The self-taught artist Eric Haacht paints daily, describing his expressive and ambiguous portraits as 'like diary entries'. In this exclusive interview Eric talks about his graffiti years, the enduring influence of Francis Bacon, and chasing the perfect mistake
Smithson Gallery: What are your earliest art related memories?
Eric Haacht: My gran was a good painter and a big influence on me. She lived in a council flat, and it was like a jungle, classical music was always playing - she was bohemian. There were prints of classic paintings all over the house, Picasso, Monet, maybe Van Gogh, that sort of thing, and I remember very vividly being interested in them, wondering what they were and why they were good. She also taught me how to draw and paint.
When I was about 13 I got arrested for graffiti, before I really knew what it was - you know just stealing spray cans and running around and then getting arrested. Then someone in school showed me the book Subway Art, which is like the bible of graffiti, they gave it to me in a maths lesson, and that was it. From about 13 to about 30 it was just graffiti - All the time - That was it - I was obsessed. Then in the early 2000s street art emerged from graffiti, people like D*Face, Sick Boy, Bansky, and that’s when I realised you can make art that’s not graffiti per se, but has a similar approach. So, then I started painting abstract graffiti, so I was painting walls before canvases. There were very abstract, pretty ‘out there’, not traditional graffiti at all. Graffiti is a big influence, It underpins my practice, even now I can see it in the bright colours I use, my compositions.
Another early memory is my art teacher when I was about 15 in secondary school, giving me a Francis Bacon book. That was a big turning point as well, because my work is heavily influenced by Bacon.
"Bacon used to destroy a lot of his work, which I did as well"
Do you remember your reaction when you first saw Bacon’s work?
I can literally remember him giving it to me, I think it was the macabre nature of the work, the darkness of it, that stood out. I remember understanding for the first time that abstract painting can be more than abstract, it can create imagery. I found the book of Bacon’s interviews which I become obsessed with, I’d never really read before but I read his biography three or four times. His stubbornness, moodiness, and aloofness really appealed to me. I probably modelled myself on him to some extent. When I got into painting I became more interested in his actual work. I realised at that time that you can live in a room, ignore the outside world and paint.
You have previously mentioned that you aren't very precious about your artwork, once it's there on the canvas you are willing to let it live its own life, and I wonder is there a connection back to the transience of graffiti?
Yeah completely, and then it becomes a still object. I can look back at it critically, and think ‘I did that right’ or ‘I did that wrong’ or ‘I don’t like that,’ in a technique sense, but in terms of having any attachment, not at all. Maybe that’s Bacon coming through, because you know Bacon used to destroy a lot of his work, which I did as well, but don’t do anymore. I always joke about people buying my paintings and using them for firewood.
Bacon, Picasso, there must have been so many great paintings that they made and destroyed - there must have been so many paintings that have never been seen, and in a sense these are more intriguing. They were created and now they’re gone. I like that idea.
I think in some ways not getting too attached as an artist is a healthy approach, I can imagine it frees you up and perhaps makes you more prolific? Bacon and Picasso certainly were. But of course a collector who falls in love with your work will have a very different relationship with it…
Yeah, so I tend to keep quiet because the piece that they love, I don’t really care about so much.
I’m sure it’s not that you don’t care about it as such, I think that you’ve given everything to it that you possibly can and at that stage you're happy to remove yourself. You often describe your approach to your practice as like daily diary entries, how many people will revisit their diaries? Once this stuff is expressed outwardly, whether through writing, or painting, it’s out of you and it’s on the paper. Some might say that's the purpose fulfilled.
Yes completely, I’m only ever subconsciously involved in my paintings. It’s like cooking and talking to a friend, you’re cooking, but you’re not really paying attention. I like to watch bad TV when I paint, a bad fly on the wall documentary, I like the noise. I can’t paint to music, because then I get almost too involved in the work. I’m almost not looking at the paintings, that’s how subconscious it is, how little I want to be involved.
