|ERIC ARMUSIK: LIGHT, FLESH & DRAMA
Eric Armusik is an absolutely stunning artist and thinker. His work is created in the grand tradition of the Old Masters and he’s carrying on their mission aimed at creating truth and beauty as revealed through classical realism http://www.ericarmusik.com/. Eric is truly a rock star of contemporary art.
“…I want people to love or hate my paintings. If anyone can walk by them and not be affected in some way, then I've failed as an artist...”
MICHAEL: Hey Eric, to me your work is very Old Masters inspired, but very contemporary with a Christian-based twist. Am I right? What's your inspiration?
ERIC: Thank you for the invitation to chat, Michael. I would start by saying that my work is not primarily religious, though my inspiration is drawn from a lot of historical depictions of Catholic art. I grew up in a post industrial section of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Though much of the area was blighted by the coal industry, what remained was a rich, ethnic, Eastern European culture. On just about every city block, you could find a beautiful Gothic cathedral. Though it wasn't until I was 20 years old that I picked up a paintbrush or even studied art history, I had an entire life of seeing beautiful, dramatic artwork. It wasn't until I connected with this truth that I truly understood who I was as an artist.
MICHAEL: So you started a bit later in life. How do you describe your work?
ERIC: I create dramatic and emotional figurative paintings that reference the subjects of art history, but I create them in a way that the figures breathe and display their humanity. It doesn't matter if the subject matter is religious or mythological or even a portrait. I want people to know that the person in the painting can be them, no matter how larger than life the character is. We all have greatness within us. It is our decision to be great or to give up that determines how people will view us. The Old Masters were no different than we are. They had their problems and they had their imperfections just like we do. I strive to do great things now, as all artists should do. I aspire to the level where my work comfortably sits among the greatest artists of all time. All that separates us is time. What if we all aspired to this philosophy?
MICHAEL: I hear ya. It would be a different would.
ERIC: I am inspired by life, by love and the experiences I've had overcoming my own obstacles in my life, no matter how difficult. My characters in each story are a reflection of hope, faith and courage. This transcends all religion and culture.
MICHAEL: I was just chatting with another artist who said he thinks that creativity has replaced craftsmanship in painting these days. Given your subject matter, what do you think about this?
ERIC: It depends on what they mean by creativity replacing craftsmanship. If that means that wiping bodily fluids on a wall is creative then I say their premise is bullshit.
I am a firm believer in standards and traditions. Without standards, we cannot properly identify or evaluate something as good or bad. The mere definition of art or lack thereof, over the last 100 years is a testament to this. That isn't to say that we all should be painting the same thing, but there should be an understanding of how to use your materials correctly before you start to improvise. The premise that creativity trumps craftsmanship is an easy scapegoat for masking a lack of talent. Rather than learning to do something well, we dismiss the rules altogether. This way everyone wins. When art fails to have a definition between what is quality or not, we all lose as artists. No one would dare say in music that a band like the Boredoms has the same talent as say Ludwig Von Beethoven. Then why do we try to equate Mondrian or Kazimir Malevich with a Caravaggio or a Rembrandt? It is insulting to those people with talent. I do not care how it is sold to me, it is nothing more than a case of the Emperor's new clothes.
I don't think the whole of society believes this either. People, young and old, know what takes talent to create when you compare a Kazimir Malevich black painting vs. Rembrandt's Night Watch. I also reject the notion that only children possess true artistic creativity (ala Picasso and Cy Twombly.) To say that children do not know the difference between something good and something bad is ludicrous. I am a father of three children, ages 5-10 and all my children have strong, unbiased opinions - when they visit a museum - about what looks good and what looks bad. There is such a thing as bad art! Imagine that! We're never taught it. Because when someone's talent falls short in art school, instead of teaching someone how to do something and to bring out their potential, we tell them, that's okay. Everyone wins. Do what you want and file all criticism under "creativity." I went to college with a student who made a Cheerios breakfast in her underwear, milk and all, and ate it as a performance. Somehow, my Old Masters inspired painting that took three months to complete was easily dismissed as inferior to her unsanitary breakfast. I would have performed better if I just brought my dirty clothes in for class and used it to make an "Art" statement about the plight of the college art student. That creativity would have been celebrated as genius.
The lunatics have taken over the asylum and they're holding us at bay under the guise of "creativity." I realize my comments will be perceived as unfair or outrageous, but to me, and most of the world, they are no more extreme than the foolish notion that anything representational or beautiful is kitsch.
MICHAEL: Your very answer is why I asked that question. Along those lines, what do you think about the art world and art market and how they function today? The super-wealthy continue to buy famous, dead artists while living artists are struggling.
