Interview with Traverse City Artist Eric Daigh

Click for information on the the Eric Daigh exhibit at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City that runs through April 1, 2012.

There’s a video on YouTube that appeals to Traverse City artist Eric Daigh’s fascination. The video shows a man standing on a two-lane bridge and holding a weight. The weight is tied to a long rope, which is piled there on the asphalt and has a suitcase tied to the other end. He throws the weight over the side of the bridge, and the rope frantically unfurls until finally the inevitable happens. The weight tears the suitcase from its spot, and it hurtles over the railing in a blink. The man stares down over the bridge for a long moment, and then he laughs.

“I love that, I can just watch it over and over,” Daigh says. The whole video plays in 15 seconds, so watching it over and over is easily done (youtube.com/watch?v=an9dXk72e2w). But in all probability, most people wouldn’t bother. The average viewer would watch once or twice, maybe smile, think, Hmm … okay … and never watch it again. So just what does Daigh see here?

"It’s so funny because it is so simple; you can tell what is going to happen, but then you see it happen. All the elements are there, and there’s no twist to the story, but it’s still really enjoyable. I am a really big fan of simple things that are still impressive. Today, people feel that they need to employ bigger-more-faster to entertain people. In the midst of that, when something so simple is powerful and dramatic, I’m a fan. That’s a tradition that I would like to be a part of.”

Actually,Traverse City artist Eric Daigh is already a part of that tradition, having received remarkable acclaim in the art world with images that meet all those criteria: simple, dramatic and powerful. Commonly called “the pushpin artist,” the Northern Michigan artist photographs understated, flatly lit close ups of emotionless faces and then re-creates the photo image using thousands of colored pushpins. Think pointillism, but instead of dots of paint, pushpins provide the color. He uses just five colors—red, blue, yellow, black and white—to create the images. Take a magnifying glass and look at a color photo in a magazine or newspaper, and you’ll see a similar dot process at work.

Watch a video interview with Traverse City artist Eric Daigh

Daigh is perhaps the most celebrated artist living in Northern Michigan today, and the acclaim has arrived with stunning speed. Heading into 2008 he was making a living as a web designer, and he’d never sold a single piece of fine art. By the end of 2010, he had won $50,000 for third-place in the Grand Rapids ArtPrize competition, had been profiled on CBS Sunday Morning, had been commissioned to produce the biggest billboard ever displayed inside New York’s Grand Central Station (a mosaic made of Post-It Notes), and been commissioned to create an image of an Acura car-door handle for one of the car company’s highest profile marketing brochures. More big stuff has happened since. At 34 years old, he’s achieved things artists dream of as career-long goals. So where does he go from here?

The first time I meet Eric Daigh it’s late January 2011, and he’s working to finish pieces for an April gallery show at Chicago’s small but prestigious Carl Hammer Gallery. The house he and his wife built is just outside Traverse City, facing south on a wooded ridge, the land falling sharply away. They just finished the house in May, and it still smells new. The bamboo floors are flawless. The all-white walls have not a scuff, and today they’re rendered brilliant by dazzling snow-bounced sunlight that floods in the south windows. A Christmas tree still stands in the corner of the living room, but no other traces of the holiday remain.

I’m expecting to see a giant piece of Daigh’s artwork dominating the living room—perhaps the 4-by-3-foot portrait of his wife, Meg, that hung in Traverse City's Right Brain Brewery for a few months in 2009, before he got big. But instead I find a 6-by-8-foot canvas done in Jackson Pollock style, an abstract painting of what looks to be poured and splattered paint that Daigh made with his 6-year-old son out on the driveway. I think of something a friend of mine who knows Daigh told me when I asked her to tell me one single thing about him: “He’s a very attentive father, which I found impressive in a young man,” she said.

“It took 10 days to make because you have to let the layers of paint dry, and you need a lot of layers to get the color saturation you need,” Daigh says. He stares at the painting for a moment,  the bright light of the room giving his eyes a luminescent sheen. “The activity felt so wrong and reckless to me,” he says about going wild with paint out on the driveway. “But to my son it just came naturally, as that sort of thing does to children.” He pauses and looks at me. “I finish every telling of this with, ‘you should try it.’ ” He says, and smiles.

Daigh is six-foot-two, strikingly angular, strikingly lean. He has high cheekbones and dark green-brown eyes; it’s a face that’s sharply dramatic without being severe. His hair is short and straight and nearly black. When he talks, he extends a long arm in some gesture to illustrate a point, cocks a wrist, puts a palm to his chin. And he talks a lot. Eric Daigh speaks fast, is articulate and surfs quickly from one idea to the next. We head to Daigh’s basement studio, a space pretty much like basements in new houses across America—poured concrete walls rising 10 feet, pink insulation lining the walkout wall. It even smells like a regular basement—no scent of oil paints or canvas or solvent or clay or ink, because his medium is pushpins. A drum set and guitars sit clustered between the stairs and Daigh’s workspace.

He gets a few friends together once a month or so to play. “We have no ambition to play outside the basement,” he says. “And we are so bad. So, so bad. One guy can’t play guitar, but does here just so he can wear one.” They like to stick to loud punk, but he concedes, “It’s hard not to devolve into the Eagles.” Sometimes he just bangs the drums in the middle of the day as a break from pushing pins.

