Stephen Eichhorn is meticulous. There is an immediate precision in the way he styles himself (when we meet, he’s wearing a black quilted Oniki Liner Jacket, dark navy Engineered Garments BDU Pants, and a pair of black Common Projects Original Achilles Low) to the way he arranges materials in his natural, yet architectural collages. Known within, and far beyond, Chicago for collage work that pulls inspiration from often obscure photos of plants, animals (especially cats), and minerals, Eichhorn has already cemented a place for himself in internet culture and numerous art worlds.
With an orchid-based show, “Nighttime Tropicals,” at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, OH and “Sedimented,” a four person exhibition at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago, currently open as well as a book from zioxla due out in the spring, Eichhorn’s work continues to gain a wider audience as it grows in both scope and size.
Stephen and I sat down at MEYVN to talk inspiration, process, internet misinformation, and even a bit of Star Wars.
Jacob Victorine: For people who aren’t familiar, I was hoping you could quickly describe your artistic process.
Stephen Eichhorn: I mainly do medium to large scale hand-cut collage. What that means in terms of scale is the work ranges from, let’s say, 18” x 24” on the small side to 6’ x 4’ in terms of piece size, and the components these things are made up of range in size from a finger to something that is about an arm’s length in terms of hand-cut components. I do a little bit of sculpture, as well, and that’s also based in this component collage process of using a lot of deadstock jewelry components from 70’s Hong Kong and some stuff from Japan. It’s a lot of floral stuff that gets negated down through either a matte acrylic coating or this dipping and coating process with graphite and matte medium varnish mix.
JV: Where do you normally pull the raw materials from for the collages?
SE: It’s a lot of source and guide books. If I’m working with orchids I’ll hunt down a lot of vintage, and some contemporary, orchid books—same with house plants: cacti, succulents, all of that. The stuff that I don’t pull from—there are some rules in the studio: no Life Magazine, no National Geographic. There is such ubiquity to all that imagery, and especially in terms of collage where you’re like, “That’s all National Geographic.” It has a certain tone, feeling, and I feel like you end up using or relying on the kind of nostalgic quality that those images have. So, in terms of my practice, this is reducing all of those images down to almost a stock quality. I tend to stay away from any artist’s book—not pulling from photographers. It’s more using this stock imagery that’s readymade and not mediating it in anyway way. Nothing gets scanned and then printed out or upsized, or anything like that. It’s kind of an homage back to collage where it’s all found, all hand-cut. The only difference is, in terms of mounting, I use dry adhesives and stuff like that, basically turning the collage components into stickers
JV: What’s the relationship between process and product for you? Is that something you think about during the making process or do you tend to let it lead you to your eventual product?
SE: It gets real cyclical in that way where the process can lead to the product in terms of this gathering of imagery and usually there’s a moment in there when there is a couple of formal aesthetic decisions like, “This piece, this individual component, is what I’m going to base this larger piece around.” Typically, that jumping off point gets lost in the larger, let’s say, arrangement. And then sometimes it’s the flip of I’ll have a specific idea in mind for a piece and then I gather all of the components for that and—despite it being shared in terms of process—it’s a different search for components and for imagery.
Primarily, especially in terms of honing of craft in terms of collage, I guess that’s where the cliché thing comes in as not wanting to transcend collage as a medium. It’s a removal of hand and then honing my craft down to cutting all these components out where there’s not that obvious collage mark-making, but also showing all of that in terms of layering. Once you’re on that piece it becomes readily apparent that, “Oh, these are all individual objects that were gathered.” That’s where, especially early on in terms of thinking about collage in a serious way, that’s what I thought about the most: “If I’m going to be serious about this, I should take it in a specific direction,” and honing that craft and almost making it like reductive drawing made sense for me.
JV: In the case when you have an idea, do you ever sketch it out or is it something you keep in your head and then, as you’re collecting the materials, let it take shape?
SE: It’s a bit of both. There are the pieces that were here [at MEYVN] for the orchid show that had the inlays—I sketched all those out then built around those, so there was this jumping off point, this mapping of the inlay, and then I went in and built the pieces around that; kind of like setting up some limitation or parameters for the work. Then other times—especially for those mirrored pieces that were here [at MEYVN] , those diamonds—I laid down all the pieces and let them arrange themselves. And that’s a really redundant process in terms of like, “Lay all these pieces out, take reference photos, take everything off, make tick marks,” and stuff like that, and then usually all of that stuff shifts. It goes through so many iterations before it’s finalized. Even if I’m framing something up before an object leaves the studio I usually add in pieces as a finishing touch.
