Erik Johnson, the token "untrained" artist on Bravo's "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist" spoke with ARTINFO about the meltdown that led to his being eliminated from the competition, and what he discovered when he Googled Jerry Saltz. We also learned that the painter of clowns loves romantic comedies, and painting his girlfriend's decaying corpse.
You vowed at the end of the most recent episode that you weren’t going to continue making art. But that’s not the case?
Yeah, that lasted like two hours. Then I was like, "Screw this." I was a little bummed out and felt a little discouraged, but then I said, "Dude, what am I thinking? Make shit! That’s what you do." I would think I was more worried about having the opportunity to do so financially.
Tell me a little about what you’ve made since the show.
I’ve been working on finishing up a short film since I got home. I hadto update my equipment, my software and everything, and then learn how to use all the new stuff. But my film’s finished. I put it up for sale on my Web site last night, and I’m outlining my next project while finding time to paint.
Have you made movies before?
I got involved in filmmaking when I was finally old enough that my dad trusted me to play around with the video camera and not drop it and break it. I used to wire two VCRs together and edit and try to do things that way, and then it kind of just built from there, until I could get a computer and start to learn the lower-end editing systems. I kind of just taught myself all of that stuff.
What kind of movies do you like to watch?
I like everything from tear-jerking chick flicks, to horror films and action movies. I really don’t have one particular kind of movie that I like — I’ve seen enough of them to tell the bad from the good. But I really just like stories.
What’s your new movie about?
My new movie is called "Ugly," and it’s about body dysmorphic disorder. I don’t ever say those words in the film, but it’s about body dysmorphic disorder, seen under the microscope of LSD and expanded consciousness and one’s struggle through that. So it’s pretty surrealistic, but it’s maybe the most narrative film I’ve done. My other films were more trippy audio-visual collages. In this one I really put effort into telling a story. I’m pretty proud of it.
Your final episode also ended with a big blow-up. Do you feel that, in the edited version of events, your side of things was represented fairly, or was it skewed to seem more dramatic or biased?
No it was actually slightly more dramatic than what you saw. There’s only so much you can do in a time slot. But I thought it was pretty accurate. Outside of my comment about art school graduates having their heads in their asses — I wasn’t referring to all of them, I was referring to the specific ones who do. And I think every group of people has a percentage of members with their heads way up their asses. So I definitely wasn’t calling out all art students; I cringed when I saw that. Because it is just how I said it, it came out wrong. But not even just last night, I think through all six of my episodes I was portrayed pretty accurately. Even when I might have come across as a jerk — I’m an emotional, passionate person, which is better than indifference.
It seems like Jaclyn Santos really had it in for you throughout the show, and increasingly as the episodes went along. What was that all about?
I don’t know. We were really, really good friends until the shock challenge. And to clarify what happened there, I’ve had some people write to me and say, "she totally stole your idea." But by no means did she steal my idea. I offered up an idea, and I was trying to help her. It was quite obvious that if I were to stay, it wasn’t going to be for the idea that I suggested to her. I just think that I had a bad critique, and as her friend, just wanted that little nod of, "Oh yeah, Erik helped me out." She was going to get the credit for using the idea. I really can’t even say that I think she had it out for me. I think even with the note-passing, her intentions were good. I just think she backed out at the last minute, and with Miles [Mendenhall] and Peregrine [Honig] cutting me off in mid-sentence with that, "no, we’re just not doing your ideas" — knowing Jackie, knowing her personality, I can’t say that I was surprised or that I blame her for getting cold feet and not backing me up.
I think that when you pointed out that Miles was playing this complicated game, it was the first time the viewers — or at least this viewer — had a sense that there was something sneaky going on with his performance. What specifically irked you about Miles so much?
Pretty much everything — pretty much the whole character that I feel he was playing. And it’s funny that that was the first time the viewers had an insight into this, because when I pointed that out, that was the first time some of the contestants had the insight. I heard a lot of "aw man, poor Miles," and I just couldn’t fall for it. I’ve studied a lot of linguistic deception and things of that nature, and to me it was just blatantly obvious in some of the things he was doing. At first, it was, "this isn’t hurting me any, let him do it." But when it came to the challenge it became, "okay, this is going to hurt me." He wasn’t overwhelmed and didn’t need a nap when he was attacking me. So I just think this whole thing with Miles is water under the bridge.
