An Interview With Abstract Expressionist Painter Eric Yevak

Eric is a friend from when I lived in New York City. I didnt know it when I met him, but for many years he has been furiously making art, searching for answers through layers of resin, ink, and paint. I approached him a few months back about a larger project, and the start of it is this interview right here. I ask these questions for no other purpose than so that I can try to understand. - Ian

Photo by  Gabriel Zhang

Photo by Gabriel Zhang

Introduce yourself, for those who don’t know you. Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Eric Yevak. I'm an artist from the southern United States. I work in different forms of painting, from paper and wood to video and projections.

You’ve been painting for right at 20 years. I know that Richmond houses some pretty strong and committed communities. Tell me about those communities. How did growing up in them shape you? What did they ask of you?

I was very lucky to be there when I was. Richmond was an incredible place in the 90s. Tons of art and music. When I lived there I felt this incredible freedom. I was constantly being exposed to different forms of music and art. There was also a lot of violence in the city in the 90s. Richmond had the 2nd highest murder rate in the country. I think that kind of intensity seeps into daily life and, by extension, into art. Richmond had this very vibrant creative side. I was exposed to a wide range of performance art, traditional gallery work, lots of graffiti and non-traditional art work. Richmond in the mid 90s had an amazing hip-hop, punk, and hardcore scene. A walk home at night could take you past several house shows and a couple police barricades. It felt simultaneously scary and alive.

The city had a creative pulse. There were these punk houses -- these huge old houses, with basement shows and art shows and like fifteen people living there. One thing punk houses demonstrate is total immersion in a lifestyle. That really stayed with me. If you were a tourist in the scene or someone who did this part time, you weren't really respected. You had to be all in. People took a lot of it very seriously, which is where I think a lot of the aggression and violence came from. This scene, this music, this art was all a lot of people had. It felt tribal.

I was very lucky to be brought in and adopted by a group of very intense and supportive people. I was a weird one. I walked between different scenes and art groups. I don't know if I learned loyalty there or if I brought it with me. But when I think of my years in Richmond, it’s these friendships that mean the most to me. Coming of age there, in a way, taught me that I could survive most things.

In my second year of undergrad, my father, who had substance abuse issues, disappeared with all my rent money. I ended up living in this sort of squat band rehearsal warehouse. I lived there for about two years. No showers, mostly no running water, no heat. I would shower at the school gym. Or I would go to some random college kid parties and have my friends watch the bathroom door while I took a quick shower. That was fun. I could not have survived if it wasn't for the community there.

It’s gotta be really great to see that community giving back to you when you need it. Were the communities you’re from always so supportive of your artistic endeavors? I know you raised quite a bit of money on indiegogo, more than you even asked for, to help pay the last bit of tuition fees and pay for your move to Minneapolis.

In Richmond, when I first started showing, I would have these art shows or noise performances and people would show up. Most of them just thought I was strange, but they would come. It made for some interesting social situations. At one of my first real gallery shows there was a huge group of tattooed people and then old white, southern ladies in pearls. These tough scary tattooed kids I think felt more awkward.

I think all of us want to think that we stand or fall on our own, and in some ways this is very true. Its also very prideful, to think that you can make it in this world alone. That being said, I have been very lucky that I have always had people to watch my back and look out for me. I think (I hope) this is partly because I’ve always been willing to do the same. For better or worse, we are all in this together. I don't think a lot of artists really understand that. What’s the point of achieving anything if you are alone when you get there? I’ve always been standing on the shoulders of giants, I know that. To have people step up for me like that is incredible. It was a very humbling experience. I’m very grateful.

"Everything that was not a necessity weighed me down. Cleanliness, simplicity, purity - these are all relics from my spiritual youth."

Let’s talk about New York. At other times, you said it gave you the chance “ say fuck you world!! You have tried my whole life to bring me down, and you probably will in the end, but right now I'm going to hurt you. To feel like your force of will can reshape reality.”  It seems like you’re saying that New York can help develop the aggressive attitude that it takes to make a real mark on the world. Is that how you see it? Or is it something more than that?

