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Artist interview: R Eric McMaster

I first met R Eric McMaster back in 2008 at his fantastic show, Uniform Series. It was one of those rare shows that still sticks in my mind. For that show, Eric produced “see through” sports uniforms made out of vinyl, and acrylic, and clear materials, which were worn by actual athletes for life-sized photographs. These pieces showed a vulnerability and exposure that we often don’t associate with sports. Without any identifying logos or clues to a team or group, these players were totally exposed and all alone.

Since then, I have been watching Eric’s unique sports perspective through his artwork. While I was in Richmond, Virginia (Eric works and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University) recently, I got an opportunity to see his studio and chat with him a bit. Here is our interview.

Could you tell me a little about your new work for your show?

I am currently working on a few projects, but the majority of the works are part of a solo show I have scheduled for January 2013.  The show is titled “The Obstruction of Action by the Existence of Form” and the works explore action that is hindered in some way. At the core of the show is a scaled-down ice rink in which I had two full hockey teams play a game. The rink is about 12 foot by 18 foot so the players were more or less playing shoulder to shoulder. All the high-speed action, which usually dominates the viewer’s experience of a hockey game, was removed. The event was transformed from a free following, open game to a stagnant mass of strangely dressed people. The show will feature the rink and documentation from the game.

The Obstruction of Action by the Existence of Form(Production Still), 2012
HD video documenting two teams playing a game
inside a fabricated hockey rink measuring 18′ x 12′ x 8′

In addition to the hockey piece is a video edited to isolate the moment in sporting events where an athlete is waiting for a signal to be permitted to compete. Right now the video features found footage of ice skaters and gymnasts, but the Olympics are coming up this summer and I suspect the project will expand.

I also have a number of smaller inhibiting objects with which athletes interact.  The results are captured through photos or videos and will complete the show.

What inspires you?

A lot of my thinking in the last few years has centered on an experience I had in 2007. I had decided to play a sport that I had never played before. I went to a tournament and I was called for some penalties. Some were my clumsiness, but others I was clueless as to what I was doing wrong. It changed the way I behaved; I went from confident to reserved in a matter of minutes, and all because of someone with a whistle.

I am intrigued by societal structures. In my work, organized sports serve as an easily read microcosm of society. I am especially interested when genuine acts are suppressed or manipulated as a result of societal expectation; like the moment when a boxer doesn’t hit his opponent because a bell has sounded, when societal conditioning alters the authentic self.

Are their any particular influences or inspiration for your work? Any books or artists that specifically inspire you?

I try to watch or play sports when I can to keep my ideas flowing. Sports have also been a hot topic in sociology in the last ten years, so there has been no shortage of books critically examining organized sport. As far as artists, I am particularly interested in artists that combined objects, performance, and images. I’ve been especially interested in Kate Gilmore and Mika Rottenberg’s works lately.

How has teaching changed your perspective on your work, or has it been a separate experience somehow?

I think that teaching has an amazing effect on my work. I recently read that people are more likely to solve a problem if they see the problem as someone else’s. Watching my students go through similar questions and problems in the classroom allows me to step back and objectively view my own lingering studio issues.

Round, 2010 HD video

When did you first think about art as a thing to do, or as a career?

I knew pretty early in life that I would go into some sort of creative field.  I just didn’t know what it was. I could draw well and went into college as an art major thinking I would do graphic design or illustration work. I was rather clueless until I went to see a Vito Acconci lecture in 2000. I didn’t immediately understand or even like the work, but it made me realize how much of a communicative tool art is. It also expanded that way that I thought about materials. School seemed weird in the way that I was pushed into using a certain material or process over and over again. Watching the way that Acconci varied his works by using his body, sound, video, and constructive materials completely changed the way I look at art, and shortly after I became serious about my studio art practice.

The Obstruction of Action by the Presence of Order (on-going), 2012
Footage from live event television coverage edited to focus on the moment
when athletes are waiting for the signal to compete from an official.
See the video here.

What’s next for you?

I just completed a machine that mimics the ball movements of a historic baseball game at Highpoint Gallery in Richmond, VA  I have a video screening at SPACES Gallery in Cleveland, OH through November and in January, I’m scheduled to have the solo show I was explaining at Richmond’s 1708 Gallery.  From there we’ll see…


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