This installment of Artist’s Spotlight features an artist I’ve known since he was a wee undergraduate. It has been a joy to see his work grow over the years, and I am so happy to share his work with you all! Please enjoy this interview with a great artist and friend—Eric Valosin.
Roaring Out: How long have you been creating art and in what types of media?
Eric Valosin: I’d give the stock answer of “ever since I was a little kid” and tell you anecdotes about drawing for hours as a toddler at my mom’s office, but I’m starting to believe that I hadn’t really ever made art until a few years ago. I went through school as a painter, developed a lot of conventionally artistic skills, and made a lot of things that masqueraded as art. Conceptually I began searching for the intersection of art and spirituality, but went about it all in a very naive way. In grad school it was like the scales fell from my eyes and I truly saw art for the first time.
I started to see beyond the cults of personality, beyond the push to find your “voice” in some stylized gimmick, beyond the pretenses of rigid, over-aestheticized formalism. I felt duped. I started to discover the real power of art to encapsulate and grow out of a complete worldview. I started to learn not just how a medium is used but why it’s used – indeed, how and why a medium is invented in the first place. I learned how to learn from my own work and let it propel me to deeper questions about the world around me. Most of all, I learned to be more genuine, giving up on making what I thought art was supposed to be, and instead simply trying to work through those deeper questions and respond to what materializes. Dynamically immersing oneself into what philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich calls “matters of ultimate concern” – and manifesting that into something others can experience – that’s art. It took me a long time to really grasp that. It also happens that that’s Tillich’s definition of religion as well.
In terms of media, in grad school I also came to terms with the fact that I painted mostly by default. In order to get closer to the more interesting parts of life, I had to move beyond paint to whatever medium helped me best get at those big questions, which I also began refining. That led me to my current work with light and projection installations, drawing, and interactive new media, exploring the possibilities of mystical experience in a world that has begun transcending traditional transcendence, and whose space in more often cyber than sacred.
RO: What first inspired you to art?
RO: What types of media are your current favorites and why? Is there a different type of medium that you would like to try in the future?
EV: I have a complicated relationship with light. It’s the perfect mystical medium, paradoxically both particle and wave, present only by way of absence/contrast, a rigid, constraining universal constant that somehow also seems to be flexible and constrained by other forces. It inherently tends toward the sublime when used right, and with all the religious metaphors and scriptural allusions, you end up with a medium preloaded with more spiritual content that you can shake a censer at.
However, it’s also by far the most difficult and finicky medium I work with. I often use it in ways that require a high degree of optical precision, like blending painted color with digitally projected color, or projecting onto glow-in-the-dark paint. In many of my installations I spend hours fighting with ambient lighting, calibrating colors, and negotiating with gallery staff as I try to get the balances just right. In a recent show I spent an entire day fine tuning a projection, only for the gallerist to change the lighting on a photo at the far opposite corner of the gallery, instantly sending me back to the drawing board as I watched my piece suddenly optically fall apart. I try to go out of my way to be pleasant to work with because I know how much patience, trust, and flexibility some of my work can demand of a curator or institution, and I’m grateful for every opportunity to try to prove it’s worth it!
Lately I’ve also gotten more and more into interactive new media. Interactivity and user-definability is increasingly at the forefront of contemporary life. As I pushed my questions about technology’s role in spiritual experience, I found myself getting into creative coding, hacking Xbox Kinect sensors, programming Arduino’s, and crashing Maker Faires to pick people’s brains about LEDs and transistors.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the tech spectrum, I’ve began experimenting with gouache in my drawings. Someday I’d love to get into holography too; talk about a perfect contemporary expression of Plotinus’ mystical notion of “formless form!” Most of all I enjoy tampering with convention and inventing entirely new ways of working when known mediums and techniques seem to fall short.
RO: Could you please talk a little about your creative process?
EV: A lot of my work begins as a response to a site. The 14th-Century mystic Meister Eckhart said that if you love a painting on a wall, you love the wall as well. I’ve found you cannot make paintings if you don’t at least consider walls; In fact, many great artists have made entire careers of exclusively building walls, so to speak. Once I know what space I’m dealing with and set out some goals or a challenge to tackle, there are four criteria I keep in the back of my mind for all of my work.
