Erik Nieminen’s work is strongly influenced by Photorealism, but he’s not a photorealist in the true sense.  This Canadian painter is deeply talented and he has great insight into his own process and where his work might possibly fit in the contemporary art spectrum.  What do I mean?  Read on and enjoy …

“… Those that accept the label of photorealism and work within it, are barely more interesting than the multitude of market painters currently making impressionist paintings in the style of Monet or Pissarro. They are illustrating, not painting ...”

MICHAEL: Hey Erik, I love your work. I love photorealism and I must say you're the first artist I've seen use it as a reference and inspiration rather than going all the way or being a slave to it.  What brought that about? 

ERIK: Hi Michael, I think it boils down to a couple distinct things:

First and foremost, my interest in Photorealism is periphery to my interest in early Modernism - specifically movements such as Cubism and Futurism. I started out working in a style closely influenced by those early movements, but this became an exercise in modality; an existing language in which to play, but ultimately a dead end if something new is not brought to it.

MICHAEL: I understand.  So what did you do?

ERIK: I turned to what is in some respects the polar opposite of Cubism... Photorealism. It was never my intention to become a photorealist or to be seduced by the shiny aesthetic of slick mimesis. Instead, the goal was to work through a different language of representation with a static space based on mechanical reproduction, eventually working my way back to my original interests... shifting or simultaneous space, light, movement, time, etc. I felt that the painted image was not a dead art form, that painting should not only need to be about its own object-hood, and that the questions about “depiction” had never been fully answered.

Second, as an artist, it is of utmost importance to be consistently cognizant of not working through the established answers of the past or the trendy modalities of the present. Photorealism, like Cubism in its purest sense is no longer an art form of true innovation or creativity. Among the photorealist artists there are many varieties of subject matter, slight differences in technique and a small variation in materials. However, to be a photorealist is to be a painter who uses the photograph as more than just a tool - it becomes the subject, in essence. For painting to truly be sincere, it must be about itself and within that context its possibilities are not limited by a style or reference material.

At the moment, I work using photographs and video stills as references alongside numerous sketches. The mechanical materials that I employ are important, obviously, but they do not dictate the form that the painting will take. They provide a map of our world in the sense of documentation that can then be pillaged for information and left at the roadside. The painting and drawing process is the vehicle the moves the artwork forward.   

MICHAEL: And so, what I'm hearing you say is it's not good or advisable to be a slave to any movement.  It's slightly ironic that we use the word “movement” - which implies change - to describe something captured in time.  Of course, change isn't the only definition for movement, but you know what I mean.  No?  Things do seem fresher when captured in elements and not totality.

ERIK: Movement within the context of art is usually meant as a categorization, something that is rarely created by the artists themselves. Many of the original photorealists didn't even consider themselves to be under that rubric and an artist like Richard Estes, perhaps the most famous artist still associated with that movement... doesn't really fit the traditional conditions in most respects.

The original group of photorealists working the in the 60's 70's and 80's often had something original to say and the concepts introduced were new at the time.  Individually, they had a unique approach to both the subject matter and the technique. Eventually however, they just started making the same painting again and again, no matter if it was a motorcycle, a children's toy, marbles or a landscape. It was still the same painting. 

It is a dangerous trap to allow the syntax of a mechanical reference tool to determine the shape and outcome of a painting. So while they current photorealists are often interesting on a technical “wow” level, they are also redundant, more often than not. Those that accept the label of photorealism and work within it, are barely more interesting than the multitude of market painters currently making impressionist paintings in the style of Monet or Pissarro. They are illustrating, not painting.

MICHAEL: Very interesting.  You know, it doesn't seem that this digital age has killed painting at all. I still chat with a lot of painters.  What do you think about this and how do you use digital tools in your work?

ERIK: I think that digital technology has in fact been a boon to painting more than a hindrance and that - if anything - it has validated the importance of painting in the 21st Century. The only real challenge figurative painting has ever had has been photography, as in the long term it ended up opening the pathway to all the non-figurative movements of the 20th Century. What's happened with the advent of digital photography is that the authority of the photograph has been dismantled. We need not ever again believe in the veracity of a photograph, no matter how compelling. The one major prize that photography always claimed over painting was that it documented the real. Not anymore.

MICHAEL: Absolutely. Very interesting.

ERIK: I use digital photography and digital video in my process. I take hundreds, if not thousands of photographs, and I record many hours of footage on location. The video is used in order to gather seamless information from scenes, and I later go through the video frame by frame selecting the best moments for use. Most of my photographs aren't professional level shots (and are not intended to be) and are thus mostly useless on the individual level.

Also, most of my videos are totally mundane and uninteresting to anyone but myself. The ease of being able to document such large amounts of information at a rapid pace has become a great advantage over film technology for me. I require that my capturing equipment be able to take dozens of photographs at a moment’s notice, usually surreptitiously without the subject (if it's a person) being aware of their image being captured (it doesn't ultimately matter, as I mostly don't adhere to facial features when painting).

I don't want to be noticed when on location and digital technology provides an easier method of achieving that goal. Finally, I also use editing software to crop images and sometimes make very rough mishmashes of images to get a general sense of colours and figures working together. My skills in this domain are crude (and I don't mind keeping them that way) and thus it all looks very rough. In any case, the visual structure is created through drawing, memory and painting ... not on the computer. However, the computer provides a nice service to refine some information.

MICHAEL: When you create, are you telling a story or is it more about the process and viewers can fill in their own narrative?

