by: Felicia Greiff on August 1st, 2012 | 1 Comment »
A small, bronze Buddah statue sits on a windowsill in Eric Drooker’s studio. Jazz plays on the radio. The room is big enough to fit a sofa, two computers, and several finished canvases scattered about the room, but it’s a tight fit. Two gymnastic rings hang from the ceiling, which Drooker uses to take breaks from working. He says it reminds him that we are all just “highly evolved apes.”
On the outside of the door hangs a print of Tomorrow, a painting that depicts a giant woman in black and white walking over New York City against a red sky. As we talk, someone knocks on the door and asks Drooker if he was the artist responsible for the image. In what seems to be a common occurrence, they have a quick discussion. I ask him if people often give feedback about his art, and he said they do. He describes hearing responses as “always very gratifying.”
“Now with the internet, I get feedback from all over the place, particularly Europe and Latin America,” he says. “Spain, England, places like that. The Philippines. Not only did they like it, but some of my work was used.”
The worldwide interest in Drooker’s posters grew as the Occupy protests and various countries’ economic crises created a stronger demand for protest symbols and imagery. Drooker said he’s always happy to give permission for activists to use his work, translate it into other languages, and pair it with different messages. He was personally involved in Occupy Oakland protests, and says he believes in “making a lot of noise and adding to the momentum.”
He describes most of his art as radical, but only in the sense of the word that means searching for the fundamentals and the roots of problems, like “being a doctor trying to give a diagnosis of the problem.”
Drooker grew up seeing the radical art of the 1960s, including street art. His aim is not to place his art on the white walls of a gallery, but to get it reproduced en masse and pasted on “brick walls and lampposts in the cities.” He wants his images to be recognizable and figurative, while telling a story that “grabs people by the eyeballs when they’re walking down the street.” Amid all the sleek advertising on the street, pure art will stand out, he said – if you see art on the street, you’ll want to take a closer look at it.
“If there’s a powerful image, some loaded image that has a powerful symbol that resonates, that’s gonna grab people,” Drooker says. “They’re gonna have an emotional response, even if they don’t realize it consciously. I think art reaches people on a deeper level. We usually aren’t quite aware of the effect that it’s having on us.”
Subjects in Drooker’s art vary, ranging from the Industrial Workers of the World’s famous wildcat symbol to serene roofscapes and cityscapes.
Much of Drooker’s art is focused on some element of New York City, which holds a special place for him. He grew up in the East Village and fondly remembers exploring the city as a child. His neighborhood had a legacy of political action long before he lived there, manifested in radical street art, music, and protests in the 1960s when he was a young man.
He took part in the Tompkin’s Square Park Riot in 1988, when a crowd of young artists, musicians, and others protested a curfew on the area. Violence soon broke out, and he was exposed to scenes of police brutality that would later influence him.
“I did a lot of artwork that was inspired by that struggle,” Drooker says. “It was right in my neighborhood, it wasn’t like I was going out of my way. … I felt like I couldn’t ignore it. I had to respond out of solidarity to my neighbors and friends who were getting brutalized by the police.”
The message of solidarity still comes through in Drooker’s modern works. Though his art has been mass-produced around the world, there is still some element in it that’s reminiscent of a neighborhood poster; perhaps it’s the simple, recognizable images or the clean, formal lines consistent in Drooker’s work. Though his style is traditional, the messages on the posters are not. Drooker’s current work is concerned with problems facing the country today.
“Things have gotten a lot more repressive in the past thirty years,” Drooker says, citing how quickly the Occupy protests were shut down city by city. After having witnessed numerous Vietnam War protests, Drooker is convinced that modern times are more conservative than ever. In today’s shaky economy, he adds, people are afraid to speak up lest they lose their jobs.
“People are feeling pretty isolated and alienated. Everybody’s an individual,” Drooker says. “It’s a sense that it’s every person for himself.” He mentioned contemporary works of art that are about an individual artist expressing himself. The new artist, he says, is more concerned with being discovered by a dealer than reaching the public.
“I’m very aware of the public,” Drooker says. “Part of that might be that I grew up in the metropolis. I’m not concerned with people you’d see in an art gallery. I’m more concerned with the people in the subway, the people who watch TV.”
Some of his posters from the Occupy Movement are part of an exhibit called “Occupy Bay Area,” which chronicles posters from various Occupy protests in the past year, but he doesn’t have much patience for galleries and dealers.
“I’ve been known to not show up. There’s too much wine and cheese at these things. They’re very cheesy affairs,” Drooker says, adding that he’s always felt alienated from the art world. “That doesn’t reflect badly on art. When we say art world we really mean the business of art.”
However, Drooker can’t completely avoid the business. Street art is actually the minority of what he does; in order to make a living, he has to do some commercial work.
“Most of my artwork, paintings and finished art that I can hopefully sell or get published. I’m never going to be able to support myself by making street posters. You can’t really expect to make a living that way,” he says. “But if you feel strongly about it, you’ll devote a certain amount of time to it.”
Drooker’s exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco runs from July 7 through October 14.