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Take a tour of Erik Sandberg’s Place. The 2004 oil painting features a building hovering in black space. It has five stories. Sections of walls and roof are removed to expose the rooms inside. The bottom floor looks like a hospital waiting room. Three people sit on a row of chairs: a man with no pants, a man eating rice, and a woman with wounds that have been stitched and reopened. Nearby stands a man with a huge bulge of angry red flesh growing from his stomach. Apparently fed up with waiting, he’s waving a fist in the air.
Follow this man’s gaze upward and you get to the hospital proper. There’s not much of a dress code here: A nurse is clad in nothing but leather panties and high heels; the surgeons wear full-body robes and thick gloves while they go about their various procedures, none of which appear to jibe with the Hippocratic oath. In one room, a doctor hovers over an obese woman whose amputated legs hang from ceiling hooks. Two floors down, a man directs a hose leading from a tank of yellow fluid into a woman’s crotch, and above that, a masked fellow walks across a room with a mammoth chunk of meat slung over his shoulder.
Here’s the weird thing: With all this butchery, the only blood to be seen is in a little crimson pool on an empty waiting-room chair. It’s an intentional omission, explains the artist.
“With these, I got to thinking about [my subjects] as kind of like action figures,” says Sandberg, 31. “You can stab them and they’ll open up, but they’ll have no real blood.” Spilled corpuscles, after all, would detract from the injury’s first cause: the evilness of humans.
“It’s more the idea of what they’re doing that’s the ugly part for me,” says Sandberg.
Sandberg talks inside his studio while clicking through images of his work on his Dell. The computer is his only connection to most of these old pieces, which have been snatched up by collectors from as far away as Japan. There are a few new large-scale works hanging on the walls—a grinning woman who’s trapped a bee in a jar on her leg, a man preparing to attack an ant on his toe with a cleaver—but mostly the space is dressed up with various shocking or unpleasant items, so that visitors get the anxious feeling they’ve walked into an Erik Sandberg painting.
There’s the artist’s wall of weapons (hatchet, harpoon, corkscrew) and his “collection of things in jars that you wouldn’t want jammed in your ear” (baby octopus, cockroach, big worm). Scrawled on the wall is a quotation from Degas: “Art isn’t something you marry. It’s something you rape.”
The concept suits Sandberg remarkably well: His early work often depicted the physical corruption of one person or, in a twisted take on saintly martyrdom, lone figures being persecuted by knaves, lechers, and cherubs. Over the past couple of years, he’s branched out into densely populated architectural constructions such as Place, which are rich with nastiness but, he admits, a little more elusive in terms of a moral.
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“Not to say that there’s not a meaning behind all these figures and what they’re doing,” the artist says. “Maybe it’s a little bit more like life.”
Sandberg pulls up on the computer screen a painting of a supine, pregnant woman with a disembodied turkey head hovering above her. The first painting he finished as an undergraduate at George Mason University was of another pregnant woman; that mother-to-be was slathered with burnt-sienna pigment that looked like dried blood.
“Gustav Klimt did these paintings of pregnant women, and they always symbolized hope. So I guess I kind of ran with that, and I started painting pregnant women and trying to show that there wasn’t any hope,” he says. “I just started trying to depict people with as little hope as possible.”
Sandberg moved into his warehouse studio in Northeast D.C. about four years ago, becoming buildingmates with a group of other young artists whose work also doesn’t lack for black humor. Sculptor Adam Bradley, for instance, once exhibited a found-object woman with levers on her back. Pull them and she hugged you into her belly of knives and pointy files.
Bradley, 30, used to model for Sandberg at George Mason. Every once in a while, he calls his friend down to his studio on the warehouse’s bottom floor for mutual criticism and to talk about life. “I think he and I both share that kind of negative capacity,” Bradley says. “I admire that about him, and I admire that he and I can have that conversation, as well—that it doesn’t have to be good, you don’t have to be happy. You just have to be.”
Sandberg’s own work area is on the top floor of the Lincoln Park space, with good views of people taking dumps in the alley and, until recently, an immense pool of restaurant grease. “People would come back there and have sex on this grease slick,” says Sandberg. “It wasn’t just straight sex—it was gay sex on grease, and cats all around the place licking up grease, and roaches you could see from a distance.
“You ask me where I get stuff,” he adds.
When he first moved into the building, the artist was creating those martyrdom pieces—tiny, impossibly detailed oil paintings on plywood. The works suggested that their protagonists were at least partly responsible for their torture by being fat, ignorant, horny, frigid, or vain: In Broken In, a naked horde lifts a girl onto the spiked saddle of an iron horse. Send Off has a fat woman being carted away by Bruegelesque rabble who drop meat into her mouth; one ugly fellow holds a shovel and points off-frame, presumably to her grave.
