Tristan Eaton: All Mixed Up
Since Tristan Eaton's new show Uprise opens this month at Galerie Itinerrance in Paris, we're revisiting the essay on Eaton by Carlo McCormick from our July 2017 issue. Check out the photos from his new show in the image gallery, and our feature on Tristan Eaton below.
At its best, art is a game of subtlety and nuance, discrete and elusive, ideally left to masters who can strike that precarious balance between the literal and the poetic, between truth and its shadowy fiction. But then there comes along a bold and belligerent bomb-thrower who says “fuck you” to understatement and ambivalence, who doesn’t dance around meaning, message and emotion like some magical sprite but springs to action and just plows through the possibilities of painting like some raging bull in a ceramic-choked craft barn. Tristan Eaton is just such a monster artist, supremely skilled and terrifyingly creative, a blast force of nature so ambitious and audacious in his work that you don’t just step back to take it all in, you cower.
At some point, our culture will have to take a fair reckoning of what this muralist movement means, both in terms of its place along a legacy of powerful and moneyed patronage, and in regards to its dubious relationship with the forces of real estate and urban development. However art must cozy up to its benefactors, what will be most evident about this time is that an evolution in artist tools and skills allowed the city to become a canvas on both a global and monumental scale previously unimaginable. Then, perhaps, long after the blur of incessant street art festivals around the world and endless digital stream of eye-candy diminishes, when maybe even the startling newness of this moment comes to seem passé, we will recognize the very few who truly dominated the genre, and Tristan Eaton will surely be at the top of that list.
If there is a caveat about Eaton’s art it is that somehow it is too easy, like he is some hyper rendering machine. Indeed, he’s so good at what he does, that it does look a bit easy, but what is seemingly effortless is the culmination of one of the most doggedly determined studio practices I have ever witnessed; and none of that was ever easy along the way. Nor should we, especially in considering the rebellious potency of Tristan’s latest work, confuse easy with facile. Complexity is woven into Eaton’s visual spectacle, playful and seductive as all appearances allow, grounding the bold bravura and daring pictorial ruptures seamlessly, reassembling with a deftly inquisitive imagination and a meticulous craft. In terms of public space, as he has in the past with a dizzyingly diverse array of commercial work, Tristan Eaton gets away with murder, breaking the formal rules of art and design with the same smart-ass grace with which he subverts visual language.
Rooted in a kind of hip hop swagger and hardcore aggression, Eaton’s paintings make the impossible, balls-out leap to culture’s biggest stages as if they were some wanker arena rock band. But for anyone who ever wants to know how the hell he got this good at what he does, it’s worth retracing some of the history to see how his adeptness and virtuosity comes from the same dumb-ass energy of fools spitting out rhymes on street corners or punks making noise in a garage. And while most every artist you meet somehow thinks his or her life story is unique, revelatory and fascinating, Eaton’s backstory is actually utterly mind-blowing. Scattered across different cities and cultures, and punctuated by wildly assorted jobs and myriad personal and family situations, his art today speaks to the dislocation and fragmentation of his life, working to piece together the shards of his unlikely experiences.
To begin, we find him living and working now, in Los Angeles, something of an odd and overdue homecoming, since he was actually born on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Rather too real and in-your-face to be of a Southern California upbringing, his circuitous journey begins early when his parents bundle up all the family in the middle of the night to leave home without warning. If it sounds like some twist in a cult religion tale, it is—his parents were Scientologists. So deep were they into that nonsense scam, in fact, that Tristan’s dad was busy producing a movie for L. Ron Hubbard, and as Eaton recalls, “The movie deal went south, so we pretty much fled for our lives.” Their escape hideout turned out to be the farmhouse of his mom’s cousin in the south of Wales, suiting the young Eaton boys in the way that rural boredom is supposed to be healthy for kids but rarely is unless you like buggering sheep. Eventually, Mom found work as an actress in the theaters of London’s West End, and Dad managed to open a blues restaurant called the Lazy River, so off to London they went. As the family struggled financially, Tristan and his brother Matt (an amazing artist in his own right) made their own problems as hoodlum skaters and petty thieves, and sometime after multiple arrests and business failures, it was time to move again.
Tristan’s father, who had deep family roots in the Michigan newspaper industry, managed to finagle an advertising manager’s job up in hillbilly Northern Michigan, where the young artist was able to add a healthy dose of hippie counterculture and psychedelics to his personal cultural stew. When opportunity opened for that great, beautiful failure of urbanism called Detroit, Tristan Eaton found his first true home in a city with which he fell madly in love. Finishing up high school there and subsequently enrolling in the the College for Creative Studies, Eaton got busy, creating his own comic book characters, giving graffiti a shot, working as a teenage illustrator for the local press, creating an endless stream of concert, rave and techno flyers for the local music scene, and even designing toys for Fisher Price. It was in that scene, at the grand opening of a game-changing gallery called C-Pop, that I first met Eaton. Though his friends and mentors in the local art community like Glenn Barr, Mark Dancey and Niagara inevitably treated him like a very talented but impossibly annoying bratty younger sibling, no one doubted that the kid was going places. For a young artist in the late ’90s, that meant New York City.