I think I developed that attitude early in life. One of the most intense things about New York  is that there are no excuses there. You want to fight for you art? Well, you can, if you get up everyday and fight. Growing up in smaller towns there are always people who don't want to see you achieve. They’re scared of growth, they want to keep you down. These people are in New York as well, but there is also this huge community of people that are doing, making. To make a mark in the city you have to get up and you have to make and make and make. Because nobody cares, nobody has time for you, they have their own fight. Nobody owes you anything there. If you are weak it toughens you up or it eats you. It you can survive, that in itself is something to be proud of. In New York all things exist. It’s there if you really want it bad enough.

In your artist statement you mention “loss of self inside a purifying action.” This struck a chord in me. Does this idea relate to your experiences in counter culture or straightedge? If not, what does it come from?

I don't think it relates to any one counter culture necessarily. I was very involved with the Richmond hardcore scene but I think I brought this kinda desire there with me. I think the idea of losing oneself inside of a purifying action comes more from how I was raised. I was taught from an early age that dying for a just cause erased your debts and your sins in this life. That there was nothing greater then to kill and die for your God or your country. I don’t believe this now. But the idea of doing something so great that you transcend yourself and become something greater, erasing your past, your guilt, still has a strong hold on me.

Where did you develop the ideas of purity and struggle?

From working as a young teenager. Stealing as a young teenager. If I wanted something - clothes or happiness or spiritual understanding - I had to get it myself. Nothing comes easy. It’s the same now. Everything that was not a necessity weighed me down. Cleanliness, simplicity, purity - these are all relics from my spiritual youth. These concepts inform everything I make - every painting, every piece of art. I think there is something to struggling, it builds up this heat, physically of course, but also mentally. I always thought this mental, or even spiritual heat, could melt away the impurities inside myself, the same way that hard work slims you down, burns away the fat. I believe struggling and pushing burns out impurities.

My high school guidance counselor told me that I wasn't good enough to go to art school, that I should go into the army. I heard that idea a lot. Poor kids don't go to art school. Art doesn’t pay the bills, it doesn’t have any value. Kids from my neighborhood went to trade schools (or prison) if they went anywhere. Most just stayed around just barely getting by. I felt stifled and convinced myself that I couldn’t be weighed down. All I had was me - nothing backing me, no money, no family name. If I was all I had, I had to be it. I had to get rid of everything that I didn't need, physically or mentally. To burn clean. To maybe burn so clean that I became a pure force. It’s hard for me to put into words, but its this idea that by working and doing over and over, by applying your force of will, reshaping reality to your desire that you become something more, that you become epic, that you are a myth. That your intensity echoes and ripples out. It’s a new religion.

How do you define that struggle? How does that struggle define you? How does artistic work engage that struggle of everyday existence?

Struggle is getting up and getting back up, over and over. I’ve learned not to look for transcendence in someone else's ideology. But I still have a hunger for that spiritual embrace. My sense of self, my sense of self-hatred, wants to give into the void. I have a strong desire to disappear, to just float out and sink. I don’t do it. Not yet. My work is my dealing with that. The sublime. The concept of coming face to face, being surround by something greater than myself. It’s horrifying. Those ideas deal with the concepts, but in a real world, everyday situation it’s about doing it day after day - putting my head down and working.

What about your training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? How does the discipline/environment of violence inform the artistic environment?

I find I lose myself the most in the midst of physical action. Sex and violence. Time disappears. My ego has to be lost. There is only me doing this. I can’t lie when I'm training - well, not for long. There is a rhythm and tone that comes into my work. Flesh, maybe spirit. Its one of the few times that I get close to a feeling of purity. It’s inside of struggle that I become more than I am. Being tested and surpassing the test. Breaking the gauges. I watched Joey C, who was the singer of this Boston hardcore band Righteous Jams, fight in his first Muay Thai fight. It was incredible. Joey C is as close to a perfect person as I have ever seen. I felt so bad for the other man. It’s not just that Joey was better, or stronger, or even had better technique. Joey is just a world of focused intensity. The other man was a man. Seeing Joey that night as he walked to the ring in a shady gym in Queens, it was like he had felt everything possible, had all thoughts pass through him, had a knowledge of time and space that I could only fantasize about, and he was humble, at peace. And then he unleashed on this poor man. This man had no idea all feelings of hunger and heartache and loss were about to directed towards him. It still puts an ache into my chest thinking about it. That is art. That’s the moment my work is about - the moment right before the wave crashes.

