The work of Eric N. Mack inhabits a liminal space between media. The artist challenges the traditional notion of painting by styling an array of humble materials into three-dimensional arrangements that reinvent architectural space. Realized with textile scraps, photographs, magazine clippings, pegboard, and various found objects, Mack’s work draws its significance from both the symbolic and the utilitarian qualities of its materials. Arguably the medium most receptive to the power of fabric to comprise collective identity, fashion becomes the prototype for systemic ruptures and constant redefinitions of beauty. In the following exchange, Mack discusses adaptability and transience in the present moment. His works adjust to the contexts and physical spaces they occupy. As he creates beauty and poetry out of the softness and sensuousness of the materials he adopts, Mack lets the works’ materiality and texture speak to their previous uses and accumulated emotions. Sheer and faint, in a sense, the works expose fragility and allow for intimate experiences of perception.
VIOLA ANGIOLINI: The title of your 2019 project at The Power Station in Dallas, In austerity, stripped from its support and worn as a sarong, evokes the ideas of deconstruction and ingenuity, which could describe the principles of both fashion styling and the creation of the readymade in art. The two practices often merge in your work. Could you say something about the planning that went into the exhibition, and how these concepts relate to your process?
ERIC N. MACK: The title suggests how the art object, at its most sacred, should reflect altered systems of value, especially in observation of the world’s brutalities. It imagines the case for the painting object to leave its autonomous support structures to need the body. Like “the seat cushion can be used as a flotation device”—if the plane has plummeted to the sea, you no longer need a seat. Values change urgently, and the art object must reflect that transformation. These ideas were conceptual points of departure for me. I brought fragments of used fabric and collaged materials, precious textiles from fabric shops—many from Milan—and wanted these works to be bound to space. The specificity of the materials, the softness, the transparency contradicted the industrial architecture of The Power Station—the primary container where they flourished and expressed themselves.
VIOLA: Because of their close relationship with the body, garments have an inherent performative quality. Do you have this in mind as you select your materials?
ERIC N.: I’m interested in an autonomous performance, engaged with movement and space. I’m also attracted by the memory of the body that stays with the textile. Known ready-made materials meeting fleeting gesture. The scale shifts of textiles being held as opposed to serving as clothes. I’m interested in how a garment can envelop and yet also be rendered in flight.
VIOLA: Misa Hylton-Brim, your show at Simon Lee Gallery in London in 2018, revealed an interest in the strategies of sampling and referencing that Hylton’s styling absorbs from hip-hop music and culture at large. Do the linguistic possibilities of these methods play a role in your titles?
ERIC N.: I see titles as a possibility to call the work, in a way—to encapsulate an idea or concept that I’d like to grow with the identity of the work. Misa Hylton-Brim is a giant, as I understand the practice of fashion styling, with particular images and emotional vibes that I wanted to tether to the exhibition. I want the titles to be divergent—never to narrativize the work but to give it life and lineage outside the art object. I named the works for my show at Simon Lee using excerpts from the monologue breakdown from Patti Smith’s Easter (1978). This song sounds like a procession, a repetition. I felt the words could imbue pacing, the content about a return, a resurrection. Each line an exclamation affirming and denying identity. It’s never clear to me whether Smith is talking about herself or Jesus, but this gothic elegy felt like a meaningful pivot for the viewer.
VIOLA: In a text published in 1991, Sam Gilliam—an African American painter you often mention—described his recent works as “objects that abstractly embrace the content of painting and sculpture through solids and veils.” In your work, too, I see a tension between the ephemeral quality of materials and gestures and their ability to create a presence that alters the surrounding space. To what degree are your installations spontaneous or planned? And how do you define the site-specificity of your works?
ERIC N.: Ephemerality is a part of how I want the work to appear. My process negotiates with the materiality connecting with the site. I look for opportunities in the architecture, which takes a degree of planning and anticipation. The work seeks intrinsic prospects for intervention, but a degree of improvisation is also a part of it: conjecture and learning in regard to what is possible spatially.