The Toronto-based artist discusses his Japanese-inspired show at the Letter Bet.
Interview by Ben Kriz
Photos by celia spenard-ko
For Calgary-born, Toronto-based artist eks.rei, his art has become his escape. Fitting then that he has hit his stride working in a contemporary Sumi-e style. The earliest such painters were highly disciplined monks trained in the art of concentration, simplicity, and clarity. With calligraphic strokes of dark ink, these qualities come through both in his work and when speaking with him. And while Parapraxis, his first show at The Letter Bet, deals heavily in skeletal figures—it’s not death he’s fixated on—it’s life.
The pieces in Parapraxis, heavily feature the ultimate symbol of death—the skeleton—and I suppose you could say what creates life—sex. Where did this idea come from?
It just happened. I came to skeletons by accident after playing with calligraphy and trying to make abstract pieces. It all started to look like skeletons. That’s what I was seeing on some like...Rorschach shit. I just went with it. I was dealing with….I was dangerously sick for a little while and painting that subject matter was kind of cathartic.
Parapraxis is otherwise known as the Freudian slip. Where does the name of the show come from?
I've always been interested in Carl Jung and Freud and when you’re trying to understand yourself a little more you look into what their theories are. I think that’s natural if anyone is trying to learn about the subconscious. So all the titles for the pieces in this show are different terminology that those two have used in their work. It’s a hard balance because I try to make a lot of my work humorous—like not too dark. This scientific aspect seems true to who I am. I think I’m a scientist [laughs].
Just experimenting with things. The process of painting is an experiment. Just recently I started to plan out paintings a little more, do tests, and keep a log of the consistency of the ink that day. Before I would be really random and spontaneous but now I want to make it more precise. But not so much that it takes away from the spontaneity of a piece—because that’s really important. The true energy behind a calligraphy painting is its spontaneity.
And how have you seen your work change since you started doing that?
I think I’ve become more open to accepting what happens on a piece of paper. Before I’d be like, oh I’ve made a mistake, I’m going to have to start again. Once you get into that cycle of perfection you don't complete anything. It’s important to me to continue painting and never give up on it, eventually it will find a way to balance itself out.
What materials did you use on these pieces?
I was really into using the Sumi ink—a traditional Japanese charcoal ink. It really captures the spontaneity in a piece in every line. I’ve started to make my own actually with ash and water and charcoal. I think it makes a piece more special if I make my own materials. In the future, I’d like to develop my own paper or work with somebody to make a unique paper that only I use. I’m also trying to break out of using paper and paint and ink. I don't want to get stuck in one medium; I want to keep experimenting. That’s the next process for me.
What are these ideas you’re exploring?
People think skeletons automatically mean death but I’m trying to express life through this. Obviously, there are dualities as well. There’s white paper against bold black, most of the time it’s two figures. I try to make it so that it’s sexually ambiguous and genderless for the most part. Silhouettes of women are prevalent in this work, but it’s not to be taken literally, to me a woman is the essence of life, and I’m celebrating them as opposed to objectifying them.
What's your favorite part of the process?
Actually making it. There are only two things that I do where, while I’m doing it, nothing else in life matters. It’s painting and it’s cooking. Doing those two things, I don’t exist anymore. You have a task to do and you just do it. You’re on autopilot almost. I’m obviously aware of what I want to create but at the end of the day it comes out completely different—and that’s not a bad thing. After I finish a painting I get super antsy and I just want to do another one. It’s an addiction.
Do you get antsy to show it as well?
To be honest, it’s really just for me. When I finish a painting I roll it up and into storage. I don’t ever get to see it. For me to get to see what I made over a period of time exist somewhere else in the open—that to me is amazing. And anyone else who comes through and checks it out, that’s a bonus. I really don’t think of how people view it. I mean I’m curious, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to affect what I’m going to continue doing.
Opening night for this show. I was blown away by the level of support. I’m very grateful for that but I never expect that. I think it's important to create an environment where people can come and have a dialogue about it. Hopefully, I can create a night where people have a good time, maybe meet somebody who could take them to the next place in their life. I think about stuff like that. Bringing people together in a positive way. It’s one of the reasons I like to do it.
It was important to me to make these bandanas with The Letter Bet Press. A lot of my work is inaccessible to purchase so I wanted to offer something that everyone could leave the show with. Once you have that piece you can remember that night. Memory is fleeting so every time you look at that you can think, Oh I met so-and-so there or I had a conversation with this person, I saw some cool art, I got laid—hopefully! I want to make those stories for people.
Who are some artists you’re enjoying right now? Have you been influenced by them?
I think aesthetically my art is more influenced by more traditional artists for sure or at least ones who have passed. Picasso for sure, Keith Haring, Dali, Edward Gorey...I remember reading those books as a kid. I spent some time with James Jean and Rostarr. From a business standpoint that’s where those relationships have become helpful.
Everyone has some kind of talent. We live in a world now where we can get our work out there instantly for the entire world to see. But how do you make yourself stand out? How do you make yourself relevant or visible to the community you want to be visible to? Learning through those guys has been a blessing. Indispensable knowledge really.
And they were quite forthcoming with that help?
I've been lucky to cross paths with them in the past. It just started with me just bugging them [laughs]. Hey, can you tell me what you think of what I’m doing here or what the best approach with this is? It’s good that they’re honest. We come from similar backgrounds. Now to help the next generation come up as well is something that’s important to me. Further building communities around what people love to do. I think that’s what’s happening right now. I see it happening in Toronto. There was a lot of support in Montreal too—a lot of people interested in taking this path in life as well. I hope that we can inspire other people to take that chance too. We’re in a crazy creative renaissance right now.
What's next for you?
I’m planning on continuing to experiment. I want to start working with wood and leather. I want to work with more than ink and paper and use something less fragile. We'll see what happens. But I’m taking Parapraxis to Tokyo in 2019. It will be a continuation of this style of work. Now I just have to make it happen.