Erin Burrell is just getting started. He is an artist who has always been driven by aesthetics and has taken many paths to arrive to the point he is at today. He is a fresh-from-school Art Center graduate who is eager to share his artistic point of view as he navigates through opportunities and responsibilities from within and owed to Los Angeles. He represents a new type of Angeleno artist who is realistic, aware, and smart: he wants his art to be important and respectful to his surrounding.
Erin grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and has always been pushed to create. “I’ve always been drawing and making art since I was a kid, like any artist,” he explains. “I stuck with it. My mother was always very supportive of it and one of those people who was always pushing me to do art. Being an Irish mom, I was very close to her especially since she was a single parent. She was always in my life and we are very close.”
He pursued art as much as he could and was inspired by persons like his grandfather, a self-taught amateur painter. Erin attended a Utah junior college and was very much geared toward advertising and graphic arts. “At the time I was doing graphic/web design in Salt Lake City,” he says of his first few years after high school. “I was doing a lot of advertising then and I wanted to work at bigger companies like Chiat Day or Deutsch. I went to junior college in Salt Lake, where I learned to do HTML and Flash. I was one of a handful of people who had been animating in flash in Utah so I was able to get a job right away. Everything in that space blew up around then.”
“That got me started in advertising,” he says. “Along with doing digital and interactive media, I kept up with drawing and painting, art in the more traditional sense. It was on the side though, art made after twelve hour days at an agency.” Eager for more, Erin eventually moved to Los Angeles in 2004 for an agency job that ended up dissolving upon his arrival.
“I didn’t really have family in Los Angeles: I moved here not knowing anyone. It was a change rooted in a need to start over. Not that I was running from anything in Utah but there wasn’t very much creativity there, nothing to support me in the art and design world. After picking up and moving from one place to another only to find I didn’t have a job left me totally screwed. I ended up working lots of odd jobs, from various film festivals box offices to PA jobs on films like Mr. And Mrs. Smith. I made a lot of friends working in these places, though.”
In Los Angeles, Erin became more aware of Art Center, which he was familiar with before moving West. He knew he had to attend the institution. “I picked up a night class when I moved here but I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to apply there in order to continue doing what was my hobby, hoping to eventually make it my job. I figured Art Center would help guide me along.”
His night class was on perspective, which he described as difficult and something that very much “hurt his brain.” The class represented just how hardcore the school is–and helped him find his place within the institution. “I applied for a scholarship for Product Design but was denied,” he recalls. “I remember asking why I didn’t get it and I was told my portfolio was all characters and illustrations–they even asked if I had taken an illustration class. It was a good point: I hadn’t! I ended up taking Rob and Christian Clayton’s class, Introduction To Illustration, which was a night class. The class taught me a lot about illustration and art and helped me understand how interesting that field is. When I met them, they were doing a lot of illustration but also moving more into the fine art world, doing bigger paintings and sculptural work. They tied illustration to art.”
“While I was doing this, I was still working at various film festivals but I ended up getting a job at Chiat Day through a headhunter,” he says. “It was a huge deal but, at the time, I didn’t even know who they were.” Erin ended up putting school down for a few years and worked on big–yet very cheesy–advertising accounts for brands like Nissan, Playstation, Pedigree, and Whiskas.
He worked in this field for approximately two years. He even tried out Art Directing at a boutique agency only return to Chiat after a little break, where he worked on the prestigious Apple advertising campaign. This break in time was important though because he took the time to apply to Chiat in addition to Art Center. “I applied to Art Center not knowing what would happen with Chiat. I ended up hearing from Chiat immediately after applying, got the job, and I heard from Art Center six months later. I was really, really excited about the program but it then became an issue of, ‘Hurray! I have lots of money again…now, do I want to go back to being a poor student with debt?’ I worked at Chiat and pushed off Art Center as long as possible. I stayed at the job for nine months and eventually quit to start school.”
Erin’s work began transforming in school as he tried on different areas of art, pinpointing where his interests resided. “I learned about the process of making work and did a ton of sketches and learned about other people’s approaches to working,” Erin says of his education. “You really focus on what is going into your final piece and your process, which is sometimes what your work is all about. For me, process and the materials I’m using became very important, which have now added to abstraction in my pieces.”
“I’m also trying to connect my work with where I live now,” Erin continues. “I took a history class on Los Angeles and there is so much that isn’t chronicled and so much that needs to still be found out. For example, there was once a bustling sub-community of houses above Echo Park…and now it’s Dodger Stadium. You don’t know these things until you start asking around and digging up things where you live. Reading about the history of LA is a huge part of my process: it’s so inspiring. For example, I wrote an essay on the trolley system that once existed here, comparing it to Chicago and New York and how they still maintain above ground trains. Was that here? Everything that existed here is now gone–and there’s no archive of it. Very little has been archived as far as photographic documentation.”
Since finishing school this past Spring, Erin’s artwork has become incredibly rich and nuanced, which he feels is a result of putting great conceptual care into his pieces. His current project is still in its infancy but is very much tied to LA. “Exploring information on Los Angeles through research has helped and, really, I haven’t even started or know where this project is going to go. I’m still pinpointing what it is going to be. I’ve been thinking about bridges in the city. For example, there was once a bridge on Fletcher, which was elevated above certain streets and once carried a trolley. The stairs are still there for the trolley stop although the bridge isn’t. Finding out details like that and researching the city is huge and becoming a part of a bigger project that I haven’t even started: the research alone is endless.”
“But, beyond that, the history or lack thereof, this forgotten past, is so interesting. I took a class with Norman Klein, who wrote The History Of Forgetting, and his take and knowledge on Los Angeles, tackling things that don’t exist and the myths surrounding it all is very intriguing. Something like how Clifton’s was hiding a light that had been on for a decades without anyone’s knowledge is insane to me!”
The themes of Los Angeles–the mystery and ability for the city to constantly conceal the truth–are now finding their way into Erin’s process. “My work now includes so much fragmenting and removing things and layering, which is how a lot of LA is built: things are built on top of each other. I’m trying to incorporate that into my work. In one of my pieces–The Awkward Dissent–there’s a lot of layered mylar. I want to take that further. I want to take covering and recovering things further, taking things out and putting them back in, very much mirroring Los Angeles. It also helps because I don’t like a lot of things I do so I cover it up. It makes me feel a lot more comfortable, dealing with insecurities through bandaging it.” Erin laughs. “It seems to work for me in the end.”
“Everything is like that in LA,” he says. “People are always trying to make themselves more beautiful, changing their face and body and physically manipulating themselves. The city does that through their planning and how they deal with buildings. The train is a great example, how they are rebuilding the transportation system they once had to make us all feel better. Yes, this is all for the good but it’s the same as it once was. It’s fun to make these connections and figure out more ways in the process to plug [LA themes] in.”
“It’s very easy to become self-absorbed in work about where you live while you live there,” he adds. “I think the best example of how this was done perfectly, without self-absorption, was Simon Rodia and Watts Towers. He had an obsession and it became much bigger than he ever thought it would be. Because he did it publicly it has become huge and a part of the community by using the waste from the community, as he dragged locally abandoned railroad pieces and more for supplies.”
“It would be nice to work like that. It’d be nice to figure out how to make this work I’m doing around the trolley into a public piece. It’d be nice to have some funding to make a sculpture that could fit into that Fletcher Drive area–or taking something from there and moving it to a park, making art that is involved with the old trolley and that could exist now with Angelenos.”