Eric Bohr is an artist living and working in Oakland, CA. Rohan and I got the chance to meet with him and hear him talk in depth about his most recent solo show at Mercury 20 Gallery, “Tending the Bones.” The exhibition contains a body of work that conjures up and holds together a fragile web of his family history through honoring the names of his ancestors and evoking their stories.
Bohr explores collective memory and the human impulse to feel a sense of belonging, unpicking his own family tree and the Western cultural rituals surrounding death. He asks himself a crucial question: “When someone dies, what do you do with their body?”
Through his process-driven painting and installation practice, Bohr manifests these ideas into an abstract language that is both economic and haunting while remaining rich with texture and symbolism.
Eric Bohr was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1965. He studied painting with Michael Jacobs Fine Arts in Venice, California from 1995 to 1999. He has exhibited work in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and Oakland. He is a member of Mercury 20 Gallery and Ragged Wing Ensemble, both in Oakland.
ON Mercury 20 and Oakland
We are getting a bit of pressure from around the neighborhood. It is a very desirable space to build here and real estate in this area is going crazy. Of course, the word is gentrification. They are building a few things around the area, mainly living spaces, but we will have to see what it all means for us. We have three more years on our lease. This building was inherited by our landlord from his grandparents and he wanted it to be turned into an art space. So we are hopeful.
The owner's original idea was to make studios across the hallway, but he changed his mind and made a few small galleries. There is a commercial kitchen across the street and there is going to be a little café there, too. This was the original auto-shop street, but gradually they are transitioning. When we first moved in, it was all auto shops, but now this area is the central spot in Oakland for art.
ON Running a Gallery as a Collective
"Once you are voted into the gallery, you are given a free hand as to what you want to make, which has been great for me and has opened me up to working in 3D as well as painting."
It is a lot of fun. There are issues from time to time, but that's just because there are 20 of us and trying to make decisions about anything is not easy. So we have small committees for everything: a committee for bringing in new members, a committee for taking care of the walls, etc. Our monthly meetings can be a little chaotic, but it's great to have 19 other people who are supporting you and coming to your shows. It is also really nice to know we are not dependent upon sales in order to pay the rent. We all chip in a certain amount of dollars each month, receive 90% of the sales, and put 10% back into the gallery. Once you are voted into the gallery, you are given a free hand as to what you want to make, which has been great for me and has opened me up to working in 3D as well as painting.
This is my seventh show here. I was actually the first-ever show in this space. We try and make it so everyone gets one show a year. We normally divide the space directly in half, but this time the photographer with whom I was sharing the space wanted to avoid the sun's glare coming through the skylight. So he asked me if it was OK to push back the wall, which of course was great as it allowed me to have more space, especially showing this big triptych piece. I was happy to have more space around it.
There are usually three separate solo shows going on at once here in the space. It's interesting because sometimes by chance there is a crossover or certain visual ideas complement each other. For instance, here, mine and Chris's color palettes complement each other. But we didn't consult each other and we work independently on how we want to use the space.
ON Tending the Bones
For me, this action of reduction and addition brings the element of time into the work. It is almost an archeological thing, digging down into the past, and this is something I do in general in my work but that is particular to this show, which is all about digging into my family history and family tree.
The title of the show, "Tending the Bones," is a nod to this idea of the beginnings of our civilization: the death rituals from the beginning of our society throughout time, and these ideas of what do we do with the body when someone dies. I had this notion of the bones and the sanctity of death.
"As I was doing the work, I spent a lot of time looking through all these names and it occurred to me that all we leave behind are our names. And if we are lucky, someone will write them down."
That is the more sociological side of the show, but the other side is incredibly personal. My mother, about 30 years ago, did an exhaustive genealogical study of both her side and my father's side of the family and presented us with these binders that were about three inches thick with all our family lines. This was when I was about 12-13 years old and at the time I thought, "Oh, this is nice," but I didn't think that much of it. However, over the past fews years, as I have been working with the Ragged Wing Ensemble who work out of The Flight Deck in Oakland, their theme recently has been "Kin," this whole notion of family and how we are connected. I had this feverish dream about the wheel of my family's line and when I woke up I dug out this folder. As I was doing the work, I spent a lot of time looking through all these names and it occurred to me that all we leave behind are our names. And if we are lucky, someone will write them down. So as I was meditating on these names, the female names really resonated with me. "Elenor," the first painting in the series, is my father's mother's name. "Lena" is my mother's mother. And there are many names that you don't really hear anymore. For example, Antionette.
It is a very earthy work. The materials I used are plant matter and wood. When I am making the paintings, I often use a lot of non-traditional tools. I do have this notion of scrubbing things with a rough edge that goes back to this idea of the passage of time, the idea that life can just get worn down, the scars of history, and the decomposing corpse. This thing of when we are walking down the street, we are constantly shedding skin, and the way that the Victorians were fascinated with death because they were so petrified of death.
"I never really think of things as being finished. That makes them feel dead to me. I like to think of things continuing."
