Learn more about Erik Foss
“People do bad things. I want to turn them into beautiful things.”
I’m back in my old neighborhood with stale memories stirring in my head. I trudge up a five-story walk-up on Houston and Suffolk on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The old tenement building has been renovated, but another coat of paint can’t mask the memories of junky artists, desperate immigrants, and common thugs that float along the narrow hallways. My breath quickens as I scale the last flight of stairs. I pause at the top and the memories flood back to me, now. The medley of downtown starts to play in my head. It’s a creative spark that’s born of mingling with the destitute and victorious inhabitants of a forbidding land. The city whispers in my ear as I bang on the heavy wooden door and wait for Erik Foss.
I first met Erik at LIT Lounge in 2004. As the founder/operator of LIT, Erik was the custodian of a vibrant era of New York City’s downtown nightlife scene. It was the post 9/11 era. A city that was terrorized by a heinous attack was reasserting its cultural dominance. It was a creative explosion fueled by grief, capital, and cocaine.
LIT was not a big-name marquee kind of place but it had everything the scene needed at the time. The basement was for bands, drugs, and debauchery while the upstairs bar was for socializing. Erik booked the bands. Elliot Smith, Chavez, Bush Tetras or A.R.E Weapons performed in the basement. Carlos D. from Interpol was a DJ. Erik was everywhere, all the time, at LIT. That was his job. He comped drinks, made crucial introductions and provided sympathy to countless depressed patrons.
Erik’s real passion, though, was Fuse Gallery. It was the in-house art gallery at LIT. It occupied an adjacent space connected by a plate-glass wall in the in the middle of the upstairs bar. He curated the gallery as well as he curated the social scene. He mingled high-art with rock-n-roll by showcasing artists like H.R. Giger, Mick Rock, Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo and Nick Zinner from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. LIT became a refuge from the bitterness of a city in mourning. Erik was always there, curating a safe space where the downtown party people were free to express their cultural aspirations.
The thing is, running LIT was Erik’s day job. He was grinding it out to make ends meet. He was also making art the whole time. He was painting, drawing, creating collages and photographing everything that went on around him. He was not only the caretaker of the downtown scene but also, it’s historian. It turns out that he made over 20,000 photographs in the twenty years since he arrived in New York. Erik knows everybody and he photographed them all; people at LIT, the people coming into his studio and people on the street. While he was working to pay the rent, he was also creating a historical archive.
I’m standing at the front door of Erik’s apartment in the Lower East Side. He’s got short black hair that’s slicked tight onto his skull and he peers at me from behind his Buddy Holly glasses. He’s tall and thin. Same weight as he was in his early thirties he tells me. He looks clean; studied, but not flamboyant. He welcomes me into the cramped space that has doubled as his art studio for the last twenty years. There are no chairs. We stand in the middle of his living room surrounded by canvases, piles of books, magazines, and records, paints and other artist’s tools. Space tightens in around us.
Erik has assembled a conceptual monograph of his work. It’s a book called “If These Were Songs They Would Be Sad Songs” and features pairings of Erik’s artwork with photos that he has taken throughout the years. He’s used his archive of New York’s downtown history as raw material to create something new. He thumbs through the book pointing out the juxtapositions he’s made. He calls them mirrors. There’s a painting of the twin towers next to a photo of two girls sticking their asses at the camera. There’s a photo of the frontman from some death-metal band next to a collage with an American flag and the words “bacteria kills.” He’s had thousands of images to pull from. He’s used that freedom to create, not only a document but a poetic expression of a socially shared aesthetic. “It’s not just an art book,” he tells me, “it’s also a document of the last twenty years in New York. There are people in there that have died. There are places that no longer exist. It’s a side of my work that people have never seen.”
A long silence lingers in the room. I still can’t sit down. I’m fidgeting. I start talking about New York. When did he move here? Erik says that moving to New York was easy for him. It was easy compared to how he grew up. Erik is open about the violence and poverty in his childhood. His abusive, alcoholic father abandoned the family, leaving his mom to raise the kids in a trailer park outside of Phoenix. The past weighs on him, but it’s a familiar burden. He says his father was sick, a sexual deviant who preyed on everyone around him. He fucked everyone up but somehow Erik managed to escape all that. He headed to New York determined to never be like his father.
Erik has stayed true to his mission and he’s grateful for what it’s brought him. “As a white man, you have this platform that you were born on,” he says. “You have an opportunity to either uplift people or abuse people. It’s not that hard to uplift people. I realized early on that helping people and uplifting them was going to make me so much happier.”
Erik’s life’s work is focused through the lens of compassion. It’s about the experience of grinding it out in Manhattan, struggling to find a way to create while still paying the rent. It’s about taking care of people and honoring the struggles of your fellow man. It’s about facing the truth. Erik has immersed himself in the singular world of struggle that begins below fourteenth street. He’s absorbed the stories. That was his job. But, he took it further. He’s distilled the spirit of those around him and laced their stories with his own. His story a communal one. His song might be a sad song, but hopeful notes ring through the melody.
RA: So, you are supporting yourself with your work now?
EF: Yeah, I’ve been living off my work for, like, four years now. I’m super grateful, but It’s not easy. I’ll go for two or three months without selling anything. I’ve had the eviction notice on the door. I’ve been on the phone with the electric company and the telephone company, begging for a little more time. Then, a couple of days will go by, and “Boom”, one collector will buy ten pieces from me. It’s so weird. You never know. It’s just part of being an artist in New York. Thank god for social media. Thank god, I’m a social person and I know a lot of people, or else I’d be driving an Uber instead of making work every day.
RA: How would you define yourself, as an artist, in a couple of sentences.
EF: Aw, man, that’s so hard.
RA: I know. Sorry.
EF: I think I’m the most honest artist you will ever meet, both in my work and in my life. There’s no hypocrisy in me. I like to call bad people out. You know, people do bad things. I want to make them into beautiful things.
RA: Where does that come from.
EF: My childhood. My father was a serious alcoholic. He did a lot of really bad things. I was the one that found my father in bed with the woman he left my mom for. I told my mom about it. It was fucked up. That’s another testament to the way my work is. I learned the realities of life and the dark sides of life very early. I saw the effects of someone doing terrible things. It put me in position to really care about people and really try to help them for the rest of my life. It also set me up well to work in nightlife. I can see both sides. I can be sober and serve you a beer and not judge you but once I see that you are doing really bad things, I might pull you aside and tell you a story. I’m not going to tell you what to do but I will tell you what can happen.
RA: Wow, I’m sorry to hear that. Your story seems to really coincide with a moment in the broader culture.
EF: You and I have this platform that we were born on. It’s the platform of being white and male. We have an opportunity to either uplift people or abuse them. It’s not that hard to uplift people. I didn’t come from a financially privileged background. But, I’ve done everything within my power to promote the work of women and minorities. I did it in my gallery. I did it in my bar. I didn’t do it because I had to and nobody really expected it of me, I just did it because it’s the right thing to do. To know that, while I was doing that, all these other men were running around raping women and spewing this hateful bullshit, I have no sympathy for them. Let’s get rid of all of them. Send ‘em to the Midwest. Burn, baby burn. That’s what I say.
RA: Where can we buy your book?