Next along the wall, an improvised photo portrait studio—a few lights, a tripod, a plain white backdrop—where Daigh shoots some of his portraits. All the attention on Daigh focuses on his pushpin creations, but he views his portrait technique as an essential but overlooked component of his work. He strives to make the technique invisible, completely unobtrusive, so the viewer, not the artist, brings the context for the work. “I’m proud of the pushpin process,” he says. “But it’s frustrating to have the photographic part kicked to the side.”

And at the basement’s far end is Daigh’s pushpin work space—stacked cases of pushpins, a power drill, some thin sheet-boards; at first glance it feels more handyman than artist. A half-dozen pushpin projects in various states of completion lean against the wall. The face of Traverse City artist Angela Schuler, red hair, luminous forehead, her right eye stares out. The bridge of her nose is there. But the rest of her face is a brown featureless backboard.

Beside her, upside down, is the face of an entrepreneur who helped start Groupon, a company that reached $1 billion in market valuation faster than any company in history. His bald pate curves at the floor, and moving up, his blue eyes beam with some kind of electric fervor—even upside down the eyes are riveting—his ears are backlit, showing a pinkish glow, but just below his bottom lip, the face stops in an even line. “He heard about me on CBS and first commissioned me to do his two daughters,” Daigh says, tilting his head to look at the upside down face. All of these, and other portraits he’s shot but barely begun—like one of Richard M. Daley Jr., the former mayor of Chicago—must be done before the Carl Hammer show about eight weeks away.

But even in the pushpin portraits’ half-finished state, the effect is there. From 15 feet away, the image appears photographic, but also somehow more—luminescent and engaging; puzzlingly 3-D, but also not. And as you move close, the image breaks apart into thousands of bits of color.

“I didn’t sit down one day and say, I intend to make a statement about reproduction or crowds or mass production and things like that,” he says. The idea emerged more from some of Daigh’s earlier work, a desire to see if a photographic image could be changed, stripped of details, sanded back, degraded and still somehow work as an image. He calls pushpins a “crude” medium.

But the message of his mosaics—that each of us as individuals is made up of a collection of the same small things—is something that Daigh most enjoys about his work. “I think of DNA and that we are essentially made up of a very small number of different switches, and those are most closely represented in the five-color palette,” he says.

Or, more broadly, looking at us in a cultural sense, “We all like to celebrate how unique we are, and that’s true that we are, but also we all own one of, say, 12 different automakers’ cars, for example. And if you start to factor in all the different boxes we check—I watch TV, I don’t watch TV—the number of boxes is more finite than you might expect. Yet, when you stack them all up into one person, they become this unique picture. And I like that. And I like that the portrait is something that is human. And hopefully there is a humanity that exists in them after I’ve boiled them down into something as crude and unromantic as this medium, pushpins.”

In January 2011, when I ask Daigh what he wants out of this, what’s the grand dream, he says, “I’d like to be the most important visual artist of the 21st century. Last century, we had Picasso. We had Warhol. We had Dali. These were household names. We don’t have an artist who is a household name today, and that’s a sad thing.” Daigh wants to be that name.

By September 2011, the Carl Hammer Gallery show in Chicago is five months behind Daigh. “It was an immensely successful show,” Carl Hammer says. Total traffic, press coverage and sales were all outstanding. “He has the potential to have a very significant art career. But time will tell how successful he will be. There is also danger in having too much success too quickly sometimes.”

What does Daigh’s work say to Hammer? “As you walk into it, and the image turns into an oblivion of colors and pushpins, it gives you the notion that we are just matter. It reminds us of who we are, and that we are here for a short period on this planet, and in that way, can be a realization of that temporariness of life.”

I check in again with Daigh as autumn is just beginning to tint the leaves outside his picture window. The year seems to have been a lot of good for Daigh. In addition to the success of the Chicago show, he nailed down several private commissions and will be doing a large triptych of three faces—maybe 8 by 20 feet—in the Soho, New York, store of the Louis Vuitton–owned cosmetics retailer Sephora. Plus his Acura car-door image hung in a high-profile spot in New York’s Armory Show, one of the most prestigious contemporary art shows on the planet. Yet, when reflecting on the stream of high notes in 2011, Daigh is unexpectedly wistful. “When we spoke before, I think you caught me at an ambitious curve,” he says, referencing the household name idea. “There’s peaks and valleys to my enthusiasm about the work. Right now I’m sort of at the opposite of that peak.”

He reflects on the why of his current feeling, why he’s in a valley, when he should be on a high. Part of it is where the adulation is coming from. People are so excited about the technique, the medium, the trompe l’oeil of the pushpin construction, but they don’t seem to transition to the larger concepts involved. “It's a feeling from junior high, when a girl says she wants to just be friends. She wants to know you forever, never lose touch, and never, ever make out with you,” he says. Another part of the drift comes from his first up-close look at the world of Big Art—the money, the deals, the dealmakers, the motivations.

Whatever the reason for his funk, it has pushed Daigh to explore new directions, not abandon the medium that made him famous, but check out some other things, like video and a concept he has for stencil art. He’ll unveil some of these works at a show at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City that will run from December through April.

“The danger of dreaming is you say, If I could just get paid to do the thing I love, then that’s it. End game. Ride off into the sunset,” Daigh says. “But there’s a complacency that came with that, and I was not prepared for how empty that would feel. I think being hungry, really wanting something, has so much use. I don’t think it’s out of reach to find that dynamic again, I just wasn’t ready to answer that next question: What are you hungry for now?”    

Eric Daigh calls his upcoming exhibit  at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City Happiness is a Target. Catch it December 4, 2011-April 1, 2012. 231.995.1055, dennosmuseum.org.

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