If a bohemian existence has ever struck you as romantic, consider the living situation of artist Eric Wixon. His studio apartment in the upstairs corner of a nondescript North Park building offers just enough square footage for a twin bed and a tattered loveseat. Every other inch of the tiny rental is crammed with art supplies and stacked canvases.
His room reeks faintly of paint fumes. If Wixon were the protagonist of a Puccini opera (La Bohème, which later inspired Rent, made starving for art seem sexy), he would probably contract a fatal consumptive cough from the toxins wafting through the air.
But Wixon puts a swift end to such melodramatic suggestions. “I have a fan,” he says with an easygoing smile. “And a window.”
Adequate ventilation doesn't change the fact that this 30-year-old literally lives—and breathes—art. Though he has a day job waiting tables at a breakfast joint a few blocks from his home, he works just enough hours to scrape by. Painting occupies most of his waking time.
On the carpeted floor near his bed, Wixon has created a makeshift studio atop a large panel of brown fiberboard. Pencils, tape, tubes of acrylic paint and aerosol cans are scattered about, and two works-in-progress await their creator's return. One has a centered streak of blood-red that runs in uneven rivulets to either end of the vertical canvas. A couple of light-handed graphite sketches hint at what's to come. The other painting is nearly complete; the shape of a tilted woman's head is tangled in a composition of blue-and-orange splashes and expanses of white space.The pieces are similar to ones he exhibited in a recent show called Hiding Faces at The Rubber Rose in North Park.
“It's about the way people present themselves,” he explains. “And a wordplay on ‘hiding places.'”
It's a concept that's simultaneously playful and sinister. If hiding evokes childhood games, it also connotes secrecy, danger and impenetrability.
The largest-scale piece in the room conveys similar themes. To create this work, Wixon papered the entire length of the apartment's primary wall, which he then began to paint, little by little. (He originally covered the wall to hide ugly paneling.) The results are striking. Shapes morph organically into other shapes: A cartoonishly totemic polar bear's front leg becomes a bird's neck; a crisp pattern of diamonds devolves and becomes amorphous. The mural explodes with color, patterns and figures. In proportion to the room, its scale and density are overwhelming.
When he's finished, Wixon says he plans to sell it off inch by inch (buyers can purchase multiple inches). The inch isn't just a clever sales ploy. “It's like when you feel like you're constantly doing things and getting nowhere,” he offers.
In life, even when you feel like you're getting nowhere, you know two things to be true: You were born, and you will die. In a traditional narrative, there is some kind of beginning and ending—the arc between those two points is where everything goes down. Wixon's mural doesn't have any clear sense of start and finish, but there is an unmistakable feeling of in between. Slicing the painting into fragments won't clarify the big picture, but each inch will serve as a reminder that one ultimately exists.
That big picture is not known to its creator in advance, however. Wixon takes a Big Bang approach to the evolution of his paintings. A spontaneous splash of paint on a blank canvas leads to another and then another.
“I just make marks, and the marks turn into something,” he says. “It's like what [artist Robert] Rauschenberg said: Things that happen more naturally are more convincing.”
When pushed about the meaning of the large painting on the wall, which he plans to exhibit sometime in the future, Wixon looks somewhat uneasy. “It's about modern-day strife and Midwestern values,” he says without pretension.
Though Wixon is a dead ringer for a native San Diegan—he surfs, he's bearded and wears a bright-red knit beanie, and he's adopted that laidback “fer shure” style of speaking—he grew up in the Midwest. His high school, about an hour and a half outside of Cleveland, Ohio, had 90 kids in the graduating class. He spent his childhood the old-fashioned way: running around, climbing trees, hiding and seeking.
What Wixon calls “Midwestern values” might be more of a longing for innocence that's been lost. After all, the now is nostalgia's fiercest nemesis. Imagery that conjures childhood crops up frequently in Wixon's mixed-media paintings, but it's tinged by darkness and decay.
After earning his bachelor of fine arts degree from Kent State in 2001, Wixon lived in Portland and New Mexico before ending up in San Diego a year ago. His color palettes reflect his surroundings at every stage. Moody grays dominate the Northwestern pieces while vibrant, earthy hues recall the desert days. Wixon says his palette lightened considerably when he moved to California.
His style is heavily informed by street culture (old-school graffiti, skateboarding, Banksy) but also nods respectfully to modern masters like Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning. While many of Wixon's earlier works were heavily blocked in with color and form, his recent compositions are “looser,” making ample use of white space and unfilled, outlined shapes. They convey a feeling of airiness—or perhaps emptiness.
This could be his unconscious commentary about Southern California. When Wixon arrived in San Diego, his first impression was less than impressive: “Fake tits and fancy cars,” he laughs.
But that's unlikely, as SoCal seems to agree with Wixon. His calendar is starting to see some ink, starting with an upcoming show, View Accordingly, at the Lyceum downtown. He's even thinking about trading his itty-bitty, fume-filled apartment—the very symbol of the struggling artist, the modern bohemian's lair—for something a little bigger. View Accordingly, featuring new works by Eric Wixon, opens from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, at the Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. www.ericwixon.com.