PORTRAIT: Erik Foss In Converstation With Dennis Kane

Interview conducted, words and images selected, by Dennis Kane.

All artwork by Erik Foss.

Chandler Arizona is a suburban community in the Sonoran Desert about twenty miles southeast of Phoenix, and a few hours north of the Mexican Border. Chandler is home to one of the largest mobile home communities in America. In the summer, temperatures in the region have average highs that pass 100 degrees. In this sprawling sunbaked zone, in one of the largest trailer parks in town, Erik Foss spent his formative years in a mobile unit with his mother and twin brother, drawing incessantly, skating, and plotting a future that would eventually bring him to NYC. I have known Erik and his work for some time, and this spring we took a break from our COVID isolation to sit down for an extended chat about his life and work, including his years co-running the infamous NYC bar/club/gallery Lit.

Erik Foss Prime Time 2019

Prime Time, 2019

Where were you born?

Northern Illinois, I was there for my first 6 years, and then moved to Mesa Arizona. My father was a mechanical engineer, so I was living a kind of white boy middle class life until I was 12, and then my Dad left my Mom for a waitress at a Chinese restaurant, and I went from the burbs to moving into a trailer park in the hood (Chandler), it was kind of the last town before you hit desert. There was a bar there called “Last Chance Saloon” Which apparently was a fairly murderous place.

This community you moved to is sort of hovering on a no man’s land?

Well, it was right where the highway (US 60 & Interstate 10), and truckers dominated, the speed limit went from 35 to 75. I saw way too many accidents and body parts before the age of 18 ugh….

You are living in a trailer with your Mom and twin brother, when does pen and pencil find its way into your hand?

Earliest memories, I grabbed a pencil and started drawing, musclemen, my toy cars, cartoons, the human form, mischievous and fervid. I started to get serious around 12-13.

This carries you into junior high school, a way to cope, with Dad gone…

Drawing was an escape, we were suddenly in really bad shape financially, on the verge of homelessness, and my Mom was adjusting to being a single parent, so it was an intense time.

Were you starting to identify as an artist intellectually? Did it seem like a way to be?

Oh yeah, in all of the turmoil I remember saying to my Mother, “I’m going to move to NYC and live as an artist”, I had no realized notion of what that meant, but it seemed like the plan.

Was there art instruction in your life? or are you just doing it in your free time?

I had this teacher in 7th grade, Miss Brady, she was not fond of me, I was drawing skulls, cobwebs and candles, she thought I was a Satanist! Sooo trips to the principal’s office, but Mom stood up for me, she had my back, which was huge. In my junior year of high school, I started working on a larger scale, I found some butcher paper in the supply closet and made a charcoal crucifixion drawing that was about 6ft high.

Satanist redux! (laughter)

It was called “Jesus’ Hot Foot” Satan was giving Christ a hotfoot, and the Statue of Liberty was in the background, I still have the drawing, I thought it was a big step forward.

Erik Foss Jesus Hot Foot 1991

Jesus Hot foot, 1991

Socially where are you drifting? Skate punk? Trench coat loner? Jock?

I was definitely skating, I had taken an acting class and really liked it and took some grief for that. At a bonfire party – think Mad Max late 80’s desert vibes – I got jumped by some jocks, two teeth knocked out, broken jaw, cracked ribs and tossed into a bonfire.

Welcome thespian!

Some Maryvale Crip’s who were there saved my ass, they got me out of the bonfire, shortly after that I became attached to a tribe of skaters. They were artistic, so I found a place for a time.

Drugs and alcohol?

Acid was king.

What’s the soundtrack?

My first show at a VFW hall was seeing Kreator & Coroner (Thrash metal bands from Essen & Zurich respectively) and that was terrifying. Black Flag, Blast, metal, hardcore and punk, but it was also electronic music and early hip-hop. I started buying cassette tapes, LL Cool J’s Radio, Licensed to Ill, The Fat Boys, and then I remember my first vinyl scores were two Queen albums, it was a wide mix of sounds.

