Self Portrait With Bird, Acrylic and Oil Stick on Canvas, 72” x 60”, 2010
C & P: You grew up on the East Coast in New Hampshire, went to undergrad in Baltimore, and then moved to NYC to attend graduate school in Brooklyn. Do you feel that living on the East Coast has influenced your work at all? If so, how?
Elias: In as much as a place you’ve spent the majority of your life can, I suppose. As far as direct references within the work, I doubt it. I paint pictures of places I’ve lived, but I think those references would find their way in regardless of where I resided. I love the East Coast; I really can’t imagine living elsewhere in the States. Being near an ocean feels freeing to me, living in the middle of a giant country such as this one gives me a weird feeling of confinement. Granted, that feeling is based on nothing but supposition, but that’s my immediate reaction that a coast is necessary for my general sanity. The coast of France, Italy, India, those also sound good too…perhaps it’s a bit of a fight or flight sensation, the need/possibility for a quick escape. On the other hand, as a person, these places have shaped my ideals, concerns, and general humanity greatly; so if the pictures are just an extension of me, then I’d answer a resounding yes to the question. Aside from it being an impossibility, the thought of not growing up in New Hampshire, and not being able to follow the trajectory that it set me on, is a sad thought; I wouldn’t change much if asked to do it again.
C & P: What do you like most about living in New York City? Least?
Elias: I grew up 5 hours away from the city, with an aunt who lives here; so at least twice-yearly trips were a regular occurrence growing up. What I like about New York the most is that, while I’ve only lived here a short three years, I still often get that feeling I got as a child, driving in down the West Side highway, the city creeping up higher and higher. It’s an utterly fascinating human conquest, this place. It is the only place (that I’ve been so far) to continuously blow me away when I thought it no longer possible. When I go visit my family up north, I realize the things about the city that I like least (the lack of solitude/quiet/open spaces); they are numbered, but usually forgiven upon returning.
Narcissus, Acrylic and Oil on Canvas, 76” x 62”, 2011
C & P: I read online that you studied illustration in undergrad and painting in graduate school. How have both educations influenced your work? What made you change from illustration to painting? Do you ever do commissioned illustrations now?
Elias: This was a continual struggle at the Maryland Institute. I have a big problem with peoples’ need to divide artistic disciplines, and their utter surprise when artists bridge gaps comfortably or have two separate practices. My biggest objection is that these lines do not exist as much between “high art” mediums; no one questions the painter who also sculpts his models, or a painter who does charcoal studies for her oil paintings. But show someone a little graphic novel you’ve worked on next to a big dirty painting and somehow there arises a problem; when so-called “applied” arts are done by “fine” artists there are questions of intention, ideas that the artist lacks direction; I still don’t understand it. Can one not be “illustrative” within a painting? Or, what does that even mean? I think the words have too much preconceived connotation. I started at MICA in the Illustration program because I loved to draw, especially little characters and stories. I found a teacher, Warren Linn, whom I respected very much; he was one of the heads of the Illustration department during my years as a student at MICA. As a professional illustrator, he is still in all senses of the word, a “fine” artist. I began taking painting classes; I never saw the difference! An illustration could be just like a painting; if anything it was perhaps more content-directed; and maybe when the painting was done, it would be sized down to fit a particular spot; that seemed fine with me. The academic institution has a problem with this. The school needed to classify and direct its students, so when I argued that no, I did not need to use Photoshop to make my illustration—I wanted to draw and paint and play and use my hands—this created an issue. Now, it sounds like I’m the little kid in the corner bitterly complaining about not getting his way, but it was not my ignorance of the importance of a tool like the computer; I wanted to learn that too. It was the fact that it was considered the “proper” way, and I felt justified in challenging that. I stayed in the illustration program due to Warren’s mentorship and other students I had met in the program. I do the occasional illustration if there’s a request for one, but do not actively seek them out. The personal space of painting, with no specific end goal in mind is now my priority.
Paphos, Acrylic and Oil on Canvas, 64” x 74”, 2011
C & P: I first saw one of your paintings outside of your studio space at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. I was really intrigued by the Brooklyn Army Terminal buildings and the area surrounding it. How long have you worked in that space? Do you find being in that strange, empty industrial area inspirational at all?
