I’m delighted to introduce you to Chris Ernst, pop art painter extraordinaire! I met Chris in December at a craft fair put on by The Center for Contemporary Art. His work is so funky fresh and innovative. So without further ado, here’s Chris!
Roaring Out: How long have you been creating art and in what types of media?
Chris Ernst: I have been a constant doodler for as long as I can remember. I completed a few paintings in high school and knew it was a passion I would eventually follow but I first took a ten year break between college and grad school. Once I graduated I began to pursue painting more seriously. It wasn’t until 2011 before I really dove into painting and it wasn’t until 2013 before I actively began pursuing selling my art. Now I can’t imagine a future without drawing/painting/creating.
RO: What first inspired you to art?
CE: I think it probably started with my grandfathers. Both were woodworkers and one was an illustrator to boot. During the period of their lives when I knew them they were both at a point where they could concentrate on their passions. I remember being amazed at my paternal grandfather’s work ethic – he would disappear for hours in his workshop. I remember being very inspired by the process and care he put into the wooden banks he would create. From a personal standpoint, I vividly remember being given a drawing assignment in the fourth grade and immediately tackling one of the hardest assignments available. It was of a church steeple and I went all in – making sure I captured all the details, including every shingle. The accuracy wasn’t there but the scope and fearlessness were evident. I remember it was chosen as a work of the month and placed on display in the school. My mom, who has always nursed my creative impulses, was so excited to see it in the school hallway and eventually framed the piece. It is still hanging in my old bedroom. All around it was a very exciting experience and something I can look back on and say, “That was the spark. . .”
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?
CE: Acrylic painting is by far my favorite medium at the moment. I love the immediacy of it and I am a huge fan of color so the wide palette is something that is very appealing. I have also begun working on turning more of my drawings into paintings over the past year. I am a big fan of lines and seeing them evolve from a simple pencil drawing to ink to an acrylic painting is a process I can study over and over. I took my first screen printing class about a year ago and have enjoyed that as well. There is something about being able to run 20 prints in a row that really speaks to the pop artist in me.
As far as future mediums are concerned I have a solo show opening at a great gallery called Trentonworks. The show is called “Urban Pop: 1989-1990” and it will be up in the gallery from February 2nd – 28th with an opening reception at 6 PM on Thursday, February 5th. I have been working with a team to bring some pieces alive three-dimensionally, more as an installation, so I am super psyched to see how that ends up.
RO: Could you please talk a little about your creative process?
CE: I believe in the deconstruction of pop art through the process of human fabrication. The original inspiration for my process came from studying Andy Warhol during a high school art class. Early in his career he would take an image, project it onto canvas, trace it out and then hand paint it. As he moved along he got into screens and then had engineers and was removed from the process from a technical perspective. However, I am inspired by that nascent period when he was still painting. I believe that capturing the “artist’s hand” adds to each piece, from the slight imperfections to the balancing of colors.
Of course, the artist’s hand doesn’t touch the work without the original inspiration. Lately I have been finding my inspiration in tons of influences from my childhood – everything from early 90s skate graphics to Star Wars to early hip hop. My favorite pieces of the past year have combined something from these early influences with my own personal flourish, most often through the abstraction process of hand drawing and then painting the image I am chasing.
RO: What is the longest time you’ve spent on a piece of art?
CE: I had to look this up because I keep a pretty detailed journal. I knew immediately which work it was but wasn’t sure on the time to complete. The winner is “Tongue Tied”, a 40” x 30” acrylic painting I completed in 2014 that is currently on display at VAM Art in Metuchen through the end of March. It started off as a doodle at work and grew from there. When all was said and done it was 30 hours of work and I was tired of painting but love the outcome.
RO: You’re part of a collective called Fresh Milc. What is it like to be part of an art collective and how has that influenced your art?
CE: MILC started off on a lark. I was with a group of friends at a club in Brooklyn and there was another group there with matching t-shirts. We were a little jealous so we decided to create our own. I crafted a painting and then we turned that into a vector and eventually our own t-shirt. We liked the process so much we decided to press up a bunch and sell them. MILC was born.
The impact has been twofold. First of all, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with some great friends, thanks for everything, Noah, Adrian, Bobby and Laron. Sorry, I just had to give them a shout out. Having them as a soundboard and fellow crafters of our vision has been an inspiring experience.