"My pieces are not my friends - they might be family. They exist to take from me, but they don't care for me. They are waiting to be free of me as much as I am of them. I feel like I'm just a conduit sometimes. Which is about as cliche as you can get."

I want to know more about the wave crashing. Tell me about the most fucked up fight you’ve been in, and tell me about the most fucked up art you’ve made. Can you find a correlation between them? Do these particular instances matter to you?

I’ve been in a lot of situations in my life where violence came into play, some right and some wrong. Most I wouldn't want to talk about. But, a few years ago I had part of my face bit off by a large, drunk Irishman. I thought I lost my eye. I see that scar everyday. Even when others don't notice it at first, I know its there. It was a random action. I was attacked walking out of a New Years Eve party. It wasn't personal at all. But it affects me every day.

As far as fucked up paintings go, I don't even know what that means. I don't think I think or feel in those terms. A large part of my practice is embracing failure. A fucked up painting for me would be one I didn't believe in, one that wasn't honest to my experience, so I guess I have made fucked up paintings. I lie to myself daily, I have to try and always be aware of that. I have never drawn a correlation between a fight gone wrong and one of my pieces being fucked up. If I did it would go back to getting back up, going forward, swinging the whole time. My pieces are not my friends - they might be family. They exist to take from me, but they don't care for me. They are waiting to be free of me as much as I am of them. I feel like I'm just a conduit sometimes. Which is about as cliche as you can get.

But as far as fights and struggles go, death beats us all in the end. It’s the definition of finality. Yet we try to fight on against an uncaring void. Do you ever feel like you’re ever winning in the race against your own shadow? Have you reached “the pinnacle moment when, however briefly, all forces are equal”?

No. I haven’t reached that point yet. I have not had the nirvana moment of weightlessness, and if I have its only for a few fleeting moments. I've had close friends where I see it in their eyes when I look at them, but only for a moment.

From what I know about you, work ethic seems like everything. Just looking at you, one can see the unrelenting drive. Where does this come from, what does work ethic mean to you?

Ha, these questions are a struggle. I’m starting think I'm pretty one dimensional - “struggle and violence, struggle and violence.” I think its as simple as a case of self hatred. I hate myself, on some level, and that pisses me off. I don't want that. Being poor in this country, you only get what you take. If I don't want this weight, I have to get rid of it myself. Everything I see or experience is maya, it’s an illusion. I'm the only thing that is real so I have to do the work. I can’t lay it on somebody else. I wish I could. At a base level, I'm a coward. I hate that. So, I run as fast as I can towards the things that scare me. Because if I don't, I’ll just lay down and die. Not only am I coward, I am also arrogant. The worst combination for a person. The arrogance makes me demand of myself, "others have gone there, why can't you, why are you afraid, why are you weak?" I work, I embrace the grind, even if it’s against my nature. The Richmond hardcore band Down To Nothing had a slogan, "Hanging out is what we do best." It’s also what I do best. But I work against that urge.

What’s coming up next for you? What new things are you working on?

I’m working larger and hopefully making better work. Just producing as much as I can. I am so incredibly lucky to be able to live and create like I do. I feel like I cheated somebody somewhere, and one of these days they are going to catch up to me in a bad way. So I have to get it all out of me while I can.

Thanks for taking the time to do this Eric. You obviously work really fucking hard. Shout out some artists that work even harder than you, that also deserve some recognition.

There are so many. Erik Benson has been a huge influence as well as Judith Supine and Heath West. Jesse Yuhasz is an amazing artist and has been a huge inspiration to me for years. I was able to share a studio with Erin M. Riley for a while in New york. She is the hardest working, most obsessed artist I have ever been around. She puts me to shame. In the studio from 11am to 3am or longer, 7 days a week. It’s incredible to watch and be around. It’s also kind of horrifying. Not only does she put in the physical work, she puts in the mental work as well. Everything she does is so considered, driven by theory and vision. At any point in the process she can stop and give you a lesson on art and feminist history and how it plays into her work, and into yours. Anybody can make a pretty picture, but not everybody can dedicate themselves to the process. Not everyone has this awareness of everything that came before and the ability to make something new. And fail and fail and fail. And get back up.

Eric currently lives in Minneapolis and is pursuing an MFA at MCAD.