Elias: Oh man, I love that building. Did you know it was the biggest building in the world when it was built in 1919?! There are 52 acres of floor space just in building B! It’s really unbelievable. I’ve only been in the studio space since June, but yes the site is incredibly inspirational, many architectural elements of the building have already crept into some paintings. I’m one to pretty much tune out everything once I’m in the studio, including my environment, but I’m sure the 10 minute walk up to and through the building filters in more than I know. I’m also really attracted to empty industrial areas in general, thinking about what goes on in them during the day, or what went on inside 100 years ago when they were built. I often ride my bike down to the studio, and all along 2nd Avenue in Brooklyn—much of it dubbed “Industry City”—are these towering factory buildings; it’s really something to ride through, especially at night when I’m usually the only one around. Someone once described my paintings as having “lonely architecture,” I think that’s apt considering the places I’ve chosen to work. My studio in Baltimore was in an old mill, my friends all lived in old warehouses, the studios at Brooklyn College were housed in a converted theatre with 30-foot ceilings, and now the Army Terminal.
C & P: What inspires you to begin a picture?
Elias: It’s an extreme, fervent desire to create a better painting than the last, not a single inspiration. An angry professor once called this inability to define my inspiration as a “lack of passion;” I of course fought to disprove her, but I don’t know how good a job I did. Yes, there are often specific content and ideas I want to paint about; but my real inspiration doesn’t come until I just start, lay a color down, anything. Saying I’m my own inspiration is probably as egotistic and selfish as one can be, and I assure you that’s not what I’m getting at. Maybe “everything” is the answer to what inspires me, I rarely find myself seeing or experiencing something and then getting one of those light bulb moments of “Oh! now I have to go paint!” It’s a more gradual process of influence upon inspiration upon experience that seems to coalesce once I get into the studio. It can take hours of dicking around doing crossword puzzles, staring at canvases, or it can be immediate; there seems to be no rhyme or reason, which I think is an attraction of the whole thing for me: the fact that the process I’ve been developing my entire life continues to surprise.
C & P: Tell me a little about the process of creating a new work. Do you sketch out your ideas with a drawing first? Do you ever work out a composition on a computer before you begin to paint?
Elias: No to both. I do make drawings and little paintings, and many elements of each often reappear in the larger works, but it’s very rare that I’ll do an actual study for a painting. I use the computer to occasionally find source material; if it’s a certain building, or a logo I want to use, I’ll bring it in and tack it to the wall; but my work actively lacks a digital aspect with respect to how it is made.
Tavern, 2012, Ink and Oil on Canvas,18″ x 14″
C & P: Do you paint mainly with acrylic? Why does this medium appeal to you? Have your paintings always been so colorful? Or is this a new development in your work?
Elias: Immediacy is extremely important to me; I need to be able to change something at any time, and acrylic affords that ability due to its fast drying time. I often thin paint further to speed this process. When I know what I’m doing in a picture (which is rare) I’ll use oil, if I am confident in the permanence of that area. Oil paint is beautiful and I think is something I need to explore more, but for me a more considered temporal aspect is attached to oil paint, one that I’m not willing to give in to just yet. I also use a lot of latex house paint, for a couple of reasons. One, for the same reason as acrylic: it is water based and it dries quickly. The other, because even though I mix colors, I like starting with paint that was already designed for some use, I especially like the idea that it was designed to decorate or embellish someone’s home. I get most of my latex from mis-tint racks at hardware stores. These are colors that weren’t mixed to the customers’ satisfaction, yet they are examples of colors people chose to live with, and that resonates, and I more often than not use the colors as they are straight out of the can. Color has always been an important aspect in my painting, while some of the pictures may have underlying (or outright) dark, ominous, depressing subject matter; they are more often than not painted with “happy” colors. This might just be to amuse myself, which is fine, but I’d hope some people would laugh at my work.
C & P: Do you feel that you notice minute details in your everyday experience, the stuff most people do not see? Do these details make their way into your paintings?