"My paintings are all based around time, space, immediacy"
Tell me about that moment of realisation when you know it's finished? When you return to your consciousness?
I think it goes back to Bacon. He used the phrase, “painting is to trick truth”, you have to trick it into becoming. To being. So, when I see that there’s a moment of truth in the painting, that’s what I’ll hold onto. Or I will go too far and lose it. But when I see that there’s something I've captured, or tricked, or the paint has allowed some truth or some feeling, that’s when I stop.
Beautiful. A subconscious searching…
It’s very hard to explain, very abstract. It’s about some form of communication that has been made outside of language.
Let’s discuss your subject matter, what is it you are trying to express or capture
My paintings are all based around time, space, immediacy. A few years ago, they all had the word ‘time’ in the titles because I was fascinated by hologram theories, the idea that we are just reflections. Reality isn’t what we think, string theory and stuff. I’ve listened to a lot of Alan Watts, old Hindu ideas of the universe - we say that we ‘came into’ the universe when we should say we ‘came out’ of the universe. The paintings are sort of like the universe, the inner person, we are the universe and the universe is us. Time and space are arguably abstract things. I took quite a lot of mushrooms and I experienced that myself. I stood outside of time and I felt time as a concept when I was tripping, and that really stuck with me. I can still feel it now. I can put myself back into my friend’s kitchen, making a cup of tea, and realising that time wasn’t real. That really stuck with me.
Wow, so you’re looking beyond time as a human construct, non-linear time, and you’re thinking about the fabric of reality
Yes. I read somewhere that humans are just an expression of the universe, and that’s what I paint, just humans as expressions of the universe, the immediate now, whatever this is we’re experiencing in this moment. I don’t think about it when I paint, not anymore, but it’s definitely what underpins it all.
There’s this sense of non-fixity to your paintings, they are very fluid, ambiguous, and it is almost like they are somehow moving, which is interesting because earlier you described them as still objects.
Movement is a big thing because the universe is essentially movement, vibrations. But I’m also playing on that fine line of trying to be as abstract as possible, whilst retaining a sense of the human form.
Yes, the black elements, which read as the head and shoulders, do give a sense of grounding to the image, whilst the rest is very fluid in movement and flux, they offer a sort of weight. Your last collection struck that balance of abstraction beautifully. I think as humans we are always looking for a face in things, a sense of recognition or identification.
I feel the shoulders will change eventually, I think it’s the next stage of development. Also I am thinking about how I develop the backgrounds, they always have to be flat because otherwise it takes away from the face, and it also works into this idea of time and space being a void.
There’s definitely been a sense of development in the short time that we’ve represented you. Do you have any clear ambitions for development, anything that you're working towards?
I’m very ambitious, I was heavily influenced by Warhol and his ideas around making money and that there’s no shame in that. I kind of joke when people say “why do you paint?” and I say tongue in cheek “for the money” - it's a slightly rebellious answer, you get a lot of artists that don’t like to admit that, but I don’t think there’s any shame in wanting that kind of success. But in all seriousness my real ambition is just for painting to allow me freedom, freedom just to do what I enjoy, just to keep making work. I’m always striving to make better paintings, to become more established. But at the same time I don't think about it too much, I just paint everyday, just keep doing what I’m doing.
I think being candid about the financial side of being an artist is important. Artists are so often expected to work for low fees or even free, and this really needs to change because artists need to make a living like everyone else, and their time, energy and talent that has been honed over years should be valued.
I’ve always enjoyed thinking about the business side of the arts, working to create a strong visual identity. I have always loved graphic design, and graffiti is essentially a form of branding too. I love how Instagram can hone a sense of brand too. I just think in this day and age every individual has the tools to be self-sufficient. There has always been a bit of entrepreneurship in me and I love that art can allow you to do that.
And how does that self-sufficient approach work alongside gallery representation for you?
