I think I spotted one of Eben Kling’s characters while traveling south on I-91 to meet him at The Owl Shop in New Haven, Connecticut. With a scraggly grey beard and a disapproving glance, this stranger shot me a dirty look out the window of his mid-80s Chevy Astro van. Traveling at 75 miles an hour, he then awkwardly twisted his wrist to tap a wood-tipped cigar just above his slightly cracked window. Though not exclusively populated with these strange and wonderful folk, Kling’s work is as bold, vivid, and signature as those who occupy his slice of the world in Southern Connecticut. Kling is a compulsive and prolific art-maker, constantly turning his observations and summations of the world into doodles, paintings, sculptures and, most recently, comics.
At the smokiest indoor spot in all of New Haven, I picked his brain about trepidatiously delving into the world comics, what he finds satisfying about teaching and just how long it takes him to make a painting.
To what extent are the characters, settings and other forms that appear in your work a product of making art in Southern Connecticut?
Often, the people or figures that are depicted in these paintings are a byproduct of this peripheral observation. It’s very homegrown for me in a way. Growing up in and around New Haven for so long, I’ve realized it’s a city with different reputations and none of them are ever complicated. New Haven is either a “really rough city”, or it’s a city full of yuppies. There’s a lot of people around here who don’t fit into either of those categories. There’s no room for the eccentricities of the swamp yankees.
I’m not necessarily interested in being journalistic, but I am trying to accurately depict the things that I see in contrast to a lot of people’s preconceptions of what this area is like.
One of my favorite themes of your work is the depiction of “boys being boys”, a sort of light-hearted look at the less toxic side of masculinity. To what extent are you actively trying to depict this? or are you just processing what’s around you?
I try to implicate myself in the work a lot. There are these moments when I start to wonder if this is a representation of my own masculinity and I do like to play with the idea of “the boys in suburbia” specifically. But, they’re often physically lame, struggling to have a good time. I guess I’m interested in highjacking that symbol.
It’s kind of a cliche, but when my father died I was making all these drawing that were stills of that show Gunsmoke - he was that kind of guy and he really loved that kind of man. He might as well have had a shrine to James Arness. That was all a great opportunity to process my relationship with him, masculinity in general and to muck up those kinds of cartoonish stereotypes and power dynamics.
Do you have a favorite medium to work in?
I always go back to painting - or, I should say I always go back to drawing. I don’t work things out in other mediums, I draw everything first. It’s where I come back to process, where everything gets calcified. Sometimes it’s total chicken scratch and only makes sense to me - very skeletal. Maybe I’m just bad at drawing.
I heard you really like cartoons, a fact that feels present in your work. Do you have a favorite cartoon right now?
Honestly, and not in the way that I typically appreciate a cartoon, it’s not as wild or far out or plastic - but I really really like the Netflix show Bojack Horseman. That show has really made an impact on me. Though maybe it is plastic in that way where they can use this absurd medium to talk about something like suicidal tendencies, depression, self loathing and addiction shrouded by animation which seems to make things more palatable. I share an affinity for that kind of work because that’s the thing I try to do with my own work. Not to pull people in with this “got ya” moment, more that I want it to be populist work.
This is why the studio is always a complicated place for me and why I’m resistant to say that I’m a painter or a sculptor, because painting for me is not a populist language but cartoons are. You can really utilize that conception and ease.
Is your affinity for animation and that sort of illustrative language what brought you to do comics?
Yeah - I didn’t grow up reading comics, that wasn’t my narrative. I didn’t go down to the local store and read comics from “the big two” Though, I remember one of the earliest things that tweaked my understanding was when Todd Mcfarlane started doing Spiderman. I remember how different it looked. For me it was always the Sunday funnies or Robert Crumb - big surprise right? Robert Crumb taught me how to draw people not figure drawing class. That shakey, neurotic line was my muse, I loved that shit.
Tell me a bit about your current project On the Beach.
It is extremely sentimental. At least it feels that way to me. I read it more as straightforward storytelling. Less a happy look back at your memories of your father and more of a straight up depiction. Maybe I’m saving all the sentimentality for myself. I’m still a bit reluctant to even talk about what that thing is. It’s still a work in progress.
I’m not used to working on something this long. Maybe it lacks that sentimental empathy and is more of a recollection or even an extension of my relationship with my father. My relationship with him really did feel that way, it felt very matter-of-fact. Exhaustingly descriptive, yet still full of holes. Right now, to me, it seems like it’s chock full of all these nonsequtars but that's how it was - a lot of blind sports. Maybe it’s thematically appropriate that it reads that way too. I feel a little naive not because I thought this wouldn’t be a lot of work, but man comics are a slog! It’s pretty tedious work. One of my favorite books I read when I started getting back into comics was this book called Big Questions by this guy Anders Nilsen and it’s like a tome, 500 pages. He spent 15 years working on something he didn't know was going to be good. To me, there’s something emboldening about that.
For some perspective then, what’s your average turnover time on a piece?
I make a painting in a couple days and it’s gone and out in the world, but to work on something for over a year, with no end in sight and still not know what it is really, kind of shakes my ego a lot.
Why no color in the comic?
I learned how to draw in black and white - it’s not foreign for me to work in black and white. It may seem like a new thing since the stuff I do in the studio or the art objects I make are usually garish. Narrowing it down to black and white drawings, forcing myself to think of the comic in those terms gave me another necessary limitation. I was trying to focus on storytelling, sequence and writing. I know myself. It’s too fuckin’ easy to be seduced by color. When I eventually finish the thing they'll be some color in it but not in the strips or the book itself. I’m thinking about it more as a collection of objects when it’s done not necessarily a comic. I’m currently reaching out to people for photos, other writing and scans. It may feel more like a family album than a comic by the end.
What’s your favorite book?
I guess The Confederacy of Dunces and my second favorite is probably Louis Riel by Chester Brown.
Teaching is something to consider in the context of your current artmaking too right?
I don’t work the beat as an illustrator, teaching is more my grind. I could kvetch about it all day like anything else, but how great is it to sit in a room where people realize shit all day? And I get paid to do it! Why wouldn’t I want to help facilitate that for other people? I feel like I would be a much less empathetic person if I wasn’t a teacher.
You and the subjects in your work smoke a lot a cigarettes and drink a lot of beer. These feel like compulsive behaviours. For you, is artmaking compulsive?
Yeah, I’m very emotionally tethered to it. My partner Chelsea is so good at reminding me that I’m not the scum of the earth if I don’t spend the day in the studio - it’s okay to relax. But if I go a week without a new thought, I’m feeling bad and I get worse. Which is another reason why I like teaching - I can’t get that way. It keeps me emotionally, physically and psychologically sober.
What’s your favorite movie?
Right now? Desperately Seeking Susan.