Firstly I want to engage with what’s known as apophasis, or “negative theology,” which is the branch of mysticism that says that in order to get at the unknowable God, we must negate all that we can know. This leads me to create visual negation or paradox like in UnKnowledge and Triptych, or make marks by way of erasure like in my Cosmos on Gray series. Sometimes the apophasis is more subtle, like how the anamorphic, pixelated imagery in As Above, So Below falls apart when you try to approach it.
Secondly I want to merge the old and new in terms of media, pushing traditional mystical strategies through high levels of contemporary mediation. That might mean hand drawing a scannable QR code like in my Meditations series, digitally projecting onto a painting, or even merging the physical and virtual self, considering the body itself as a medium like in Somatechne or Venae Cavae.
Thirdly, I try to blend the old and new conceptually as well. Each work reflects the tension (or synergy) between the medieval metaphysics (and far earlier) which underpin most of our religious paradigms, and contemporary philosophy which has largely been regarded as secular and humanistic. It gets hairy once you play out the practical, ethical implications of religion after globalism, the death of Nietzsche’s God, and the mess postmodernism made of Platonic idealism. I don’t want to be naive about the sticking points of declaring God in today’s world. I think its entirely possible and exciting though to find inroads into a complex, new, relational metaphysics.
Fourthly, I want my work to be interactive, to cause the viewer to move, to make them more aware of their own body and the space around them. The body is paramount to our experience of God.
I try to imagine anything is possible and then google later to find out otherwise! When all this comes into alignment and is working well, it amounts to a highly mediated, sublime experience that’s both confounding and enlightening.
I think the last part of my creative process involves looking at what I’ve made and really critically evaluating it. I want to see what worked, what didn’t work, and find all the really good happy accidents that might lead me to a new experiment. There’s a constant back and forth between ideas pushing my work and my work pushing my ideas. Some of my best work has come out of co-opting prior failures.
RO: What is the longest time you’ve spent on a piece of art?
EV: I have a few pieces that I’ve been working on for a couple years, many still in the idea/prototype phase, but I tend to work relatively quickly. A lot of time goes into research, experimentation, and preparation, but with installations most of the elbow grease has to be applied in a limited time frame. In a perfect world I’d plow through one project at a time, mostly because the longer I stew on any one project the more likely I am to intimidate myself out of it. For practical purposes though I always end up with several in progress at any moment and some get shelved for a while. But then there are those projects that really just take a long time.
I very much enjoy process. I’ve done several pieces in which the process becomes the end product like my earlier projection piece It Is, and a few that don’t technically have an completion point at all, like my performance/installation piece Circle. I like the idea that the meditative energy of creating a work can somehow translate into a meditative process of viewing.
RO: What subjects do you like to work with? Any subjects you’d like to see more of in your future work?
EV: As we’ve already been teasing out, each project of mine explores some corner of the unfolding terrain of a sort of postmodern (even posthuman) mysticism. I do tend to come back to a few themes and references: stained glass, circles, mandalas, sacred geometry, shadows, the body. As I move forward I’m always looking for unturned rocks in the conceptual terrain. For example, I’ve been starting to mull over what religion looks like from a non-anthropocentric viewpoint. I’m also very deliberate in letting accidents and experimentation lead me to entirely new places.
RO: I notice that you work a lot with the subject of faith. How has your faith shaped your work? On that note, do you feel you have a different experience in the art community because of your faith (access/limits to certain venues or connections? Different responses to your work than, say, a more secular artist)?
EV: I grew up Christian and was very active with various faith communities through college. I’m the son of a church secretary, and now the husband of a United Methodist minister. Proud of those roots as I am, I began to be very disillusioned by the politics and dogma of religion, and I’m appalled by the atrocities of hate and exclusivity so often committed in the name of God. I started to poke holes and find logical inconsistencies in the faith of my upbringing, and that’s where this artistic practice began. I want my faith to be alive, relevant, and socially responsible. I want to connect to God as God is, not as I have concocted God to be. I still consider myself a Christian, but I’m probably not quite your typical United Methodist anymore. I also saw a severe lack of quality artistry in the church. I crave a collaboration between art and religion that doesn’t water down either. A lot of my efforts outside the studio go to mending the gap between the church world and the art world.