JV: In light of that, do you feel like you’re a perfectionist? Do you appreciate that space for imperfection, with things potentially shifting, or is it something that drives you crazy?
SE: It used to drive me crazy and now it’s something I let go of in terms of process. It gets so tight with the cutting out of all these materials that that’s where that compulsion happens. Even the making process can fulfill that same need in terms of making, not the same thing over and over again, but working in seriality that can then lapse into something else. Those mistakes can happen and then shift onto the next piece and let that thing grow as opposed to stifle it and keep it perfect.
JV: It’s interesting that you bring up seriality because I was going to ask you about that. Do you feel that you generally work in series—for example, “Floral Burst”—and when you do create series, how do the pieces communicate with one another?
SE: It’s usually whatever I’m obsessed with at the moment. In the past, it’s been driven by hunting down imagery. I started with the more abstract foliage, then gathering up all the imagery led to the floral stuff and these leaf pieces, which led to finding a lot of orchid imagery; then I went real deep into that, the sort of cult around orchids and cultivating orchids—what it means to different cultures. Then I started doing these cat collages as a sort of joke in the studio and part of that was born out of the cat imagery, but I was also gathering up a lot of cacti and succulent imagery and for some reason it made sense to combine those. There was a moment when I was like, “These would be hilarious together!” That was purely based off the cat photography that’s its own thing. Then all the cat pieces led to working with cacti and succulents and even those have transitioned to just cacti, just succulents, just air plants. Usually, when I go down the rabbit hold of something it’ll split off to, “Oh, air plants are really awesome,” and I’ll want to hunt down all this imagery.
Recently, and part of it was due to the MEYVN show, the orchids came back into the fold, which then led to this conservatory show that just opened. When we first started talking I was like, “I have all this work from MEYVN—let’s shape a whole show around that,” which got me working with a horticulture staff and starting to make live, actual objects based off the collages, which is the flip of making these collages based off of live things.
JV: It seems like meta collage.
SE: In terms of a dialogue, it all exists in the studio, typically, at the same time. There was all this rock and mineral stuff, as well, that was born out of cutting out cacti and succulents and there would usually be some rocks in the image and I would set them aside. It would just be this gathering until I knew what do it with it. There’s this box in the studio full of mushrooms, mushroom cut pieces from four or five years. Possibly, it’s going to just exist in this box. It may never be anything other than these loose components. There’s a box of loose flowers that are the same. I’m not making these floral bursts anymore, but there’s still that urge to cut some of that stuff out.
[The show] will be interesting. There’ll be this mirror diamond piece similar to what you had [at MEYVN] alongside these cat and plant stand-ups that are like one-to-one cat size with collaged pieces. I’ve never shown that really formal object with this informal thing. It’s at a museum and they were like, “Both of these things are perfect together!” I don’t think I would have ever put them in the same room, but it’ll be interesting to see that forced formal dialogue happen. Even producing the cat stand-ups I couldn’t have them made for me—like those crappy movie stand-up cut-outs were never right—so I thought, “I can just do this myself.” So all of those are hand-made, actual collage, hand foam stand-ups. I can’t escape having my hand touch any of that stuff. That’ll be a nice nod back and forth, but it’ll be weird outside of the studio to have that stuff exist.
JV: A lot of your collages fixate on the natural world and I’m wondering where the fascination comes from.
SE: First it came from this kind of really formal mirroring of natural components and manmade components—a kind of natural architecture and then abstracting that. Part of that came from, in terms of school, I studied drawing, sculpture, and any sort of academic focus was in architecture. Coming out of that and messing around with collage in the studio, for some reason those components made sense: using these kinds of natural things and natural forms.
Since then some of the orchid pieces, some of those forms are based off of ritual and death rites. Some of the earlier pieces are based off of these floral wreath headpieces that were funerary or that nuns, or I guess pre-nuns, would wear before becoming nuns.
