Thursday Spotlight: The Generations- and Medium-Spanning Work of Eric Haze

Eric Haze in the Elaine de Kooning studio, East Hampton, NY

There’s a special nuance that comes with being a New York artist, and by that I mean a true New York artist: one who was not only born and bred here, but — like our great city — is a creature of change and advancement. Eric Haze is one such artist; his work has run the gamut, taking flight in typographic, graffiti, and even apparel-based realms. Recently featured in the show Beyond the Streets, Eric is a celebrated graffiti artist who — even as he approaches his autumn years — is now tackling new styles and concepts. As such, he has temporarily relocated from his Williamsburg studio to the prestigious Elaine de Kooning House in East Hampton where he’s completing a residency and painting faces and people for the first time. Elaine de Kooning painted Eric’s portrait in 1971; half a century later, he’s returning the favor. As we all should during our time away, be it at a renowned residency or while bunkered at home during a virus outbreak, Erik is casting inconsequential deadlines to the wayside to carve out a time made holy for creating, making mistakes, and beginning anew.

Greenpointers: You work in graffiti and started your career through that medium. I grew up in a more digital atmosphere, and I somehow wonder if people’s relationship to graffiti has changed in a less analogue world? I feel like people spend less time, while walking on the street, looking at public art and more time down at their phones. How have you seen the medium evolve?Eric Haze: Graffiti has evolved tremendously, it has now become married to what people consider street art. It’s been the rock and roll of the hiphop generation, and it’s not going anywhere. Obviously the internet has changed things from when I was a kid, once upon a time. If you wanted to know what was going on in New York or on the subways or in the Bronx you had to get on a plane or trains and come and see what is going on. Now the internet has created a level playing field, it’s not always the illegal activity it used to be but graffiti is in theory alive and well.

You spent some time in Los Angeles. What brought you back to New York and how has your career shifted since?
I’m a born and bred New Yorker, born in Manhattan and moved to Brooklyn 15 years ago. In the beginning of the 90s I transitioned moving to California, partly for change of life but equally as much because I was part of a hiphop culture, market, and generation and as a New Yorker it became pretty clear our so-called movement, which was initially a New York phenomenon became an international phenomenon, and I left New York and set up a new base of operations in Los Angeles, party for a change but also because I felt getting out of New York and getting a broader perspective on growth that this phenomenon would put me in a better and different position to grow in the community and culture. That proved to be true; California in the early 90s I happened to be in the right place at the right time for the birth of streetwear, opened my own clothing company and rode that wave for another 10-15 years.

To fast forward to the present, you recently participated in Beyond the Streets; can you talk about that show and your role in it?
Beyond the Streets, which has now shown twice in New York and LA, was a natural evolution of Jeffrey Deitch’s Art in the Streets, which I was also featured in, so Beyond the Streets, for lack of a better explanation, was an up-to-date overview of the history of graffiti and street art past, present, and future. I’ve been a part of that program since its inception and Beyond the Streets has provided a really nice platform for my community to not only engage through an audience but also share my own new work.

What does it mean to you to be a part of an intergenerational show that highlights a wave of graffiti artists, who — as you say — inhabit the past, present, and future of the medium?
It means that the movement is alive and well.

Are you still at the Elaine de Kooning House?
Yes I am.

How’s it been going?
Going great. This is my fifth session, coming back and forth between other work and deadlines. It’s been absolutely magical and nothing short of transformational. I’ve done three out of the four series of work I’m planning to do up here, some of it in my wheelhouse (graphic, architectural work), but the main thrust of my work here is jumping into portraiture for the very first time in my life and career. I’ve never drawn a portrait or face in my life. Elaine is my muse, I have jumped into a series of self-portraits.

Why jump into portraits now?
The last two or three years I have made some radical transitions in the subject matter of my work, having picked up the brush sort of seriously again 15 years ago, I was clear in my head and my style that as a graphic designer I had to find and build my own natural bridge over that world of design into fine art and painting. About three years ago I had a revelation of sorts that I had been doing abstract and typographic work and I decided to apply some of the style and layering from that format into reality for the first time, to do figurative work. That inspired urban landscapes, which I’ve been off to the races. To answer your question, bottom line, the thing I’m most interested in as an artist and painter is growth, both personally and technically, and growth comes from putting yourself in uncomfortable and finding out how to get comfortable, and that’s what I’ve been doing with the portraiture.

What does it mean to see yourself, while doing self-portraits, both representing yourself artistically but also seeing yourself create a new kind of work for the first time?
The foundation of my experience here is having been painted by Elaine when I was 10 years old. I have the portrait of myself that hangs in my living room, and it has subtlety informed a number of things as I’ve lived with it. So there is a direct point of departure here in terms of picking up where Elaine left off, and the second component of that is my ultimate goal here, both in the work I’m creating in this residency but also my work moving forward, is drawing and painting portraits of other people.

Anything else you’d like to share?
I think the takeaway here, for me, has been developing my — if I had to boil down my aspirations as a painter into one word it’d be fearless. It’s taken me the better part of my lifetime to honestly turn that corner and really know that I’m fearless with a paintbrush now. This experience has encapsulated that and punctuated that, and I walk away from this experience and this body of work with a much greater understanding of myself and my personal style as a painter. I leave this studio and this experience completely transformed with a radical shift in perception that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

It sounds like you are doing an artistic retreat the right way, not the complacent way.
Yeah. I live in the world of deadlines, I have for over three decades. This is a different personal space that I have carved out outside of the world of deadlines and demands. I have, with great intentions, given myself all the leeway needed to make this a process of discovery, not a process of execution.

About Billy McEntee

Billy McEntee has been fortunate to work for arts non-profits in Boston, Denver, Berkeley, and now New York. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vanity Fair, American Theatre, HowlRound, Observer, and others. He's usually getting wine at Dandelion or eating cookies at Archestratus.

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