My dual citizenship in these two worlds (as if they were truly separable) have certainly afforded me some interesting opportunities that would otherwise not be available. This past July I completed a commissioned interactive new media installation for a church and held a special contemplative service revolving around my work, as well as a discussion forum on art and faith. In November I’ll be installing a solo show at Andover Newton Theological School outside Boston, and teaching a continuing education class on art and worship at Drew Theological School in NJ. I actually anticipated more dead ends and glass ceilings because of how stigmatized religion can be, but I think if you’re doing something well enough and being genuine, people respect that. I do have to be very intentional about where I place my work and walk a fine line between being provocative and polemical. But then again all artists do to some extent.
RO: You have taught several workshops revolving around art, worship, and even artist statements. Is there any subject you particularly love speaking about? Is there a past class that was a favorite or the most amusing?
EV: When it comes to teaching I’m most passionate about conceptual development. I find there’s tons of fantastic formalist instruction on how to make art (which shouldn’t be undervalued), but it’s rarer to learn how to think about the art you make. Only the luckiest of BFA students learn anything about parlaying their technique into a meaningful, robust studio practice that’s truly impactful to the world. Most students don’t get that until grad school, even though it’s in some ways primary to even deciding to learn to paint or draw in the first place. It’s about helping people flesh out their world-views and the implicit meanings and relationships their work gathers, and then respond to that in the studio.
One time I taught a 4-session workshop using experimental drawing to discover how the medium itself carries meaning even before subject matter. I agonized over how to accommodate a potentially large audience without sacrificing individual attention. I ended up teaching to one lonely student, who misunderstood the course description in the first place! She was preparing for an upcoming artist talk at the time, so we ended up adapting the class material to help uncover what her work was saying and help her talk about it. I attended her presentation and she did very well, and I started to see how important it was to be able to interpret and speak about one’s own work. That’s what led me to offer an artist statement workshop. That one ended up being a packed house!
RO: Is there anything handmade that you own that is particularly meaningful to you?
EV: I am particularly attached to a painting I have that my grandfather made. To be honest I don’t even like it all that much as a painting, but it’s a reminder to me of why I looked up to him. He was a carpenter who built the house my dad grew up in, as well as a veteran who earned a purple heart. He was always getting into something that piqued his curiosity and painting was one of his many, many hobbies, among bee keeping and coin collecting. I also inherited an old Gibson guitar and electric mandolin of his. When he passed away we found tubes for glass blowing stuffed in the rafters of the basement that he had been meaning to experiment with someday!
I can remember him sitting with me looking at a new drawing of mine when I was young and saying, “Well, that’s really good there. You’ve got your lights and your darks… don’t be afraid to go darker.” The painting I saved of his has particularly good contrast. We used to joke that if you asked him what time it was he’d teach you how to build a watch. But I hung on every word. He was a real renaissance man and in that regard very much a role model for me.
RO: If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
EV: Hands down, the power to stop time. 24 hours would be more than enough if every now and then one of those hours could last a couple days. Of course I’d have to be exempt from my own stoppage of time. What a waste that would be, being able to stop time but never knowing it because you’re stopped right along with it! …Come to think of it, maybe I already have that power.
RO: To conclude, what is a lesson you have learned from creating art that you would like to share with others?
EV: I’ve found there’s no wrong way to make art, but there is a way to make the wrong art. Context is hugely overlooked, but it’s what makes a Miró a masterpiece instead of a scribble, or an Allison Knowles more than just a meal. As an artist you have to push deeply into your own “matters of ultimate concern,” but you also have to consider how all those matters fit into relationship with history and the world around you, including the matters of other people’s ultimate concerns.
Life is full of complexity and relational interdependence, and every single person’s worldview is in some way valid, perhaps especially those with which you disagree. After all, we live in a world made of meta-histories and socio-cultural paradigms that have allowed all those worldviews to exist, and for that reason they all represent some real truth about that world. Where they clash and intersect is where life gets intriguing. Art is not just drawing or painting; it’s learning to play at those intersections.
Thank you so much, Eric, for your insight and for giving us a window into you journey!
If you’d like to check out more of Eric’s work, visit his Web site here.