Erik Mark Sandberg – An interview with

By On June 21, 2012 In Art, Interview, Print

Hairy Children are the latest inspiration for this Californian painter, who forces his viewers to confront their fears with his realistic little monsters.

Born in 1975 in Farmington, Minnesota, Erik Mark Sandberg is an American artist and illustrator. He has been recognized by the art world and has received many distinguished awards for his work. Not only has he been on the roster of the Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York City since 2008, he has also taught at the Art Center College of Design, the OTIS College of Art and Design, and California State University in Northridge. Sandberg is a busy fellow, as you can imagine.

There’s something mischievous, almost delightfully devilish about Erik Mark Sandberg’s “Hairy Children Portraits” series. Sandberg’s creatures conjure up images of yesteryear and when viewing them, you get a taste of long lost childhood. The portraits are lighthearted, familiar and recall the imaginative minds of children. The creatures seem every bit as alive as the spectator; with their big wet eyes and their fur resting lightly on their skin, revealing their human forms. The silkscreen, resins, and glitter give them added dimension and character. “What the f**k?” you ask yourself aloud, but speak softly. The monsters might be listening.

© Erik Mark Sandberg, Caught the fever

His other works are equally as disconcerting, most hidden behind an approachable, colorful mask.

Sandberg currently works and lives in LA. I interviewed him briefly about his works, his inspiration and art in general.

What is the inspiration behind your “Hairy Children” series? When and how did it begin?

The genesis of the first hairy child was in 2008. The hair started off in a broad sense to be a metaphorical vehicle for effects of populace consumer culture, idol worship, emulation of celebrity, etc. It’s the paradox of the obese girl who was simultaneously a victim of fast food marketing and sexualized teen fashion. I’m interested in how to show the psychological aftermath of that paradox in a painting.

I’m always interested in the amount of imagery projected at us on a daily basis. I’m curious how these images came to be, how accurately they depict truth, and if they are of any real value.

The figures in your portraits have somewhat ambiguous faces, while their clothes stand out in the painting. Did you set these crazy outfits up yourself?

I wanted to bring a visual tone or tension to the paintings that would contrast the active colors of consumer gear. The subdued faces symbolize the aftermath of being debased. The razzle dazzle effects of consumer culture at times becomes hypnotic between flashing web banners, electronic billboards, the glowing lure of cheap jewelry cases, etc. The patterning and color of the clothes act in referencing that phenomenon.

© Erik Mark Sandberg, Youth with floral head band

Do you consider yourself to be a fashion-minded individual? How do you think this affects your work?

You’re talking to a guy who spends most of his time wearing navy blue paint covered Dickies overalls in the studio. But on a more serious note, in terms of the work, I grew up in the shadow of the Mall of America. At the time it was the largest indoor banal shopping mall in the United States, complete with an amusement park in the center. It was no 5th Avenue or Via Montenapoleone. Studying design and its history definitely gave me a point of reference to gauge artistic value with. I still refer to populace fashion in the work because it is a reference I feel I understand and enjoy commenting on. I still enjoy the visceral response I get walking by Hot Topic at the mall after eating too much super sugary orange chicken at the food court, carrying a boba tea.

The backgrounds, the subject’s posture, along with their clothes are all throwbacks to elementary school portraits of the ’60s and ’70s. Are you basing these paintings on old photographs?

The paintings have a definite connection to photography. It was a conscious decision. I feel photography has an inherited believability about it; using that foundation for the portraits enhanced the uncanny quality of the paintings. Some of them are based on a group of photos I bought off my neighbor, others from fashion ads. My neighbor is in his 60s and had inherited a suitcase full of old photos. He said he didn’t know who any of the people were and would trade them for case of beer, and I said “deal.”

Working with the ’50s school reference attracted me because kids were not affected by the digital culture at that time. I would essentially be painting them into the future by contemporizing the fashion and encasing them in various industrial materials. Working this way created an inherited tension and a connection with the past.

In the portraits, the material use became more industrial and conceptual. I was able to reference ideas through the material juxtapositions that eluded the portraits’ internal state and environment without representational elements.

© Erik Mark Sandberg, Girl with star patterned sweater

Could you say that the fur acts as the hairy children’s aura? The colors of their coat change the mood of the portrait. What makes you gravitate toward certain colors?

The color choices come mostly from spontaneous intuitive decisions. Others are for conceptual reinforcement, and it becomes a case-by-case basis. Neon colors are very artificial. They’re exotic and live outside of the normal spectrum. Fluorescent colors have a quality that is manufactured and tend to be used at car dealerships and rug store windows, communicating an important going out of business sale; there is a familiarity that comes with being a kid growing up in the ’80s. I feel comfortable in that palette.

I’m only vaguely familiar with the “West Coast vibe,” and it’s been said that there’s a certain focus and fascination with outward appearance. From your Californian standpoint, do you find you play on that idea at all?

A lot of my earlier works from 2008 were part of a series titled “The Equilibrium Of Glamour.” Those works were more narrative, with kinetic environments showing unique aspects of living in LA. The works commented on everything – surfing, waste spills at the beach; Mexican used car commercials with midgets, bikinis, nutritional choices at Disneyland.

The more recent work focuses on the relationship between projected idealized archetypes and the unattainable emulation of the archetype. A lot of the work focuses on social dichotomies found in American consumer and celebrity pop culture, which Los Angeles is wonderfully saturated with.

If we see time as tracking evolution, how do you think you have evolved this past year? How does time affect you?

Things come up during my research, discussions after lectures, things I encounter traveling. I find myself taking in a wide variety of perspectives, which continue to expand my own ideology. Personally, I find ideas about transcendental generation or transcendentalism interesting, as well as the theories of time travel. My parents’ generation thought “better living through chemistry,” which they took to heart, and is the reason I see the plethora of pharmaceutical ads during the evening news. And now it is “better living through technology,” and the tension between these is what drives my work. The hairy portraits, on some level, almost become recordings of reverse Darwinism.

© Erik Mark Sandberg, Girl with floral collared sweater

Are there any artists, contemporary or otherwise, that you find you can identify with? Any whose brains you’d like to pick? Or, better yet, cover in fur?

There are a bunch of artists working whom I find really interesting. I was in Australia all summer and was reintroduced to Shaun Gladstone’s work. I remembered it from the Venice Biennale back in 2009, and it was great to revisit it while in Australia. I think I naturally identify with artists of the same generation more so than artists working in the same medium or based in the same country. That generational vernacular is inherently unique, which brings everything back to that idea of time.

What’s next?

Currently in pre-production are a couple of short video portraits, and a new solo exhibition titled “Down by the River,” which opened at the Johanssen Gallery in Berlin on December 2, 2011.

Check out his official website at

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