At this point, the imagery drives the next thing. Other than having this stack of material, the jumping off point for the rocks and minerals was thinking about pattern and abstract painting and seeing that in these natural forms. But then once I started making those, anything natural about them left the inner dialogue for me and became about these large, expansive—I think about them as voids—terrazzo-like surfaces. I’ve talked about them being the closest thing I’m going to get to abstract painting: just these fields of undulation.
JV: Do you feel like you’re developing your own visual language?
SE: For sure. It’s been interesting. There are some repeater forms that happen. They’re almost based off an asterisk in terms of the cacti and even the orchids, which started out with draping and almost garments. Then in terms of tightening stuff up with cacti and succulents there are axis points that these things grow and drape out of. A lot of the visual language grows out of the studio rules and ways of making.
JV: I did a little deep diving on the internet and you’re from South Carolina, right?
SE: No. I’m actually from Lenoir, North Carolina in the Blue Ridge foothills. It’s in the mountains.
JV: I guess some people have gotten it wrong on the internet and then it’s proliferated, so I’m glad we can clear that up.
SE: Either way I’ve corrected it.
JV: NORTH CAROLINA will be in big block letters. Do you feel like that has played a role in the imagery that you use? Did you find yourself in nature a lot?
SE: There definitely is a connection there. I was born in North Carolina and then we moved to Dayton, Ohio when I was six or seven. Some of that imagery is actually born out of—my dad is a Lutheran minister, actually a retired Lutheran minister—growing up in the church and within religious imagery and finding a lot of the formalism really interesting. Even with the orchid pieces it’s like a Dutch Master still-life that has a religious reverence to it. So some of that is born out of growing up being outside in nature, but then there is this other context for all of that, if anything, shapes the abstracted forms: some of the stacking and floating shapes harken back to church days.
JV: I can see how they allude to shrines.
SE: It was really interesting, when we made these live orchid pieces for the Columbus show one of the emphases was the conservatory wanted to make one of the spaces more shrine-like because we made one that was large and floating. So even the approach: you’re coming up steps and the thing is framed and there’s this quiet moment with this almost chaotic figure. Especially with the shaping of the most recent show that’s all orchids with then the live orchid component, that really went into a shrine—amassing of objects when people leave things or light candles—when it takes on this other form. That kind of side of the collage process making I’ve started to pay attention to more and think about in a more critical way in terms of how these things formally get made.
JV: Do you feel like there’s a spiritual component in the process of making, as well?
SE: It’s very meditative. It’s a very relaxing. I can cut tiny orchids out for eight to twelve hours a day. It’s something that somehow has never gotten old and that goes with any of those forms. I can just cut and cut and reduce this information down and it’s exceedingly relaxing, so I could say that taking on that meditative, repeating, spiritual side.
JV: Again, according to the internet, you interned with some Star Wars toymakers when you were a teenager? Is that correct?
SE: That was maybe eighth grade, ninth grade. For a couple summers I was an unpaid intern at this small office in Cincinnati, Ohio—my grandmother’s from there. I think I got a tour of their office and that’s what led to the internship. I was just like at the end, “Is there any way I could come hang out here like once a week all summer? I’ll come clean up!” And for some reason they said, “Yeah.” The office was the three original engineers who helped come up with all of the Star Wars original action figures. They worked for Kenner, which is based in Cincinnati, and then they opened up their own office. It was really odd, funny. Their office space was in a two-flat and that’s sort of how I set up my house in terms of the first floor being all studio space and the second floor being domestic. They had the run of the house with a spray booth and messy stuff in the basement, drafting tables by the bay windows. I have not really thought about those two things, one thing shaping the other, until now.
The first day I worked there a filing cabinet fell on me and I didn’t tell anyone, since I was so embarrassed. I was maybe twelve or thirteen and I had done a lot of mechanical drafting, so the second week I was there they had me finish up drafts for this giant play set and it was one of the most intimidating things ever because they were like, “Finish this up because it needs to go to Hong Kong tomorrow.” It blew my mind and from there they taught me quite a bit about drawing and seeing. I took them quite literally when they said to learn how to draw a straight line and to be able to freehand certain things and take something 2D and think about it on all sides, and breaking down visual information in that way, kind of like an engineer. Cause I don’t think any of them had gone to art school. And that had been my decision in terms of, “I want to do this,” since I was three or four. Whenever I’ve had conversations with adults, this has been it, so having them shape some of that is pretty amazing, apart from also being a nerdy Star Wars fan.
