Talking Heads: Erik den Breejen’s Paintings Speak Volumes

Mural by Erik den Breejen

New York-based alumnus Erik den Breejen’s (BFA Painting 1999) paintings from afar read as simple pop art portraiture, but from up close they acquire another dimension entirely.

His portraits of famous musicians and performers -- including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Richard Pryor, Karen Carpenter, and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, to name just a few -- are composed of meticulously selected texts from the performer’s own body of work that, when laid out on the canvas, fit together to pay tribute to the subject’s impact as an artist.

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Developing a Strong Practice

“I grew up a mile from the Oakland campus, so CCA was a natural fit for me. I became a much more serious and focused student once I started attending the school.

“While at CCA I tried to study with as many different professors as I could. My style and mind changed many times . . . so I absorbed a lot different technical, conceptual, and philosophical approaches.

“Charlie Gill was the first to see potential in me. He turned me on to the Bay Area figurative legacy. I took Franklin Williams at least three times, and he definitely embodied the fearless art spirit that I have tried to maintain since.

“Larry McClary was also a huge influence, teaching invaluable structural and compositional lessons while not pushing a particular aesthetic. I still think of what I learned about color from Jack Mendenhall.

“Mary Snowden helped me learn to see forms as color and light. Howard Eige stressed the importance of thinking critically of one's own work and connecting it to art history.

“Raymond Saunders challenged my preconceived notions. Eleanor Dickinson taught me it was ok to draw the music.

Connections that Last

“I also played in a band. I made friends with artists at school whose work I admired, and we started painting one another’s portraits and going plein air painting together. Some of them are still my closest art friends.

“I made a decent body of work the year after I graduated CCA, but felt the call of New York strongly.” (He earned his master’s degree from Cornell University in 2006.) 

Evolving to the Portrait

“For the first two Smile canvasses, I changed the color of the word blocks every time there was a musical change -- from verse to chorus to bridge and back, and onto the next song, and so forth. … I began to see the possibilities for creating an image by orchestrating these differently colored word blocks like a mosaic. 

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“The third large Smile painting did this, creating a cartoony image of a smiling mouth out of the text. I immediately thought, ‘I could do a portrait’ when I did this, but it took me a few more paintings to get there. The first portrait was Dylan, and I was figuring out and devising the system on the fly.

“There is a quickness when seeing my paintings because of their graphic quality, but one soon realizes that they are made of words -- which hopefully gives the viewer pause, even if they don't read the whole thing. I need to get the right combination of text, image, and scale.

“The reasons for each selection depend on the painting. I could do very different paintings for different periods of Neil Young, for instance. Neil Young in Rust Never Sleeps is a particular look, a particular moment, and particular songs, so I matched them together.

“Celebrities and tabloids go hand in hand, and my subjects aren't exempt from that phenomenon, but I'd like to take the viewer deeper. I found that if I brought up Richard Pryor, the first thing most people would talk about was how he burned himself freebasing. Or that he was in Superman 3.

“I wanted to show the brilliance and importance of his 70s standup work by making his portrait with transcriptions of his shows and just putting it out there. The issues he brought up are just as relevant today as they were when he first addressed them. 

“We know Karen Carpenter was anorexic, but have you heard that voice? It will just cut you in half. This is the area I'm trying to work in. I want to restore humanity to these subjects, celebrate their genius, and bathe in the beauty of their work, while hoping that some of that magic gets into my paintings.”

Future Projects

“I'm currently lucky enough to support myself with painting sales. For now, it's a dream come true! I'm honored to have recently been commissioned to paint a large-scale mural at the new Atlantic Records headquarters in New York.

“I'm using lyrics from over a hundred of their hits from eight different decades. The portrait is of their founder, Ahmet Ertegun, a major figure in the development of rock and roll, R&B, jazz, and more.

“Beyond that, I have a long list of subjects I'm hoping to paint, including some nonhuman ones, like trees. I also want to continue to explore texts beyond popular music, such as poetry, comedy, and opera. 

“I think the Bay Area is amazing and there are awesome artists making great work there. I hope to live there again someday.”

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