ERIC: I do not buy into the myth that everyone is only buying dead artists or that we are all supposed to "starve" because we are artists. We're in the only profession, and I mean artists as a whole (musicians, actors, painters, writers etc.) that accepts that it is some “rite of passage” that we should all starve or suffer in order to be a true artist. That is nothing more than a story that artists tell themselves. If you tell yourself that story, it becomes your truth and you will most definitely starve. I am too stubborn to believe that. Tell me I can't do something and I look for a way to do it, in spite of your advice.
ERIC: I'm not one of these, “rich get richer, the poor get poorer guys.” Just because someone is successful, it doesn't mean they are taking away from my money or opportunities. That is a defeatist mentality and it is weak. We all need to realize there is something out there for all of us. Stop competing with each other and develop your own niche. Be honest about who you are and what you create and the business will come. Congratulate each other for success and stop the jealous crap we all heap on the successful. I wonder how any artists who engage in this would feel if they were the ones receiving the hate. Trust me, I've had my share of it and it always comes from people who have no lives of their own to focus on. I find Damian Hirst's work revolting and talentless, but if he can sell his work for what he does, I congratulate his success. He worked for that and I have no right to say whether he deserves that. It's a free country and one filled with opportunities. If we'd all start focusing our energy on selling our own work and not being jealous, we'd all be a lot more successful.
ERIC: To address your question about what I think about how the art world and the art market functions today, I think there has never been a more perfect time for an artist to take their own career into their hands and create their own massive success. When I entered this profession 20 years ago:
- there was no Internet to promote yourself or find information easily
- there were no cell phones or iPads to display your art
- digital files were not accepted - galleries and venues used slides, slide sheets and physical portfolios for EVERYTHING
- galleries were the only place you could sell your work or hope to have a career
- if you wanted prints of your work to sell you had to make an enormous investment
- if people wanted to find you, they needed to visit your studio, the trick was getting them there
Today, the rules have all changed. In 1997, I set up my first website. I was early to get in on the iPhone technology and social media and I planted my seeds early. Over the last 20 years, only 1/40 of the sales I've made have come from galleries. From my experiences, I've never had someone sell my work better than I could. The gallery model is out of date and lazy. If someone wants 50% of my profits, they had better be able to tell a potential client something about me and inspiration I draw from to create my art. From past experiences, I was lucky they remembered my name when talking to clients, let alone being able to sell my art.
Artists need to take control of their own careers. Refuse to accept that you have to wait in line in order to succeed. What are we, cattle? Why are so many of us subservient to the gallery model as the only place we can sell our work? Try everything and anything and find your niche online. Learn how to have a successful website, blog and social media strategy. Nurture it every day and present yourself with the same creativity you do your artwork. Make it fun and watch your future be determined by your own efforts. At the end of the day, you will get to keep all your profits and live the life you want based on your own merits.
MICHAEL: Indeed to that Eric! You know, I love the way that you create light in your paintings. You juxtapose light and shadow and use the color black to offset brightness. How challenging is this ... creating light?
ERIC: It is a big challenge, but one that has become second nature for me as an artist. I feel we should all have something we specialize in as artists. For me, it is dramatic light on flesh and environment. I think it is more preference than anything. I don't see the point of merely rendering something as I see it. It's a boring exercise for me. When I think of great art, I think of setting, light, drama, something larger than life. Maybe that is why I'm so drawn to Italian Baroque art of the early 1600s. It has that level of suspense, the heightened emotion, the cinematic drama that life doesn't always have. I'm a very emotional painter. That is what separates me from my peers. The lighting is just one tool I use to heighten the effects of those emotions.
Another important factor in using light for me is how it contextualizes the subject matter. In traditional religious art, light is seen as the presence of God, the triumph of good over evil. It permeates through the darkness, it inspires, it gives hope. This presence is just as important for a portrait, mythological or historically-themed paintings for me. Light delivers hope in the midst of despair. This is an inherently human need and one we all find comfort in. People ask me what is the appeal of my paintings. I believe this is it. It doesn't matter if you are religious or not, if you like classical realism or not. When one looks at the figures in my paintings, they see themselves reflected back. They see their own struggles and emotional challenges echoed back at them. I've brought people to tears with the way I've rendered figures. There is no greater compliment. I love the human connection between good art and the average person. This is why I paint.
MICHAEL: It’s also why I talk with artists like you. Most painters I talk with also say they feel their work is for everyday people. You'd never know that from even a passing glance at the art world today. What gives?