ERIK: It's both. We can't deny that humans will find a narrative when viewing figurative works, no matter how little conscious storytelling is injected into it by the artist. This natural tendency can be harnessed throughout the process in such a way that when decisions are made about, for example, where a figure, a wall, a car or a light will be located, one has to take into consideration the effect this will have on the potential reading of the painting. I do not want it to be random or by chance.  

At the outset, I gravitate on a subconscious level toward subject matter that is spatially dynamic, but also poignant on a contemporary level. I am compelled by situations that in some way represent the predicament of a species living in theatrically-artificial, urban environments in the present-day. I'm not painting flower pots or forests though those subjects can be contemporary in their own ways.

I'm also interested in the natural world in its interaction with humanity and most of my works reference nature either overtly or abstractly. Due to the essence of the subject matter, there are connections that shoot out from it that belong to our world, such as figures on a billboard or symbols on a street. A specific requirement I have in my own work is that there's no text present and I will remove or replace any alphabetical symbols found in my reference information. This is important as I very specifically want the works to function solely through the visual engine and not be filtered through the sudden change of visual language that an alphabet presents. So what I present to the audience on the level of narrative or story is a set of potentialities or possibilities. The narrative emerges from within the process like a sculpture emerging from a rock.

MICHAEL: So, you’re not telling people what to think?

ERIK: There's nothing defined that tells anyone which direction to go and there's no commentary about social issues or political concerns, in other words there's no illustration of outside theories. The painting is about itself and the viewer then brings their own set of experiences and references to work with the possibilities presented in the painting.

MICHAEL: I love that. Why are you an artist?  When did this all begin for you?

ERIK: My father is an artist, along with my uncle. In fact, artists go back a few generations in my family, so you could say I've been genetically pre-programmed to be one. From an early age, I was thus exposed to art in my father's studio and was also exposed to art books and many kinds of art through visits to the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa.

I never really had any idea of being anything else, frankly. Other than being predisposed to becoming an artist, I also consider art and culture in general to be a necessity to modern society. These activities are often considered by some - especially when the topic of public funding comes up - to be frivolous or unnecessary bonus features to existence... but a happy civilization includes art in all its forms - literature, music, visual arts, film, theatre, etc. Remove all the arts from life and then ask those who think it's merely a bonus how important it actually was. It literally informs our day-to-day lives. Therefore I consider being a part of that to be a great honour.

MICHAEL: What do you think about the contemporary art world/art market and how they function?  What would you change ... if you could?

ERIK: For the most part, I don't look into the business side of the art world all that much. The art market isn't ruled by the art, as the art is simply traded as any commodity would be and thus that's a domain quite far from my areas of interest.

MICHAEL: I understand.

ERIK: The unfortunate thing about the status of the market is that it ends up dictating trends in the art world, at least to some degree ... and as where the money goes, so too go the galleries. This tends to result in art that becomes zombie-like in its assimilation, as evidenced by the armies of zombie abstractionists. The trickle-down effect is that these are then the people who end up defining what art is to the general audience. To a lesser extent and bringing it around to a topic from earlier, the popularity of photo- based painting, whether it be photorealism or near-photorealism, has produced a veritable army of clones. How many people paint toys? Marbles? Cityscapes in the vein of Estes? Slick reflections? Fruit? Cars, motorcycles etc.  99% of it is irrelevant. In some quarters, it sells well and it has an audience trained to accept the image as the artwork instead of the painting itself.

If there were something to change about the art world, it would be to get rid of a large percentage of curators, art theoreticians and artists who believe in theory first art second, galleries concerned with sales first, art second and anyone who says painting is dead, again.

MICHAEL: Finally Erik, Given all of that, how are you doing?  I mean, art is such a struggle for those managing a full-time living with it and everyone else who is trying to make a full-time living is struggling as are many galleries that are trying to sell art to people who just don't "get it" and would rather buy new computers and cars. What's the point of all of this?

ERIK: The whole point of this endeavor is that at the end of the day, there may not be a direct point to this endeavor. Artworks are meaningless objects without the meaning ascribed to them by other people. 

I don't make work to sell - though it is for sale - nor do I make it with a particular kind of person in mind. I have thus far been quite lucky in terms of the financial side of my career due to a few individuals who have been very supportive and who really enjoy my art. I've recently started showing in commercial galleries, such as the Albemarle in London and will be working with the newly established Magic Beans Gallery in Berlin. Sometimes when you break into a gallery that has an established “look” to their art and a particular kind of client that expects a very specific kind of aesthetic, it may be hard to have them understand a different approach to what they think is a familiar kind of visual vocabulary. Therefore I think many artists end up going for a tried and true formula because it brings the reassurance of sales... and thus minimizes stress, and stress isn't good for making art.

There will always be those who buy art, for whatever reason ... whether it's the prestige, for the love of the art, etc. Likewise, there will be those who almost never buy art and if they do, they will almost always prioritize something “pretty” and easy of a modest size that looks safe over the couch. Neither group should matter to the artist as they are just inevitable facts of life. Art will live on in some form or another with or without them, though the support of others is always important and better than the opposite.

The point, if we think about it is to provide possibilities for others and for oneself to experience the numinous (though not in a religious sense). If we only experience the mundane then our lives will be the same and we will go mad or become depressed if there is nothing else. However, art isn't about escapism, it's about re-framing and re-contextualizing our thoughts and conclusions thus providing new understandings of our very presence here on this planet. In some sense then the point of art depends to what extent you believe there's a point to life at all. For someone such as myself, the point of life isn't ingrained (other than species-specific traits) and because everyone will ultimately end up the same, it's the journey that counts. Art provides a vehicle for that journey.

MICHAEL: Well said.  Thanks Erik.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our chat.

ERIK: Thank you Michael, it has been a great pleasure talking with you!

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