How did you end up meeting Rob Halford? (Lead singer with Judas Priest)

I had done these large chalk drawings and wanted to photograph them, so I brought them to this warehouse and recording studio that he had. A friend of mine worked there, it just an enormous space. Rob comes out and gives us a tour, and he wanted to buy one of the pieces, but he wanted the work so cheaply – I think he offered me $200 for this large drawing, I was confused and sort of pissed off. I’m looking around at the size of the place he has, it’s like an airplane hangar. I was broke and needed the money, but I still said: “no way”, I wanted $800. It still bugs me that he wouldn’t spend the dough. Bright side to that encounter though, I met this photographer from Eastern Europe named Victor, he lived on the Bowery in Manhattan, he knew William Burroughs, that meant something to me meeting someone like that. Here was a real artist. He had bought a van and drove it to Arizona to take these time-lapse photos of the moon and stars, and he developed the photos in his van – where he slept!

Erik Foss Behind The Smiles 2021

Behind The Smiles, 2021  

Erik Foss Gun Drawing 2019

Gun Drawing, 2019

That’s a huge thing to experience as a young man, you see this model of an art life, a guy whose aspiration was to travel and be dedicated to his work.

Yes, and to hear him talk about New York, even when he was disparaging of it, meant so much to me. It made the place seem real and attainable.

You get out of high school, any further education?

I did a semester of community college and saw some pure misery there, including a creepy professor who harassed the female students, I said something about it, and got out of there, never looking back.

I’m guessing construction work was on the horizon, (laughter).

Oh hell yes, I helped build a commercial kiln outdoors – in the summer, learned to bake cakes, waited tables, the whole gamut of artist labor choices.

Then you jump to NYC?

Well, I did get accepted to Cooper Union, but I was so broke, my mother laughed, “Cooper Union, New York?” It really could have been Mars. I set a goal for myself – get your name in the paper here, and then get to New York. Well, I eventually got written up in the Phoenix Gazette for a show my work was in, and I got a plane ticket and finally got my ass to the city.

How/where were you living?

I had worked at a coffee shop in Scottsdale for the well to do, Scottsdale was renowned for its rehab centers, people came from around the world to detox there. A customer I had befriended at the coffee spot hooked me up with her Grandmother who had this impressive residence on the upper west side. These people had several properties, including a country home up on the Hudson. I was up there one year to celebrate thanksgiving and we found a several of Frida Kahlo’s works in their dusty attic, but that’s a tale for another time. That place gave me a foothold and start in NYC.

Erik Foss Dot Painting 2019

Dot Painting, 2019

You quickly start gravitating below 14th street?

I liked the Upper West Side, but yeah, I started knocking around downtown and began looking at galleries like this spot Subculture. I eventually had a show there, it was a pay to play space, so it was suspect on some level, but artists like Triston Eaton, John John Jessy, and Esao Andrews came out of there. I was happy to have a chance to exhibit my work. A lot of what they exhibited was in the illustration/graffiti zone, but you could also sense things moving in a direction toward more serious art, which was my aspiration. I didn’t want to be perceived as a “street artist” – although I am a fan of it – and even though I was interested in the low brow, and the dystopian themes braided into Americana, be it cartoons, mud flap decals, and the whole gothic drag strip from hell happy meal, I was coming at it, or at least attempting to come at it, from a contemporary perspective.

Well in sub-cultures and low brow forms, you can see the status quo examined in different ways, which is vital. You don’t want a hegemony of critique, part of the excitement of specific factions is the way they view dominant norms and kind of turn them on their head. The other thing that’s great, is that the art of a sub-culture is often way ahead of any discourse that attempts to incorporate or reify it, or its terms. Sadly, now we live in a paradigm where entire genre’s and pathways are appropriated and simulated for the marketplace, and what used to happen over a period of years now happens at a far more rapid pace.

I was thrilled to find like-minded people, and there wasn’t at the time a broad interest, Max Fish and CBGB’s gallery perhaps, but that was it. Broke people working away in their own beautifully demented worlds. Then you blink your eyes, and some MFA students emulate and make use of what we struggled for years to have taken seriously: cartooning, illustration, tattoo art, all these forms of the underbelly of society, suddenly absorbed, you see it happen in music, skating etc.… something on the margins comes to the surface and is formatted for the masses, it is such a trip!

People absorb forms and can use them to build careers, bourgeois culture used to be crass, seeing fake decorator commissioned abstract expressionist paintings in junk shops was funny because of how bad and tone deaf the simulations were, now product is knowingly art directed and appropriation is a legitimized trope.

