In our first Marcel Artist Spotlight, we interviewed artist Erik Ritter. We talk about Star Wars, Daniel Day Lewis, George W. Bush, and kids toys. At first glance, Ritter’s works read like futuristic machines, or vessels, or weapons, or instruments part of some oversaturated tech-heavy future. His obsession with sci-fi culture is immediately apparent. On deeper exploration, though, the viewer will see that the materiality of his work is rooted in today’s discarded trash, or what he affectionately refers to as “junk”.
Part sneaky pop culture references, part excavation of the histories captured in our castaway trash, Ritter’s work is an open-ended exploration of re-situating the discarded and awarding it with relevance. This practice is, in Ritter’s words, the pursuit of “magic.”
"It’s an Everlasting Gobstopper, Harry Potter’s forehead, and why there’s no EARTHLY way of knowing which direction we are going. It’s why there’s no place like home, the thing you fling that counts, and how it’s only a flesh wound. It’s also the reason this list could go on."
Let’s talk about what you call "De-Junked.”
Obviously, the idea is to take whatever’s in your junk drawer, and just dropping it on the table and then starting to assemble it, putting it together. Once you’re doing that, you’re “de-junking” what’s there. I never had a clear vision of what it was going to be anyways, but I thought it was cool.
Now that’s become more of a.. what’s that woman on Netflix who has that show about cleaning up?
So, it’s kind of become a thing now.. like cleaning up your house.
Right, but yours is a method of re-use. Hers is to de-clutter and get rid of stuff, your work is about repurposing and reusing - or I think that’s part of your intention.
Yeah, part of it.
I mean, they remind me - not formally, but conceptually, of Rauschenberg combines - where you take tossed materials and build something new with them.
Yeah, I was obviously - like everyone is - influenced by Rauschenberg. When I was at undergrad in South Dakota, we went to the Walker Center and there’s a lot of his work there.
Who were some of your other influences? There are a number of contemporary artists who are working with found objects, or directly calling it “trash” or “discarded materials.” Is that something you see yourself a part of, or separate from?
I see similarities in people, but I don’t - it’s hard for me to say "influenced by." I just feel like we’re on the same page. I’m obviously on the same page as Louise Nevelson.
Like a lot of other artists, I’m inspired by other stuff - music, and comic books. And the big one, like I say - “Star Wars ruined my life.” So, if you look at this [pulls out object] this is basically the Death Star:
Structurally, the parallel is so obvious.
Yeah, I didn’t even realize it, and then I was like watching Star Wars and then I realized the work was that.
So tell me about where you find these materials. I zoomed in on them, sometimes they seem to be literal pieces of cast off things you might recycle (like a tray or the top of a can), sometimes there are fidget spinner things, things that look like kids toys - and one that looked almost like a voodoo doll. So it seems to me like there’s a lot of disparate materials. Where do you source these? Where do they come from?
Well, I have two kids of my own and two step kids. So just all kinds of plastic junk just laying around, always. Part of the magic of it is -- you’re walking down the street and you see something kind of cool, and go like “whoop, that’s a piece of art” that caught my attention. So some kind of magic to it. And that goes pretty deep, how some things have no purpose but you can’t throw them away. And that’s why everyone has a junk drawer.
Also when I was trying to do the Dejunked stuff, the business model was to actually have people send me stuff and then assemble things from their junk that they found important. And I did have some people send me stuff.
That sounds sort of like a portrait. So they choose the things that they think are definitive of you and then it’s your responsibility to form it into something that represents them. What made you want to do that instead of “Erik and stuff in his studio”?
Just, spitballing stuff. Always trying things. It just seemed like a good idea, the idea that people save things and don’t really know why is a little bit fascinating. It can also get a little bit dark, like how people are pack rats and save too much stuff and too attached to objects and materialism.
Is that an Americanism?
What’s the making process like? Is it very curated? I saw that you have some drawings, that look in some ways preparatory, or if they were a result of something you constructed. I guess what I’m asking is how much planning goes into these? They look pristine, they look extremely thought out, almost autoCADed objects - but there’s also this element of spontaneity which is inherent in the materials - they already exist.
So it is curated to a degree, when I collect stuff I put them in boxes and colors and shapes. I’ll have a whole box of circles, and then some lines, and squiggly lines, and then wood, and what I know I want to use. And then I start to assemble them and that’s when I turn my brain off - because if I think about it too much then it sometimes comes off as contrived, sometimes that works, but almost never. Like I have one piece that looks like a bird that I planned out and when it does happen that’s pretty cool.
I’ll start to assemble them with Bondo or hot glue or whatever I need to use. I try to use the natural color first, and if I start painting them then that option is off the table. So I try not to use color, and then when that’s over I try to stop and reset.
Is there a specific object that drives the motivation around everything else?
It can, sometimes it can be a flat board that has character to it. Or an object that’s super cool that I have to put into it. Yeah, it starts with whatever object and then I’m reacting to that.
How long do these take you?
I’ll have six of them going on at once, and I’ll get a case a beer. Or, back in the day, a couple packs of cigarettes and do the Jackson Pollock thing and just go crazy for twenty-four hours. But now that I don’t have that luxury so to speak, they’ll take anywhere from two hours to a week and I’ll continue to work on them. Sometimes I have to live with them for a few weeks, put them on the wall, and then I have to go back to it.
It’s pretty much painting or doodling with objects. Any modern painters do that. Like Picasso had masterpieces under bed because he was ashamed of them and then he’d bring them back and paint over the top of them or something like that.
