Eric Bridgeman: The Indefinable Artist

Words by Jamie Preisz

The hardest thing about writing this profile is the opening line.

How do you introduce an artist who’s paradoxically defining feature is that he is indefinable? I arrive at a driveway in east Sydney to pick up artist Eric Bridgeman. He is standing almost on the road wearing a leather jacket, rolling a cigarette in the sun. Eric is a new kind of artist. His life and his work seem to be so closely entwined sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going into a museum retrospective and what’s going on his Instagram.

Eric’s work crosses mediums, collections and boundaries. He graduated from the Queensland College of Art in 2009, and now splits his time between Papua New Guinea—where his mother is from—and Australia. Eric’s cultural heritage within his work goes beyond just the search for identity. “I’m beyond figuring out my identity or talking about identity in general,” he tells me, “I’m now pursuing the revitalisation of culture.”

In the car, we begin talking. He has a soft voice and exudes an aura of calm that belies the often confronting nature of his work. Initially, Eric’s career in fine art began in photography working with the acclaimed photographer Ray Cook.

“It was a close family type relationship. We would drink whisky, look at pictures and have a lot of fun. He introduced me to queer culture and is an inspiring force in the photographic community,” Eric says. This partnership seems evident in Eric’s earlier photographic work. There’s an intensity to the figures, but also a sensitivity.

Wilma Jr (Blacky)

Building out his skill set, Eric’s work since expanded to include painting, installation, and performance. One of the more notable (and notorious) early works, was Wilma Jr (Blacky). Exhibited as part of the Basil Seller’s Art Prize at the Ian Potter Museum in Melbourne, 2010, the work featured an installation of a full body cast painted black and adorned with feathers and football shoes standing amongst trophies, while painted light bulbs and a giant spoon and fork seem to levitate around the figure.

“At the time, I was very driven by my interest in sex and race relations in Rugby League,” Eric explains. “Emotionally, I felt emboldened and a bit fearless in what I could do. I wanted to pour everything I felt about football, the masculine body, and blackness into one tableau of a six-foot man, dripping with black tar/war paint, exuding all the sex appeal and brute strength that a footballer with his dick out can suggest.”

This seems to represent the element of Eric that it is hard to define. A piece sitting in a prominent Australian art prize refusing to serve the crowd surrounding it. The figure stands defiantly in a space reserved historically and contextually for white and hetero Australians, it stares at the audience with a demanding presence. It is vulnerable yet powerful, and unashamedly punk.

A dangerous and exciting artist is built on a foundation of brutal honesty, and a ‘no fucks given’ attitude, which Eric has in spades. “I’ve hung paintings I thought were shit in galleries as a refusal to deliver what’s expected and to create a possible detour into something I haven’t tried before,” Eric tells me.

That attitude is not an apathetic attempt at cool, but rather a necessity to hold onto an identity that, in the world of high-class, fine art, is at risk of being patronised by ignorant, ‘intellectual’ cultural gatekeepers. I asked Eric what some of the worst things about running in those circles were.

Portrait by James Adams, styling by Mark Vassallo.

“When people make a comment as if they know more about PNG than you do, and try to educate you about your culture,” he replies. “I was at a dinner with a bunch of suits years ago, a man asked me if I eat yams and taro. He went on to tell me that the reason Pacific Island civilisation hasn’t evolved as well as others is because of the starch diet which impaired their cognitive development. I don’t know who he was, but he was having a good laugh with his mates at how smart they were to possess such knowledge. That’s one of those moments where your heart beats faster and you stop breathing and water starts to gather in your eyes because you’re kind of too humiliated to respond with a quick joke about how white men’s skin smells of sour milk.”

In speaking to Eric, he seems to take all in his stride, yet his prolific creative output condenses and refines those moments, creating work that both proudly reflects his cultural heritage and confronts any preconceived notions that white Australia might have.

The navigation of cultural boundaries looks effortless from the outside, but there is a lot of work that goes into the process of Eric’s creations. There is no entitled claim to any culture or subculture, Eric works hard to speak with as many important voices as he can to inform whatever work is brewing in his mind.

“I believe in consultation with the appropriate community or cultural groups as part of your research before making any major plans. These groups can potentially assist or guide you through the process, and it can be really important to the course of the project to ask first.”

Eric’s more recent work has seen him travel back to PNG to work with his clan and family. The works are giant paintings on traditional Kuman shields. “I see most of the work as made in creative partnership with members of the community because the responsibilities, fabrication and leadership are split between us. I am known to the wider Yuri clan and the leaders who make up the Yuri Alaiku Kuikane Association. They have given me their blessing and support, should I need it.”

These works have been shown in some of Australia’s biggest art institutions and recently proudly displayed at Queensland’s GOMA. “I have the job of representing the men involved (in his projects) and the Yuri clan, and I do take that seriously.”

After a long morning of shooting photos, Eric is nowhere in sight, I wander around to discover him sitting outside on a balcony, eyes closed, in silence, grinning while he smokes a cigarette in the sun.

Eric’s work, The Fight, is currently on at Monash Gallery of Art,  in Melbourne, VIC, as part of Australians in PNG, which you can check out from 12 Aug – 8 Oct. If you’re in Sydney, check out Returning to the Field, opening at Casula Powerhouse from Jan – Mar of 2018.

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