I feel like saying to them sometimes, have you ever seen Robert Williams, Mark Ryden, the Piz aka Stephen Pizzurro? Those radical outliers in LA who inspired so much, never really got their just due for pushing things forward, they worked commercial jobs and hustled to find ways to exhibit their work at a time when there was no “place” for it, it reminds me of the old school train writers who started working on canvas and panels, they were breaking new ground without much of a support structure.

When I see artists like Mike Kelly, Raymond Pettibone, or Jim Shaw, their work is rich in reference to other practices, but the intent and complexity of the work makes it resonant, profound, and part of a larger world view. I see you use vernacular forms and symbols, but the underlying ethos is specifically and entirely yours.

I always felt between cultures, and that’s also a class issue, especially in America. I loved European and American art in a “proper” sense, but also felt that underground artmaking, comics, van art, graffiti, etc.… was getting to a lot of the same issues of alienation, commodification, decimation, and were valid expressions, the good shit is the good shit.

Erik Foss Amercian Sculpture 1

American Sculpture #1, 2020 – cast bronze 

Erik Foss American Sculpture 2

American Sculpture #2, 2020 – cast bronze

Ok, so you are showing at subculture…

Yes, and working full time as a bartender, it was a grind, but I slowly I started to build up a following, and some interest in my work, and we were having some great openings. Eventually the owner approached me about developing a new space, and he found a spot in the east village. I advocated for opening a gallery in a bar/club to help pay the rent, because I didn’t see art sales covering the costs, he agreed, and Lit/ Fuse took form.

So you are tending bar, setting up shows, booking DJ’s and acts….

And painting, I was living above the bar for a time…

What kind of work are you showing?

We opened with a H.R. Giger show, we did a ten-year anniversary show for Juxtapose magazine, we showed Robert Williams, C.R. Stecyk of Dog Town fame, Mick Rock had a show of his photos of Syd Barrett, Martin Atkins exhibited, Winston Smith, who did the Dead Kennedy’s logo had an amazing show, there was a range of work that I was proud to present – things I felt should be out there and celebrated.

I remember the HR Giger show, I thought it was so cool seeing his work in that environ, one of his creations would have felt comfortable in the basement space (laughter). How did you make that show happen?

I was friends with his (Giger’s) NY agent Les Barany, and at the time the art world wasn’t paying any attention to him. I loved his work and was mostly exposed to it through the films it was featured in or magazine reproductions. I felt connected to the same bizarro-sphere as he was and jumped at the chance to make a show like this happen.

This wasn’t an art-world event per se… (laughter)

No, we had these delightful weirdos turn out, it was awesome. The only famous person who showed up was Debby Harry, Geiger had done one of her record covers. It was funny years later seeing some of the same work at Gagosian. (In 2020 Geiger’s work was shown at Larry Gagosian’s upper east side gallery in a show curated by filmmaker Harmony Korine)

Erik Foss Untitled Collage 2020

Untitled, 2020 – collage

Were you always living and working in the same place? Running a club, a gallery, and painting all in one extended environ can be extremely hectic.

It is, but I was grateful to have a chance to even DO these things, I did get a series of studios though, so eventually I had some separation, but you know how it is, there is always some calamity, a fire, a flood, the landlord decides to flip the property and on and on, it’s a bit nomadic, you have to solve problems and find ways to keep going, to just keep making.

I started to notice that Lit was becoming a scene, not just skaters, but slumming socialites, various musicians, and young artists on the fringe of the art world were beginning to make it a destination.

*Lit lounge and Fuse gallery – a brief description: Lit was a sleazy neighborhood spot on 2nd avenue. It was dark and low ceilinged, with a long bar when you came in, some approximation of a DJ booth, bathrooms to rival CBGB’s, some reclaimed church pews, lots of graffiti tags, and room to dance. In the back on the upper floor, behind a glass door was an efficient self-contained 600 sq foot gallery space – Fuse. Downstairs there was another small bar and DJ set up, and a performance area with a modest stage in the front. Bands like Apollo Heights, A.R.E. Weapons, Elliot Smith, The Melvins, Mos Def’s Brass Band, and Chavez played there. When packed, upstairs could hold just under 200 people, downstairs 120 or so. It was a proper den of inequity, without pretense, and it was cheap to drink there, and drinking – among other things – was done with volatile urgency.