JV: I was going to ask about that. Are you familiar with how a lot of the set design and costumes are made for the original Star Wars, in terms of pulling from junk piles?
SE: Yeah, yeah.
Have you ever thought about that in terms of your own artwork? It may be a coincidence, but I think it’s an interesting connection that you had these years working with these Star Wars action figures whose costumes are based off of these preexisting raw materials and that’s now how it seems much of your process takes place.
SE: So the way that they’d mock up some action figures—and of the Star Wars stuff that I had anything to do with was helping with some colorways for Episode I - The Phantom Menace—was cutting up preexisting pieces and using those components, so in that way that definitely makes sense. As well as, I spent hours—years—combing over all those set drawings and paintings, and then even going to flea markets and hunting down all of those vintage toys and that kind of active gathering and colleting, but more in a, “These things are toys,” not “These things are collectible items. They go on a shelf and just sit.” If anything, it’s that collector mentality and the patience that is inherent to it. But it also has this sort of immediacy to it where you are waiting on that thing, but you’re always moving onto the next thing. You’re never done. There’s never a, “The collection is complete,” moment. There’s always something else and that’s kind of how it’s been in the studio, especially with once I find a lot of repeater stuff I’ll hunt down imagery, which is what happened with the cacti and succulent stuff; just finding a lot of US stock imagery, and I started hunting down books from Japan, just to get different photography and that opened quite a few doors in terms of collage component avenues.
JV: You went to SAIC, right? Who were some faculty members and classmates that influenced your artistic development and how so?
I didn’t do any collage work—that was maybe the first year out of school in terms of setting up a studio. If anything, it was a honing of craft and figuring out what I do want to do and what I don’t want to do. At I certain point, I thought I wanted to go into architecture and almost made that leap. If anything, it’s been dialogue with artists post-school and the people who are still around here in Chicago. The Creatures of the Wind guys were SAIC—they live in New York now—and I’m really good friends with Cody [Hudson] ; we talk about different projects and executing different ideas.
JV: Did you have a particular moment when you decided to try collage? Did it feel right immediately? Did you have an epiphany? Did it happen right after you graduated?
SE: I’d been talking to this architect in San Diego who’d been making these really large landscape collages—they were really interesting—and that piqued my interest in terms of this process. Also, throughout school I’d been friends with painters and either they’d sketch stuff up for a painting or they’d make a collage and then paint that collage, and typically the collage was better than the painting. All of those really great gestures and decisions were made already, and then reducing all of that you lose spontaneity. That also piqued my interest in terms of, “This is really cool. Why aren’t’ you taking this thing seriously that you’re basing this formal work off of?”
In setting up studio practice, I was drawing a lot and then I had a lot of National Geographics that came with the studio—our studio space had been an architecture firm and they left behind a bunch of National Geographics and I got 500 off of Craigslist—and I just went through, cut a bunch of stuff out, and made several collages just as this informal whatever—similar to the cat collages— [and thought] , “This sounds fun. This doesn’t have to be for anybody but me.” And, from there, had some curator studio visits where they were like, “What’s going on with this? Have you thought about taking this seriously?” I showed a couple of those collages and that shifted things dramatically for me where I thought, “This is really interesting for me.” After researching the history of collage I thought, “I didn’t want to do this, but how can I exist in the collage world without making another collage?” When you picture collage, it’s definitely not what I do—for better or worse—and that removal of hand, showing of hand thing, has been an interesting component. Within the past couple years, I’ve really been trying to tighten all of that craft wise.
JV: Are there particular collages you look toward or do you feel like you’ve developed your process enough that you’re moving in your own direction?
SE: What made me want to get a hell of a lot more compulsive with how I excise everything is I was looking at Mary Delany’s collages from the 1700’s. I wouldn’t say the first collage artist, but she’s definitely up there and what she was doing was painting paper and then cutting out all of the components of a plant and assembling them like a flattened flower. And she was late in life when she was doing this—she was in her 70’s or 80’s and made hundreds of collages—and the detail captured through this process of dissecting plants and reassembling them through collage was pretty amazing. Looking at her work and her process shifted things in terms of my practice, in terms of tightening—I know I’ve used this word a lot—and in terms of honing.