Honestly, I was always a bit sceptical of galleries, I didn’t really understand what they were needed for and historically they've always been the authority or the establishment, so there’s just always going to be a bit of rebellion against that. But now I realise that you need galleries to get you to the next level as a professional artist, and it’s the people behind the gallery that really matter. A gallery should essentially be your friend, it’s a proper partnership, and that’s what I get from Smithson. I really get with on with Anna, she listens and we have a good relationship. I get contacted by galleries a lot, but it’s rare to find one that feels right. I wanted to build myself a brand before I worked with galleries, I had my own thing going, and sort of a rebellious streak where I thought ‘I'll do it my way’ because everyone wants a gallery.
I’m hearing that you don’t like to take the conventional route. Would you describe yourself as a self-taught artist?
Yeah, I suppose but more through graffiti. I’m 10 years younger than the first wave of UK street artists like D*Face. I saw them do it their way, they came into the art scene with power, they didn’t need the galleries, they reversed the roles. That’s all you need to do, make work, do what you want, and if the work is good enough the galleries will come. Just seeing those guys doing what they want and being successful was really inspiring. As I’ve got older I’ve got less anti-establishment though, I think there’s definitely a ceiling to doing it all on your own.
There is a huge amount of administration and communication and marketing involved in getting the work in front of collectors, and for an artist to do all of that on their own means that so much time is taken away from creating the work itself.
Yes, and I’m so grateful for that - It’s nice to just be able to do the work and just communicate with one or two people.
"I don't like this idea that artwork has to be laboured over to be 'good'"
Can you tell us a bit more about your journey as a self-taught artist?
And then it was in my early 20s that I remember deciding I want to be an artist, naively thinking that I would be a great artist in five years time. I was wildly confident, with no insecurities, I guess because I don’t care too much if people like the work or not. It’s a balancing act, you need to be vulnerable, you need to be aware that you don’t know what you’re doing in the painting. But at the same time you need to be confident, you’ve got to back yourself, and I feel like I’ve always backed myself despite it taking fourteen years to get to where I am now. Initially it was just about moving my abstract graffiti work onto canvas, but it was my flatmate who really encouraged me to start painting portraits, which was the turning point away from pure abstraction and this definitely got more attention. Abstract work is very easy to get lost in. You don't know what you’re doing so I had to contain it in something, give it a sense of form or structure.
Would you describe your work as self-portraiture?
The portrait is always the pretty much the same, but within that the expression changes. The titles are made up last minute and are often purposefully quite misdirecting - I enjoy playing with another layer of meaning which was perhaps never there in the first place. Ideally I wouldn’t title them at all.
There is always a lot of weight in a title in terms of how the piece is interpreted, and I guess you have fun with that?
Yeah often I'm listening to music when I'm uploading the paintings and I will just pull a lyric from the song - that just becomes the footnote of the day. A timestamp. A little reminder of the music I was listening to, or what I was thinking about, what was present for me in that moment. The last collection had quite a few mentions of guns and shooting, I’m not entirely sure why...
I wonder if that relates to the police brutality and shootings that have been high in the public consciousness recently?
Perhaps subconsciously, the reality is I’ve probably just been listening to too much gangsta rap! So I suppose it is my way of playing with meaning, or poking fun at the people who want meaning in paintings. Sort of giving it to them on a plate.
I really like this idea of the title as a timestamp. I’m wondering what does your daily painting practice brings to you emotionally, or even spiritually, beyond the time when you're physically painting? What does it bring to your everyday existence as a whole?
I’m motivated by the work itself. Work, whether its artistic painting or bricklaying, is satisfying and makes you feel productive. It’s not always necessarily about the expression or the philosophical thinking or whatever, it’s just the satisfaction in the work, and my work is painting.
Did you get that same feeling when you were doing graffiti?
There’s always an urge to paint graffiti, but I haven’t done it in about five years. Graffiti is so addictive, it’s like being a drug addict, there’s no real good outcome. There’s so much paranoia, you're so anxious, particularly if you’re doing it illegally. It becomes very straining. It’s ok to do in your 20s but I’m 37 now, and feel it’s just a waste of time, a bit like playing computer games - you turn it off and then realise you haven't done anything in your life, and I don’t want that, so I gave it up.