Is there a need for an artist to expose his work to other people? If not forcing studio visits, forcing yourself to talk about your work? Are there people you expose your work to when it’s in the process stage? Or are you the lonely artist archetype?
Probably these days I lean more towards the hermit. Come down from the mountain and drop it off and then travel back up the mountain.
I’m fascinated by Willy Wonka and the guy who is in the factory doing his mysterious work and I do my mysterious work and drop it off afterwards. Part of the thing with their objects - part of the idea is that everyone has a different idea of what an object is to them.
For example, the sponge toothbrush - everyone has an idea of a toothbrush. Anyone who comes up to this, instinctually they have a reaction to a toothbrush and what it’s like for you to brush your teeth - I can’t compete with that. You’re going to bring your experience to a work - I don’t try to compete with that.
Let’s talk about some of the pop cultural references. Now that you say Star Wars, I’m like “oh, duh” and you say comics. What are these evocative of that I might not recognize?
I did a whole series of science fiction. In a short little way, I write music and poetry and that kind of stuff too. In a beat poetry way I’m mixing titles together. So one of the pieces here is Daniel Day Ghoulardi.
So - the piece reminded me of the movie There Will Be Blood. Daniel Day Lewis was in the movie, Paul Thomas Anderson was the director, his father was one of the late night vampire host, B movie kind of guys. And his name was Ghoulardi. So it’s like a really obscure inside joke to anyone that can get it. So that’s just fun for me.
And it’s fun for me to have people try and figure that out.
So, the name itself - does it translate in some visual capacity of the work - or do you like playing with titles in such a way that if you’re a pop culture person of some sort or another this gets thought of?
Yeah, that piece has a visual attachment for me. I always go back and forth about whether or not they should be titled at all because it points a finger to that too much. Some days I’m like, “nope, none of these should be titled,” and other days I’m like, “it’s fine.”
There’s another one called JTK 1138. So that’s a science fiction reference to two major movies - JTK is the initials for James T Kirk, and 1138 is THX1138, George Lucas. So, I mean you gotta be really deep in there to know that. And that’s why it’s sometimes okay for me - because it’s not too much of a hard edge, hit you over the head.
On the upper right, there’s the top of like a baby’s bottle - but now that you say it’s so evocative of a Darth Vader helmet.
Yeah, I wouldn’t have seen that but now I can never unsee that.
What are some of the other things in here?
With the smaller ones, it’s a lot of like, kids toys stuff. What can I point out. So like, that is like a doll that’s been disassembled, like the torso. And that’s how everything gets transformed, hanging off of here is a Barbie is a boot, but it gets folded up. Chicken wire in the back.
So the objects are mostly glued together? Are they affixed to a major surface?
Just whatever needs to happen, a lot of times I’ll wrap them in twine, or thread. This one looks like it started with a frame in the back. And I have to work kind of back and forth and decide which is going to be the front or back.
Have you ever constructed ones that are not meant to be seen on the wall?
A little bit, when I went to school it was for painting but I started to do some sculptural stuff. I was always hesitant to make them all one color because of Louise Nevelson but I thought it was too close. And then I had to give up and go with it and wherever it took me. It kind of came back to this white, and overall monochromatic but then bringing little bits of color back to it was part of the progression of doing the monochromatic ones. And then also doing the sculptural stuff in grad school, actual 3D stuff, helped a little bit with the wall hangings later on.
When did you write Painting with a capital “P” off as part of your practice?
In undergrad. It was out of frustration. It was just much more freeing to not have the rectangle, to go outside of that or the circle or whatever. And it was freeing. Maybe it was out of laziness too - I needed to have “IT” right now - be able to work on “IT” right now. And that’s freeing but it can also be a problem when - if I’m going too fast, things can fall apart. So I have to give the piece enough time too.
What do your kids think of these? They strike me as very playful.
They like it. It’s been going on long enough that they’re just like “oh, that’s what he does.” They’d rather play Fortnight. The latest piece actually has little doors, and hinges that open up and then there are magnets attached so you can actually interact with it and move the squares and colors around. So that’s actually the next step, to have it be more interactive.
There’s also a QR code on this piece and you can connect to the internet with your phone and then some of my music is on, so you can listen to my music while you look at it. Getting the music and the art to work together.
I love that you’re not afraid to mess around with new mediums. A lot of artists are so strict about what they use - they’ll listen to music all day at their studio and it was embedded with the work but viewers never get to see that.
Yeah, I think in this culture there’s becoming a cross pollination of these things. If you look at contemporary artists, if its music or other things - they’re all over the map. Even actors making their own cologne or their own brand, they’re all over the place.
Yeah, Jim Carrey is making his own paintings now.
Yeah, I’ve seen some of those paintings and some you’re like “…sure!” And others you’re like [shakes head].
I don’t know if you remember when George W Bush came out with some paintings. The formal analysis of his work was so ridiculous. Let’s not glorify this. I agree that as a historical study of him as a larger context - what the paintings meant to him - that’s interesting. But I was annoyed by the idea that he had a unique, painterly perspective - it was like, “He actually just can’t paint!”
Well, go even a little farther with that. As an object, if you go further - the provenance. Look at that considering the whole concept of who is painting it and why he painted it, I think there’s a whole exhibit right there. Get away from the formal aspect of it, I may be stealing this from someone - but it’s almost like he’s asking for forgiveness. But if we jump to the punchline here - some of the people he chooses to paint, that’s what’s interesting.
Thanks for your time, Erik.
Learn more about Erik Ritter’s work on Marcel.