line between amorous and sentimental is something I always try to remain conscious of. I think good work has the ability to articulate sentiment without actually becoming sentimental or precious. When I do allow myself to indulge in the Sentimental, I try to have it come from a deliberate place of naiveté, so it can be undermined by a lurking notion of cynicism. But not in an asshole-y kind of way.