Elias: Minute details, probably yes. But as far as it being the “stuff most people do not see,” I don’t know what other people see, and it’s been my experience that while one thinks they are doing/seeing/being/fucking/creating/living life differently or better than the rest, someone’s probably done/seen/been/fucked/created/lived it before you. That’s comforting.
All God’s Children…, Acrylic on Canvas, 56” x 53”, 2011
C & P: There are usually humans depicted in your paintings, mainly men, & most of the time these humans are cartoonish and are involved in somewhat absurd actions. What are these men getting up to? And why do they look sort of ridiculous?
Elias: Don’t you look ridiculous? I bet you do, I know I certainly do. We are a weird, depraved, schizoid, yet seemingly predictable species, and I think we all do completely absurd things on a daily basis. Today I drank coffee so I could shit, then smoked a cigarette while riding a bike that made my chest hurt, called my mother to feel love, ate a sandwich that made me nauseous, then did laundry so I could feel clean and good, and now I do; what’s not ridiculous about that? So I paint what I see; and yeah, I’m pretty sure all those men are me.
C & P: Is humor an important aspect of your work?
Elias: Yes, without it I don’t see the point. We’re all depressed, sad, lonely, abstract—those things are the easy feelings to identify and commiserate with—but making someone laugh is true talent; having happiness in common is rare.
Saint Joseph , 2012, Ink on Canvas, 18″ x 14″
C & P: Are these paintings self-portraits?
Elias: Yes, I think most of the men in the pictures are me to some extent, or at least a man I somehow identify with. I don’t see them as self-portraits in a traditional sense, but sure, you could call them that. Some of them are how I see myself; some are how I wish I could be.
C & P: Your paintings also have a very architectural element to them; there are grids in almost all of the paintings I have seen. Are you interested in modernist architecture? Are you influenced by the work of any architects in particular? Why does a grid pattern find its way into so many of your paintings?
Elias: Yes, architecture continues to be a constant element, if not an outright theme in many paintings. It’s kind of the opposite of your question earlier about seeing “things others don’t.” Architecture is the thing we ALL experience and see daily, many of us sharing in the same environments and structures. It’s an all-encompassing board game, especially in a place like New York City. I do like modern architecture, my father is a modernist interior designer/woodworker/furniture designer, so it feels like a given that growing up around every issue of Architectural Digest ever printed would have some influence on me. My draw is more towards Italian renaissance architecture; not that it stopped there, but I really admire a time when the building—the structure from foundation to buttress—mattered so much and was constructed with such care. That is a huge hole for me in modern construction: building purely for profit and not to last, not factoring in the life and destiny of an edifice. And now it’s a passing thing, even if I see a building I like (again, especially in New York) I don’t meditate on it, the first thought is usually, “shame that’ll be gone soon.” The grids. This is a two-parter, 90% of which is pure selfishness and obsessive desire. I really like making the grids. It’s cathartic, I can use precise tools like rulers and protractors and miniature Japanese xacto knives, I can sit and do one activity for hours, it takes up time. In this way, while I think each grid becomes integral to the painting, they also become a bit of a cop-out to dealing with the rest of the picture, a time-waster. The other 10% is legitimate. The grid is graph paper, it is measurement, and it is what practically every building plan, city layout, and computer motherboard is laid out upon. It’s the ultimate template among templates. I’m using the most primitive tool of planning to anchor these pictures of relative chaos. Keith Mayerson was a professor of mine at Brooklyn College; on our first studio visit he looked around, paused and said, “Ok, ok, I get it, you like to get your grid on.”
Doors, Acrylic on Panel, 12” x 24”, 2011
C & P: What artists would you cite as influences? If you could grab a coffee (or tea or whiskey) with any artist, living or dead, to have a chat about the state of the world, art, kittens, or whatever, whom would you choose?
Elias: How about a round table of three? Philip Guston, El Greco, and (because music is just as important to me as visual art) Fats Waller. I choose these three primarily because they came out of traditional schools of art, only to become utterly indefinable in their time and able to break down walls people thought would be up forever; and they each had the courage to do this—that courage sets them apart. I would only hope to one day be that fearless. Guston and Fats would both have a bottle of whiskey each, El Greco maybe some wine; El Greco would tell us about working for a Pope, Guston would proceed to tell El Greco more than he knew about his own time (this would last a few hours), and Fats would just tap away and say, “haaaaay, who are you guys anyway?” If anyone were to bring up kittens, it would probably be me; I’m a little unnaturally obsessed with my cat.
