Meet The Brooklyn Painter Obsessed With Flat Earth Conspiracies
Before you step foot into Penn Eastburn‘s studio, you’ve got to remove your shoes and put on some slippers. Once inside, you’re greeted by stacks of canvases, each one intricately layered in any number of acrylics, spray paint, and caulk. A painting by the doorway recalls Basquiat with its free-form tempo, injection of color, and incorporative use of words. Half-full cans of spray paint are gathered on a neighboring table, peppering the air with the bittersweet smell of quinine. But there are calming elements to this space, too: white-washed walls; a collection of oldies vinyl, mostly hand-me-downs, on the shelf; the aforementioned slippers.
Painting is often chaotic, and, by extension, so are artists themselves. But Penn tells a different story. His studio in southern Bed-Stuy seems to deny the clutter that can accompany the romanticized art life. Paint chips are relegated to the studio in the basement. Upstairs, the living room looks spotless, like a leaf ripped out of a popular home magazine. This apparent duality is intrinsic in the 26-year-old artist’s work. Are his paintings portraiture or abstraction? Kinetic or purposeful? Dissociative or conscious? The answer tends to lie somewhere in the middle. What Penn’s work does manage to do, however, is catch the eye. There’s always something–a writhing texture, or a dripline of paint–to distinguish each piece.
Though I wasn’t able to meet her, the influence of Penn’s wife, Motoyo, is clearly felt. The recently married couple have collaborated on a number of projects, and their trip to rural Japan last February challenged Penn to capture natural elements with the same keen eye he has for abstraction. Above the sofa hangs a painting he finished after their trip–a wash of blues with measured scrapes and paint marks leaving behind hints of experimentation and previous iterations.
“I’m obsessed with people that have begun to think that the world is actually flat.”
For his upcoming project, Penn intends to turn the functional into high art. Titled Flat Earth, the project will collaborate with fellow artist Akiha Yamakami, using Penn’s cartography-inspired canvases as exteriors for messenger-style backpacks. To get the right look, Penn deliberately folds his canvases before painting and unfurling them, in a process reminiscent of tie-dye. Once the canvases are lain out, he fills in the canvas with additional spots of paint that make the pieces look like some sort of alien map.
I sat down with Penn Eastburn at his studio to talk about the rituals of art-making, working on the Times Square Midnight Moment project, and flat earth conspiracists.
Why’d you pick the name Flat Earth for your next project?
The technique for the paintings involve wrinkling and folding canvas and then hand painting the spaces in between. It creates a crinkled paper look, similar to a topographical map, so we named it Flat Earth because of that.
I’m also obsessed with people that have begun to think that the world is actually flat. Certain generations of super religious people and stoners, and then B.o.B., think that the earth is flat and that underneath is the Garden of Eden. And there’s a huge government conspiracy to hide the Garden from us. It’s great if you have some time to kill.
Do you have any rituals when you’re preparing to paint?
For me, one of my favorite parts of creating is building the actual canvases. The first day, I’ve got blank canvases folded up in the corner of my studio. I’ve got stretcher bars that I need to be put together. It’s nice to be on my hands and knees, stretching the fabric, priming it, getting it drum-tight. It’s very meditative, like prepping for the storm.
Is music part of your art-making process?
Music is a huge part of my work. If there’s something stuck in my head, or something I need to listen to, I like to turn the music up super loud. It gets me into a different mindset.
What genres do you operate in?
Occasionally, I’ll throw on a SOULECTION mix from Soundcloud. They’ve got a lot of samples, hip-hop, contemporary, reggae, some dance music. It’s a two hour set, so I can just zone out without worrying about commercials or having to flip the record or anything like that. That’s a big part of it.
How many times have you been to Japan?
Just once. I went at end of February to meet Motoyo’s parents. It was so incredible. She’s from Yaizu, Shizuoka, close to Mount Fuji. It’s rural, near the ocean. There’s a lot of tea farms in that area.
We visited Naoshima, this gorgeous island built with incredible art, which has a few different museums. One is called the Chichu museum. James Turrell site-specific light installations, Yayoi Kusama sculptures, and they have this really awesome Claude Monet Water Lilies exhibition. When I came back I was filled with this art zen. The way the Japanese balance nature and art inspired me to simplify my own work.
And how’s your Japanese?
It’s terrible. I can say the polite things. I can count to like, four, maybe five. And I can order a beer.
What was it like working alongside Chris Doyle for Times Square’s Midnight Moment project?
That was a surreal experience. It was one of the first projects I did under Chris Doyle, and just to see the work I did for him in that venue, on all those screens in Times Square, was really cool. His animation in particular was the perfect format because it brought this natural element into the huge, canyon-like structure of Times Square. A lot of the other pieces that they bring to Midnight Moment aren’t necessarily site specific. But Doyle does a lot of installations, so he really thinks about the spaces, which in turn helps me think about how people interact with art.
Some of your pieces reminded me of street art. The layering found in your work, the process reminded me of how muralists and graffiti artists tag and build off of one another.
I think that’s totally true of my work. I’m not sure if I want to label my work as street art inspired. I used a lot of spray paint, but I’ve never been inspired to go outside and paint a mural or go tagging or anything like that.
At Mana Contemporary, I’ve worked a few times filming some of their urban arts projects. They had Shepard Fairey come in and do an “OBEY” mural by the Holland Tunnel, and they had How and Nosm, these two German brothers, paint huge murals. As I was filming them, I was checking out their process, the colors they use, their technique–it’s fascinating seeing people work at that scale.
How do you know when a piece is done?
A lot of times I’ll stop just because I’m tired of looking at a piece. It’s very rare that I find a piece that I think is just done, totally finished. For the most part, other people will come in and say, “I really like that,” or “Just don’t touch that. Stop where you are.” But sometimes that has the opposite effect. They’ll say that and I’ll just want to do something totally different, just totally fuck it up.
All photographs shot exclusively for Milk by Monet Lucki
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