We had a lot of young kids at the time who were into graffiti but were also transitioning to a serious studio practice, Dan Colen, Ryan McGinley, Dash Snow, Nate Lowman, etc. Around that moment a lot of um, non-traditional Lit people started to show up. Low life’s and high falutin’ art world people were mixing it up. (laughter) I have to credit both Carlo McCormick and Leo Fitzpatrick for helping bring people and events to the space, it was great having their support and feedback along the way.

I wouId come by on occasion to see shows but started visiting there more often when Spam was tending bar, and I joined DJ Spun playing on his Tuesday nights there. (Spam was a graffiti writer and artist, a NY original – more about him in a subsequent piece) Spam got me to write a small essay about your 9/11 paintings, which I was interested in, especially seeing a group of them, the sense of entropy, and the weight of the grief and loss was very palpable.

I called the show I had of that work “Avarice”, I felt sickened not just by the attacks, but also by what seemed like a power grab – oil, middle east destabilization and control – behind the scenes, also at the time of the attacks I was working in several spots in lower Manhattan, and man if you want insight into how an event impacts people, get behind a bar and listen, it was overwhelming.

Erik Foss Avarice 2011

Avarice instillation shot at Mallick Williams & Co., NYC,  2011

I started seeing more of your work, and then remember Olivier Zahm of Purple covering what you were up to.

Yes, he started writing about the bar and the gallery first, but he was taking a lot of shots of me for Purple Diary, and then he started to focus on the work. I had met Olivier through Dash Snow, I had a studio below the Purple office on Broadway and I developed a nice friendship with him. Olivier is a very bright guy, his influence on fashion and the form and possibilities of what a magazine can be are pretty far reaching.

As Lit started to wind down and eventually close were you planning for the next phase of your career?

Well… it was complicated, eventually we opened a smaller version minus a gallery, a place in Bushwick called Tilt.

I thought that the stairway piece you did of punk flyers was pretty amazing.

I had hopes for that venue, but the difficulties and delays of construction, the change in the neighborhood and changes to the city didn’t bode well for its survival, also I was over 40, sober for years, and had seen plenty of nightlife, I really wanted to just focus on my work.

I remember this being a pretty stressful time for you, but I also saw you become very productive.

I suddenly had more time, and already had a focus on what I wanted to make. The great thing about art is that you can do it alone and do it at any budget level. I was obsessed, and through Instagram worked to build my following. I already had a network of support and people interested in my work, I just started to expand that base. Having run a gallery in the east village for 14 years you learn a few things. (laughter)

Since Daumier’s time the idea of the modern gallerist has been to handle the work from the moment it is finished, now that model seems dated, and artists are finding other platforms to connect with an audience.

I’m comfortable working with gallerists, and have had some great experiences, but I also feel it is very healthy to build relationships with collectors and have a direct dialogue.

Erik Foss American Academy Of Arts And Letters Poster

Exhibition Poster American Academy of Art & Letters. Dream Walkers, 2019

Erik Foss With Norman Reedus 2020

Erik Foss with Norman Reedus and Not The Best Desert Trip, 2020

The work itself has grown as well, I always found your use of imagery and various forms subversive, symbolic hierarchies are reordered, memory and nostalgia are put on notice, and it comes at the viewer with a manic/comic urgency, SMS, SOS.

Own your response, no status quo please, keep broadcasting until the zombie apocalypse happens.

Despite the melancholy and intensity of the work and your personal history, you always project a very clear, caffeinated, carpe diem enthusiasm.

With all I have been through, and perhaps because of all the bullshit I have seen, I know it is waaay better to be present and help uplift people, to care, and to make, and to try and help create good moments like so many artists before me have. The doing of it, and the path that sets you on is where it is at. We don’t need as much as we think we do, I’m good with pencil and paper.

Erik Foss Castles On Top Of Castles 2019

Castles On Top Of Castles, 2019

Cover image – Mickey Painting, 2020.

You can learn more about Erik Foss, and his art, via his website and Instagram account.

You can find more amazing pieces written by Dennis Kane here, while you can check out his new label LESDK here, and his musical partnership with Darshan Jesrani – as Siren – here.

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