Dinner Party, Acrylic and Latex on Panel, 40” x 60”, 2010
C & P: Are there any contemporary New York painters that you admire?
Elias: There are, but my continual realization is that I’m awful with names, and classifiable information like that goes right through me, so it’s hard for me to make a list. Matt Blackwell, G. Bradley Rhodes, Annie Ewaskio, Nicole Eisenman, Ivin Ballen, that’s a short, incomprehensive list. Having said that, there is not much contemporary painting that I’m thoroughly impressed with; sculpture, installations, these things seem to be winning the day. I just saw some Gehard Demetz wood figure sculptures, those things are outrageous, I really admire him. I’m through and through an awful cynic, so most things I see don’t impress me (often including my own work). I am not reinventing anything, but most of what I see seems really to be a reenactment of previous art eras. The recent huge gravitation to geometric abstraction I find odd, yet predictable; it’s insanely saleable, and I get that and am fine with that, pretty pictures should sell. But what I don’t get is the 25-year-old painter wanting to make pretty pictures. If at such a young age people seem designed and inclined to create for product’s sake, or purely to impress themselves with a neon tableau of exquisitely painted shapes, I don’t see a forward direction for painting. The other problem I see is that artists of my generation seem averse to an art knowledge—from fundamental skills to art history—they think their talent lets them test out of that class, and that’s bullshit. And their talent is huge! I’m not denying that, I think with the flood of admissions at art schools in recent years, it’s just producing a larger pool of possibly great things to happen, but if half of those people are griping in the corner about drawing a model, or studying Persian art history, then there will be something missing as they mature; and that something missing is what I see when I walk into many shows in New York today. It’s a shying away from the field you chose, and a somewhat glib look of life, an idea that you know it all already. I certainly don’t know it all, if anything.
Tithe, 2012, Acrylic and Ink on Canvas, 18″ x 14″
C & P: I have been thinking a lot about the Internet lately and how it has become so much a part of our daily lives. Do you feel that the Internet is a hindrance or a helpful tool for you as an artist? Does the wealth of information online and its instant availability influence your work at all?
Elias: It is a helpful tool in the gigantic fount of information that it is. I really, really love it as an immediate source of information, when I’m at a computer; the newer, mobile aspect frightens me a bit and I think eliminates a lot of constructive conversation and human interaction. Do people stop in gas stations on country roads to ask directions anymore? I think it’s an impossibility for the Internet to not affect today’s artist, just as one’s environment—subconscious or not—does the same. Our “at-your-fingertips” generation is, I think, a bit lazy in its approach to the search for answers (myself included). We take for granted the fact that we can know anything we want at anytime with practically no effort at all; I think this limits a part of our human desire to hunt and gather. I’d say my Internet use is 30% useful: the articles I read, the music I can get, the news I can absorb, the things I can buy cheaply; but the other 70% is pornography, gossip, and voyeuristic nonsense, all which I think I and others could and should live without. I haven’t figured out a way out of it yet, but I pretend to try every day.
C & P: What are you working on right now?
Elias: More paintings. We just had an open studio event at the Army Terminal so I got a lot of feedback and critical response, which usually puts me in a stress zone and I start painting over everything and second-guessing; and combined with these interview questions, you could say I’m working on my stress level right now. In addition to more paintings, I have a plan to make some cast resin sculptures; a process which is totally alien to me but that I’ve always wanted to learn.
C & P: What could you imagine doing if you did not create art?
Elias: I’m a big fan of plan B’s… and C’s and onward. Plan B for me for a while has been some sort of zoological or animal study; I am continuously amazed and in utter wonderment watching nature programs and reading articles about our world’s other species. The “holy shit!” moments are endless, and that intrigues me greatly. I could also imagine being a food critic, if someone would pay me to eat, I could get on board with that. Or a baseball player.
Birdman, 2012, Acrylic and Ink on Canvas, 20″ x 15″