For the most part, this show uses a monochromatic palette, which was decided by the materials I was using. But knowing that I was working with this amount of space, it was helpful for me to have a unifying color that would be carried across the works, and orange seemed to be calling to me for whatever reason. There is a rhythmic repetition that I felt was really important. Music is really important to my work. I am always listening to music while I am working. There is a certain amount of stripping back that I do when when making my paintings and a lot of my work is reductive. I tend to do a lot of painting over and letting things bleed through, trying not to say too much or become too precious. To be honest, I fall in love with certain marks, but those are the ones I push to paint over. I never really think of things as being finished. That makes them feel dead to me. I like to think of things continuing.
All of my family came from Northern Germany and moved to Michigan, which is similar in a lot of ways except it is very flat. They were all farming people. In fact, my last name, Bohr, means farmer in German. It is interesting to me they all came from the same area, and they spoke German until the 20th century when they were forced to assimilate.
In “Catherina und Anna,” I was working in the garden cutting these seed pods that I couldn't bring myself to throw away, so I dried them out and varnished them. The seed pods allude to the passing of generations and the idea of manual labour and how we can inherit the urge to work with the land. I enjoy much more now working in the garden, much more than I did as a kid when my mother would drag me out of bed on a Saturday morning. Now it feels like a strong way to maintain a connection to my mother.
My father fought in World War II. It was around that time that there was a push to assimilate and a lot of the German speaking in my parent's little town got lost. In the 1940s, many people moved from the countryside into the cities for factory jobs.
"I come from a blue-collar background and we all worked with our hands. I can't wait to get into the studio and be driven by the process of things."
Many of my family worked in the factories, working for General Motors in the big city of Lansing. Routine and rhythm has always been a really important element in my life. I remember my mother would always say, "Let's get back into the routine," and she would tell stories about her mother: how Monday was wash day, the next day would be the day she made 25 loaves of bread, and so on. So labour seems to be everywhere in my work. I am really interested in the process of painting and the work of that. I come from a blue-collar background and we all worked with our hands. I can't wait to get into the studio and be driven by the process of things. I just love working with my hands, and it does make me feel in some way like I am following in the family line. My mum and dad were both children of the Great Depression and this experience of losing everything and living with limited resources. My mother continues to live like that, reusing the aluminum foil, keeping everything, finding multiple uses for things. And this really connects to how “Elenor” is made from the repurposed wood and canvas from an installation I made for The Flight Deck. It had previously had these ceiling tiles glued onto the canvas, which created these textural squiggles from the adhesives that I had made unconsciously without the thought of ever seeing them. Looking at them again after removing the tiles, I was fascinated by them. They appeared beautiful to me and almost seemed like another language and something mysterious and unknown.
The idea of the bones, the material of the body, this idea of what do we do with the body when it's dead, connects to when my father and brother died. I was not able to get there in time to see their bodies and, as they had opted for cremation, I was not able to see them. I had a really hard time with that for a long time, not being able to say goodbye to the body, to see the body. When my father-in-law passed away a few years ago, I was able to see his body and found a sense of closure with my own father's death. In terms of materiality, it is really interesting to me how things are the same in different forms. The transmutation of matter, which is really how this show is, as it is abstract work, but all about the body and storytelling.
"I had these interesting branches with lots of twists and turns, and I noticed once they had been treated with plaster how much they looked like bones."
I have had this fascination with plaster for a couple of years, and I was stirring plaster with these pieces of wood and thought of the title for this show: “Tending the Bones." I had these interesting branches with lots of twists and turns, and I noticed once they had been treated with plaster how much they looked like bones. I wanted to have some ritual objects that you could imagine someone doing a kind of ceremony with, and I ended up making a dozen of them. The bones are propped up to suggest this idea of standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. That this installation is on a plinth that almost looks like a torso is something that happened unconsciously. A bit of luck! This installation represents the male side of my family within the exhibition; the paintings speak to the female side.
ON Flight Deck
About four years ago I met Amy Sass who is the Artistic Director of Ragged Wing Ensemble. My wife is an actor with Ragged Wing, so I got more involved with them at that time. When they moved into the space that is now The Flight Deck, Amy had this idea of turning the lobby into a gallery space. I am on the gallery team of a few people who do the programming of that space. It has been great fun to build it up from the ground floor and make it into its own standalone program.
Amy has been very helpful in terms of me starting to also make installation and performance work.
These things have been really fulfilling, but what has also been great is that I have been lucky enough to be invited to their actor training. They are a very physical company, so it involves a lot of theatre games and running around. It was very eye-opening for me to see how an entirely different art form works: how they train and get ready for their shows. Surprisingly, the training crosses over a lot more than I expected. It helps me a great deal with my painting.
Poznansky is a British artist currently based between Oakland and London. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art London and School of the Art Institute Chicago. She currently works from her studio in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, making paintings, music, and writing short stories. www.harrietpoznansky.com
DaCosta is an international artist of multiple disciplines (Photography : Literature : Music Production : Curation : Clothing) born in Chicago, Illinois, and based in Oakland, California. He studied at Columbia College Chicago of Liberal Arts. He is the founder of and curator for GRACEGOD The Collective. www.rohandacosta.com