How did you feel about representing the "untrained" artist on the show? Was it something you were proud of? Or is it not an important distinction to make?
I was really proud to represent that, but also at the same time I was scared that I would represent that poorly. But I do think it was important to point that out, because I know from being an untrained artist how I felt, even just driving to the audition thinking, "there’s no way, I should just turn around — there’s just no way, they’re not looking for somebody like me." And getting on... I’m still in shock. I just hope other untrained artists see that and don’t make some of the same mistakes I did by just not bringing my work out of the house, and not showing it to people. You know, I always thought, "because I’m not trained, I probably can’t fit in and am not good enough." But I think maybe I did prove that I can hang with the other artists. I never claimed to be the best artist. I’m just trying to be a better artist than I was yesterday, and not to be afraid to show people, trained or not.
Critiques are generally pretty terrifying for art students, but I feel like one of the things that people who go to art school learn is how to bluff or battle their way through critiques. Did you find that they were particularly hard — having not had the training, basically, to be bludgeoned in an art critique?
Yeah, that was really rough. I think right before the gallery show, the other contestants were talking like, "man, I bet the critique is going to be hard." And I was like, "what is that?" I didn’t know that they did critiques in art school, honestly, that’s how ignorant I was about all of it. And I thought, "Oh maybe they talked to the producers and they know something I don’t." Then, they were like, "yeah, that’s pretty much how it is in art school," and I was like, "man, that was rough." It was rough because my very first critique happened in front of everyone. My skin definitely isn’t thick enough yet to not take something personally, because my art is from inside. It comes from my heart.
Are you taking anything valuable away from the experience of being on the show?
I’m really, really grateful that I made 10 really good friends that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to meet. I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet any of the 10 people that I still talk to and still get along with. Being a part of this whole experience was so positive that my last episode is not going to spoil that for me. I would do it again tomorrow if I could.
Did you get anything else from of the show, besides new friends?
Just learning how to shut up and listen to people. And by people, I mean Jerry Saltz. Not that I think that we’ll ever totally, wholeheartedly agree, but I went into this feeling like the underdog. I would say if I went into this feeling like Rocky Balboa, then Jerry Saltz was totally Mickey, just without the hat. He was hard on me, and it was discouraging, and I thought, "man this guy just doesn’t like me."
Were you exposed to these very insider-art-world characters before you were on the show?
I didn’t know who Jerry Saltz was, I didn’t know who the judges were when we were filming. So when I came home, I luckily Googled them, and saw who they were. And I thought: "there are people that literally would do anything to have them critique their work. Shit, man, I totally overlooked that." So, I don’t have to agree with the guy, but I think it’s a really, really important lesson in the fact that there were things that he said that if I were to have just shut up and let that information in, I probably would’ve benefited from it from day one. When he had mentioned that the expression in my clown painting was "neither here nor there," if I could’ve just shut up and heard that, and allowed myself to hear it, that would’ve helped me out tremendously. So I don’t think the guy ever pushed me to be mean or to discourage me, I think he pushed me because he saw better in me.
Do you have any works that you made for the show that you’re either particularly proud of or disappointed in, especially since they were showcased for the first time to such a big audience?
[Laughs] I love how you bring up the disappointed thing after I mention the clown painting. That would be the one that I would hang in my living room and then after a couple of years end up painting over it when I had nothing better to do. I have so many paintings that have like six paintings underneath that I’ve painted over. At the time I was like, "yeah it’s cool." But looking at it again, I’m like, "ouch, man, that painting’s awful." I might just tattoo that painting on me. The one I was most proud of was my Suzie painting, of my girlfriend. It’s the most unlike what I do, although I‘ve done images of her before, where her flesh is rotting and falling off of her face.
How does she feel about that?
Oh, she loves it, I mean we’ve been together for 10 and a half years. I mean, I had a casket in my bedroom — I lived in my parents’ basement when I met her — and I had a casket, fully decorated. She’s completely desensitized to my jackass-ery. But that portrait was the most unlike what I do, it was a really pretty painting, and then it had all the meaning behind it too. The thing is, for me, it was down to, I’m either going to paint Suzie or I’m going to paint my niece, Marissa. And I thought, "well, I don’t know who's going to own this. I’m not painting a kid. Suzie can handle it."