ERIC: A simple answer to your question: Artists generally don't care for or about everyday people. I think it starts in art school, Michael. Within the confines of an art department, you'd swear the real world doesn't exist. When artists can wipe snot on a wall or staple used feminine products to it and call it "insightful," then anyone in the room who accepts that is living a delusion. Ask a janitor what he thinks of the same installation if you want a real world wake up call. Then, upon graduation, artists enter the art world bubble where they engage in self-serving behavior. The explanations are lengthy and personal yet the work is visually substandard, talentless and outright boring. When anyone from "outside the art world" voices their negative opinion at the obvious, they are vilified as stupid or just incapable of understanding anything that is true Art. Sounds like a perfect way to attract "everyday people," don't you think? I don't know about you but I, personally, have a hard time accepting criticism from self-centered megalomaniacs who have a hard time shaving, bathing or dressing properly, let alone being able to conduct themselves professionally. People respect talent, not explanations about how brilliant their idea is/was/could've been.
I reject the notion that creating art that embraces beauty is somehow selling out to "everyday people." I love everyday people. I find that the more I've been a professional in this business, I am an "everyday person" more than I am an artist. I am probably more creative and engaged with my inspiration than many artists, but at my core I am a loving husband, father and a human being first. Being a great artist is a tremendous responsibility that, frankly I don't see many artists taking seriously. Would you like to be remembered as the artist that submerged crosses in piss and talked about how beautiful it was or an artist that used garbage and a dirty mattress as an art piece? The majority of society would say that is a ridiculous legacy.
I create art that moves people because my art moves me. My figures cry out in pain, ecstasy, desperation and somehow they find inspiration to continue on. Each and every one of us has those same feelings. We all fear that somehow we might not be strong enough to get through to tomorrow at some point in our lives. When people engage me about my art in person or online, it's never to just say, "Hey, nice painting." There's always a story about how they saw themselves in that character. This is not an accident because in many ways I see myself in the characters I create. If it moves me, I keep an open door for others. If I can help inspire them too along the way, then I've done my job. I want people to love or hate my paintings. If anyone can walk by them and not be affected in some way, then I've failed as an artist.
MICHAEL: We're going through a tough economic time. How have you managed to survive as an artist ... thus far?
ERIC: Tenacity is the name of the game. Learn to diversify within your business and set up multiple revenue streams. At different times, people are looking to invest in art. Other times, teaching is in demand. Sell prints or other merchandise related to your work. The key is to do what feels comfortable within your business to make yourself resilient. Don't veer off too far or do anything that makes your artwork suffer. That's the fast track to unhappiness and the end of your career.
When selling directly to your customers, know their needs. Know your audience well. Where they live, work or congregate and put your artwork there. Price it to sell, but never ask for less than you believe you are worth. There is no merit to being an artistic martyr. Do quality work, be professional and exude that to your would-be clients. If you establish a reputation on this, you will survive any downturn in the market. During this recession, I had one of the biggest years in my career so far. In short, be your own market. Be your own economy and you will prosper. Don't listen to the naysayers and negative people. They're telling themselves that THEY can't. As an artist, you are an entrepreneur. Does an entrepreneur ask the most negative person he can find how to do business? No. He dreams and his hunger allows him to be creative and innovative. Apply that to what you do and you can't lose.
MICHAEL: Finally Eric, what is point of art? What does art do for you? What purpose does it serve in a world where most people don't even think or care about art?
ERIC: The point of art is to show us beauty in the light of a tragic world. That used to be the goal of art hundreds of years ago up until World War I when modern artists somehow decided that definition should change. Today, a great deal of art celebrates death, misery, the dark side of humanity and the banal, mundane world we live in. Some artists like Damien Hirst actually try to redefine the term "Romantic" to, somehow, describe their ridiculous celebrations of death. It's ludicrous. What's worse is that no one calls him on it. If humanity is to redeem himself, it must believe in beauty.
Art can provide the hope we all dream of. That is what great art does. That is the type of art I want to create. If I can't find that soul in my art then how can I expect anyone else will? I think if we all look upon our work as something that is responsible for changing people, in truly good ways, we find a greater mission on this earth. When you can paint something religious and it appeals to believers and non-believers alike, you've transcended limitations. You've gone beyond the realm of the gallery or museum space. You've become a beacon for humanity. If we can all create art like this, we can change what art means for people. How else would I find success painting in a manner that was popular 400 years ago? It's because these values are timeless. Fortunately for me, these values are mine.
MICHAEL: Fantastic! Well said Eric and thanks for chatting
ERIC: Thank you Michael! I appreciate it. My best to you.
Check out Eric and his work at http://www.ericarmusik.com/.