I wanted to ask about scale. Obviously graffiti entails large scale work, but you tend to work relatively small with your paintings, do you have any intention of working bigger?
Painting and graffiti are very different practices. I don’t like large portraits, I don't really like this obsession with big paintings. It appears to have come from the abstract period in the 70s when everyone wanted big abstract work, it’s a modern idea. I don’t believe portraiture needs to be big, the Mona Lisa is tiny, but people want big paintings.
It seems to me that you embrace an egalitarian ethos, you are happy to let go of your work, you don’t put it on a pedestal, and keeping work small seems to fit into this ethos - it retains a sense of accessibility?
Yeah completely, it's cheaper and the shipping doesn't put people off. But also I just find it easier to control the paint. I want my paintings to be considered, even though they're abstract. It's much easier to do it in one flick of the wrist. When I'm doing big paintings there’s move movement involved, and I think it loses its immediacy.
So there is a sense of control when you are working on a restricted canvas?
Yeah, it's almost one movement, some of the paintings are painted in minutes. Maybe I need a bigger studio and someone to help me make instruments so I can recreate that at a larger scale…
I'm thinking of Matisse, who would create large scale works from his wheelchair using a really long, extended paintbrush.
Yeah that's it. I scrape paint with card and if I was doing a bigger canvas I would need something bigger to do this, and learn how to pull that in the same way, find the same ease. I find that I overpaint large canvases, because they're big I feel I need to do more, and I just lose the painting. I’m open to trying, but I don’t want to succumb to this modern pressure of bigger is better.
I’d be very happy sticking with smaller paintings, I like the idea of a solo exhibition with loads of white space and then just a row of small paintings that repeats around the space.
I love this, let’s make it happen! It also feels cohesive with this idea of the diary entries - curating the exhibition to feel like turning the pages of a book.
Yes, and if they are too big it looks like days of work and I don't want that, I don’t want them to look laboured - that totally misses the point of the diary entry idea.
And that is something that is striking about your work, this resistance of labour. There is a real sense of freedom and looseness to your paintings.
I don't like this idea that artwork has to be laboured over to be “good”. Why can’t a work be made in five minutes? Why does it have to take days, weeks, months? I don’t understand. For me this just means all the feeling and emotion has been laboured out of it, that's why I love Picasso and his slapdash approach.
I agree that there is this unnecessary weight given to the time and labour spent on an artwork, but I think this misses the point - I don’t think artworks should be seen as individual objects; it's all relational, all part of a wider practice, and that’s where the ongoing labour of love, passion, creativity and emotion lies. With Picasso he perfected his mark making ability by being so prolific and diverse, not by spending loads of time on one painting. It’s about seeing the bigger picture.
With Picasso there's no going back on a mark. No readjusting. And for me that's like making the right mistakes, and the truth being captured in those mistakes. I think Picasso does that better than anyone - he knew what was up! That's the way it should be, that real expression is in that mistake, if you take the mistake away then anyone could do it. It’s his personal mistake. Humans are always trying to be perfect, so it’s good to see artists embracing non-perfection, and maybe people are drawn to that, a painter being brave with their mistakes.
"The whole painting is a mistake, and that's the allure, the never ending game to make the perfect mistake"
I think we are enticed by mistakes and fallibility, there’s a vulnerability in it that maybe we recognise in ourselves.
It's about being confident in your vulnerability.
Absolutely. I’d be interested in what you would consider a mistake in one of your pieces?
The whole painting is a mistake, and that’s the allure, the never-ending game to make the perfect mistake. To make something so good that you don't know how you got there. To throw paint at a canvas and it look like a face, or more than a face, a truth. That’s the real game for me, can the best painting possible be made by mistake? That intrigues me.
Wow. What an incredible way to end this interview. Thank you so much Eric.