The second impact has been finding our mascot, MILCy D, as a muse. As Warhol had his celebrities and Campbell’s soup cans I have MILCy. I have completed well over twenty paintings of him at this point and launched close to a dozen t-shirt and sweatshirt designs with him. Speaking of which, I need to get cracking on our Spring 2015 t-shirt.
RO: In addition to being a part of Fresh Milc, you are a staple in the New Jersey gallery and art fair circuit, including the Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market and the Center for Contemporary Art’s Holiday Boutique. What would you say is the most important lesson (or lessons) that you’ve learned about the business side of art as a result of participating in these ventures?
CE: I was a business major in school and have always believed Warhol’s adage of “good business is the best art”. So I have never had an issue with the “art vs. business” conversation. If people see something they like and want to own it that is a beautiful thing, regardless of the impetus behind the creation.
The biggest lessons I have learned center on having multiple price points for your work and knowing your audience. In particular, it is important to have price points that can provide an entryway into your art. Being accessible from a pricing perspective is important to generating interest at fairs. If you are priced too high it is a non-starter. Knowing your audience is also very important. You list two great examples in the Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market and the CCA holiday boutique – two very different crowds. Knowing your set up and which works are most likely to appeal to the appropriate crowd are important. Of course, one of the most rewarding experiences is having work that is universal and sells to both crowds.
RO: I noticed that much of your work is in the pop art genre. What drove you toward this style of painting?
CE: It is a style of art that has just appealed to me aesthetically and, the more I delve into it, from a philosophical standpoint as well. Warhol laid the philosophy but I think Roy Lichtenstein is the perfect embodiment. His work with benday dots is pretty close to perfect but I also get the mindset. I look at all the punk band stickers that are plastered on the stop sign outside the Court Tavern in New Brunswick and I just think it is fantastic – those stickers will wear and eventually fade away to only be replaced by the next layer of stickers. It is disposable and permanent at the same time. I love that.
RO: Is there a subject you have yet to approach/wish to approach in the future?
CE: Right now I am in grind mode prepping for my solo show at Trentonworks so it is hard to think what is next after the very next project. I have another installation in Jersey City in March and I am hoping to incorporate a Jersey rock theme. I will be doing different variations of a logo from an 80s punk band called The Circle Jerks but with a Jersey twist. After that I am not sure, maybe do a series of more abstracted paintings and some political work. These feel like nice touch points but will probably get thrown away once I have my next job in front of me.
RO: Is there anything handmade that you own that is particularly meaningful to you?
CE: Great question – three things immediately come to mind. At home I have a wooden bank and a jewelry box that were in my grandfather’s workshop when he passed away. They mean a lot. At my parent’s house in Manasquan I have a truck bed made by my other grandfather. It is in a bit of disrepair but I can’t wait to have it refinished and let my kids use it. I also have several Christmas ornaments that my fiancée made and I love bringing them out every year. Oh, do handwritten notes count? I have a lot of those that mean a lot to me and provide me strength and encouragement.
RO: If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
CE: Invisibility, but I wouldn’t desire it for any nefarious reasons. I am just curious. I would love to be a fly on the wall for important meetings – what is a presidential cabinet meeting like? How are NFL draft choices really made? What about important NASA meetings? I think it would help me win more bar arguments.
RO: To conclude, what is a lesson you have learned from creating art that you would like to share with others?
CE: A lesson I have learned is to have a great support system. My fiancée Jamie is a great co-creator, sounding board and all around positive force. I wouldn’t be where I am at without her or my family.
Also, some advice I have found along the way from some other folks. Jack Kerouac wrote “what do I really know about it except you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict” about writing and I think it applies to art. Also, and I am paraphrasing, but one of the guys from Vampire Weekend used to get hung up on criticism. But then he realized when people don’t like something they will just move on. You don’t play music or look at art you hate over and over. But if they love something it will stick with them forever. Art is like that.
Thanks for sharing your art and your insight, Chris! Love your style.
If you’d like to follow Chris and his art on the web, check out his Facebook, Instagram, Etsy shop, and blog. And if you’re in the area, come out to his solo show reception at the Trentonworks Art Gallery on Thursday, February 5 from 6 – 8 pm!