Cleveland's Eric Rippert is Not a Painter, but He is

“The Man Whose Head Expanded,” an Eric Rippert painting in progress.
“The Man Whose Head Expanded,” an Eric Rippert painting in progress. Photo courtesy of Eric Rippert

On this particular day there is a moody, contemplative air about Eric Rippert's studio, ensconced in the westside's 78th Street Studios complex. As we sit and chat, he looks like the weight of the world is on his shoulders, which isn't far from the truth. Like many persons of a certain age, he, along with his sister, is returning the love he has received from his father by aiding with his day-to-day care. "With the passing of Nikki [Delamotte] and everything else, November was a hard month," he admits. "Lately I've been working in an almost stream of consciousness; then these images were starting to emerge."

Rippert describes his painting in progress, "The Man Whose Head Expanded": "On this one there was this Basquiat-esque skull and it was kind of scary, actually, and I didn't know where that came from. Anyway, these images are popping out from my childhood. For example, I saw this rocket car once, and I always drew it with this cockpit bubble and I was sitting in there and it was always going west and there was always flames coming out of the back. I'm not sure where the train imagery comes from ... it seems like everywhere I've been there's always been a train going by, except at my dad's."

As a painter, Rippert is hiking the aesthetic and intellectual paths that make an artist interesting. You see, Rippert is an accomplished photographer with a BFA from Rochester Institute of Technology and an MFA from the Vermont College of Art. He has exhibited internationally with works included in the Progressive Art Collection and the Columbus Museum of Art, as well as in the Cleveland Museum of Art's permanent collections.

We had previously visited the artist's studio during the CAN Triennial. At the time, he was hanging a multi-dimensional installation titled "Blanket Fort" that had been previously exhibited at the Maria Neil Art Project's Native Cleveland annex. "Most of that work was photographic," says Rippert. "I started to incorporate paintings into it, painting on photos, printing photos on top of paint and that whole show was about family and nostalgia." Around the same time, American Greetings contacted him and offered a show in their galleries. "I asked if I could do anything I wanted and they said, 'yes.' I was surprised at how well they were received." Fortified by this positive reception, he continued forward.

Rippert felt freed. "My whole artistic life as a photographer, I was trained very properly and very much by the rules," he says. "When I started to paint, I didn't have that same fear of failure. If my paintings sucked, well, I'm self-taught. I'm using parts of my brain that I didn't use before. It's the freeing process of making mistakes." It was worth the risk.

There is a depth to Rippert's new work that makes us feel like we are flying. He keeps the media simple, starting with acrylic with gesso. Sometimes he mixes them; often he uses the acrylics straight. There are hints of spray paint that add gloss and a seductive ghosting effect. There is a great deal of mark making and gestural movement with graphite; the eye unravels and travels throughout. The painting we are describing is titled "Me! I Disconnect From You," named after a song from the 1979 Tubeway Army album Replicas, written by Gary Numan. In fact, all of his paintings are named after songs. "When I was working in photography everything had a narrative, so I gave them some sort of cinematic title or location title; but when it came to making work that wasn't about anything, I was stuck. Do I number it? The song titles were a natural fit as I listen to a song and then the work takes symbiotic shape."

We learn that these black and white pieces were curated into an exhibition by Thomas Huck of University Hospital, along with works by eight other artists.

It's hard not to get hung up on other people's work, Rippert says, wondering if they are more successful because of style, luck or who they know. "I just know that I started painting about two years ago and there's some crappy ones behind the walls; the ratio being more crappy ones than the ones that I'm more comfortable with." Rippert brings it back to "How to Be an Artist," a list of 33 dos and don'ts written by New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz. "My favorite one reminds me to make an enemy of envy. Don't covet what other people are doing, there's always people doing better work, but just keep doing what you're doing and remember when you started painting that you didn't care if you failed or not. So I continue to do that and the work seems to evolve."

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