Well, NYC is tough in ways that the roughest aspects of Detroit, London and Los Angeles don’t quite parallel. A land of immense opportunity, it’s really a career meat-grinder that beats you up until you learn to love the pain. After quickly failing out of the School of Visual Arts, Eaton made a bare-knuckle living painting motorcycles for acid, mastering that genre, while trying to scrape together some modicum of momentum as a freelance illustrator. Looking back, Tristan realizes the “false security and arrogance” built up from his Motor City successes granted him the bravado of Big Apple dreams, and sure enough, he hit pay-dirt in the new millennium when he designed the Dunny for a then-fledgling artist toy company called Kidrobot. Success came fast and furious, not simply by accruing more design gigs, but in emerging as a major force in a new kind of industry called creative branding.
Eaton’s clients over the next dozen years are too lengthy a roster to list, but amidst all the major sneaker companies, record labels, TV stations and the like, he still seems most proud of the three posters he did for President Obama for his 2008 Vote for Change campaign, worthy companions to friend Shepard Fairey’s Hope posters. Faith does not pay, but this might be the highlight, despite so much other really famous work, and could be, in part, because it was for the best of clients. Eaton relates, that unlike so many of the rest of us during that time, “I loved to go out as a graffiti artist and bomb the city, but I had to run Thunderdog Studios, the big artist branding company I founded—I felt I had to provide for my parents and I was running from poverty.”
Tristan Eaton has tried a lot over these years, and he accomplished an amazing amount in that time. If there was one thing he never managed in all of this, however, it was really being himself as an artist. Look at what could be argued to be his singular signature work in these pages—the very fact that we see a massive and messy plurality is a testament to the process he undertook to come to get here. This style of painting, a kind of super-sized collage of elements that seemingly owe as much to the late, great Jim Rosenquist’s formalist emphasis on the mundane as to his own manic need for fantastic invention, is, in fact, the culmination of a lifetime’s work across all manner of representation. How he came, deliriously, to put it all together in such dynamic fashion is likely the kind of genius that became pure luck, and there’s no point in asking him how he arrived at this because likely he wouldn’t even know himself. However, there were a couple dangerous high-speed turns along the way.
The first radical step Tristan Eaton took in veering off his immensely successful commercial practice was something of a stupid hoax motivated by the heart of an angry philosopher. Trustocorp, a massive campaign of off-kilter street signs, billboards, mock products and situational advertising launched simultaneously in cities across America, was like the discrete interventions of street art amped up by the branding strategies of multinational consumer capitalism. Like a flurry of idiosyncratic zen koans meant to riddle the doubt lying within our façade of certainty, Trustocorp was a kind of word art which Tristan acknowledges was about letting “(my) ideas live or die on their own without my personality… finding a way to put out a message in a place where people automatically trust it.” The other detour was as common and it is predictable, Tristan was lured back to the land of his birth by the bad promise of working for the mightiest mouse, the corporate spawn of Walt Disney. Yes, the chump actually went to LA to do a Disney cartoon, and like so many great artists from Salvador Dalí to Kenny Scharf, it got made and never seen. Broke, and nearly broken, Eaton disbanded his design empire, got back to living like a starving artist and, with nothing else to lose, decided to do the one thing he had always wanted to do: make his own art.
In full disclosure, I’ve kind of always liked Tristan’s family a lot more than I like him, so when he tells me of his tenure running a studio, “I have to do something to know that I don’t want to do it,” I can’t help but think of his late father and the ways in which he, too, would understand, feeling pride being successful in his own right, making money on his own art. And this is where Tristan Eaton’s art can be so flippant, sarcastic and even silly while possessing real heart. “I felt trapped. I had so much I wanted to say, between the design studio and the street, and I didn’t know how to get it out.” This, then, is what we have as a style of “everything I want to paint,” the cohesion of a pathological creative-schizophrenia in what he described to us as, “a bold graphic work inspired by advertising, painting, graffiti, conceptual art and a lifetime love of comics.”
As Tristan prepares to enter Paris for a major show and public mural project with Galerie Itinerrance in June, his work reminds us most dearly of how the revolution can, indeed, be sexy. “The anonymity of Trusto allowed me to be outrageously critical of the world,” he admits, and now, as so many others who have come to feel so strongly about the direction our world is taking, he is feeding a full historical menu of dissent, with “acts of protest and resistance, including the Haiti slave revolt, the Arab spring, Black Panthers, Vietnam War protests, female French resistance fighters, Detroit riots, etc.” All this goes into his recombinative blender, where differences find commonality in a marvelous mélange that somehow approximates that most elusive of all subjects, truth.
Text by Carlo McCormick // Portrait by David Broach