“I hate to say it—I am kind of preachy in what I do,” Sandberg says. “I mean, I’m not religious at all, but I don’t like people.”
Sandberg himself was overweight as a child in Manassas, Va. “I think when I became a fat kid, I started drawing,” he says. In high school, his popularity was tied to his willingness to sketch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in classmates’ yearbooks. He eventually worked off the pounds to impress a girl, but vices such as gluttony and lust remained in his thoughts. “That’s what drives us,” he says.
He found support for that theory at George Mason. Back then, in the early ’90s, Sandberg traveled in a motley circle of straightedge types with idealistic yearnings to protect people. Their group proved a magnet for human misery. “We just kept running into all this crap,” Sandberg says. “We got everybody’s screwed-up leftovers.”
There was a woman who claimed falsely to have cancer and a guy who did the same with AIDS, as well as several rape victims who shared the details of their attacks with Sandberg. “You feel so visceral about it. You’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’” he says. “And you take too much of it on yourself, even though it’s not your damn fault.”
The pageant of gloom left the studio-art major a little pessimistic, though he’s felt positive enough about his occupation to earn an MFA from George Washington University and to do some teaching. But seeing people cry makes him angry. “Somebody says something horrible happened to them, and you go, ‘Huh. That’s too bad,’” he says. “And you just move on.”
To the studio, in Sandberg’s case. He typically paints for five-hour stretches, though once he kept at it for 30 hours for a painting with more than 200 figures in it. Both his planning and execution are meticulous: He corrects perspective on his computer, builds the image with several layers of oil, and touches up with a Lilliputian No. 8/0 brush. In the smaller paintings, he draws anatomy from memory. “I like doing that just for the weird distortion—the legs kind of looking like they’re out of socket a little bit,” he says.
Sandberg doesn’t invest as much care in the merchandising part of the process, however. After his 2000 solo show at Georgetown’s Fraser Gallery, according to gallery co-owner Catriona Fraser, “He just left a message on the answering machine saying he didn’t want us to represent him anymore.” (Sandberg claims the gallery mishandled things administratively: “They lost my damn number five times, or they never had my number.”)
Steven Krensky, co-owner of Baltimore’s Light Street Gallery, had to rescue two of Sandberg’s paintings from the trash. Both, he thinks, were relationship-related: a woman in a cloak and a woman with a fetus and a knife at her feet. “This is out of his soul,” says Krensky. “It’s like writing poetry and then tearing it up and throwing it away.”
Sandberg’s mercurial attitude seems to be rubbing off on his students at the Catholic University of America, despite his assertion that “some of them are so optimistic and happy and have no skill whatsoever.” One recently brought in a frog he had drowned in vodka. “I said, ‘I want you to draw something that’s got some power to it, that is going to mean something to you,’” Sandberg recalls. “He just went out and killed a frog because I just kept saying, ‘Man, I’m disappointed in you.’”
The teacher probably shouldn’t be surprised. After all, he’s done fairly well with misfortune. The few paintings that didn’t sell at his Fraser show were auctioned off at Sotheby’s. One of his architectural paintings was later sold at Dupont Circle’s Gallery K for $25,000, and it was unfinished.
“I can’t think of anybody who’s such a confrontational artist—at least nobody I like who stands out, anyway,” says Jennifer Motruk Loy, chair of the Washington Project for the ArtsCorcoran. “You can’t look away, like that traffic accident you passed on the highway. You want to know more about it.”
Fraser agrees. “Erik’s a brilliant painter,” she says. “But he has some personal issues he needs to work on.”
At the moment, Sandberg is working on a new direction for his art—something that might not be so appealing to the rubberneckers in his audience. He’s been studying Duchamp’s nonsensical constructions and Robert Ryman’s monochromes and has conceived a future piece that requires no canvas whatsoever: a gaggle of robotic cherubs programmed to run around a room while crying.
In fact, he’s already taken a whack at sculpture. Last year, Sandberg and his fellow warehouse dwellers teamed up for a show, “Studio,” at Baltimore’s Maryland Art Place. “All of us in the studio were getting a little dried up, I think,” says Sandberg. “We just wanted to do something fun, something where we collaborated.” Bradley did a sculpture of the robot spy in Jonny Quest. Sandberg entered a rubber man cast from his own body parts. It didn’t have a head, and its extremities were blackened to simulate postmortem pooling of blood. The flip of a switch caused the body to move in an awkward dance.
“Basically, it was designed to flail,” says Lisa Lewenz, the gallery’s director of programs, who notes that a lot of people quickly turned it off. “It touched on a sense of someone has done something very wrong that they should be very careful about.”
“At the gallery talk with this thing, I think I actually said that I wanted to make something that would make people laugh and smile,” says Sandberg. “And that’s what I made.”CP