“I would much rather be drawing at my work bench and conceptually doing artwork and listening to music than probably anything on the planet,” says Darryl Erdmann, former drummer, sign-painter, furniture salesman, gallery owner. Above all, though, he is an artist, one with a full belt of tools to accomplish whatever visual concept presents itself.
Born in the small town of Brigham City, in a family of three boys, Erdmann began investigating materials at an early age, under the inspiration and encouragement of his father. “I started building things because I noticed my dad was in the garage all of the time making things,” Erdmann says. “He was a welder. His father and his father’s father owned the first Chevrolet dealership in town, we had a farm, and he’d spend his time out in the garage creating things. I picked up on that. He taught me how to weld, he taught me how to build things, he taught me how to get my hands dirty.”
Erdmann has been getting his hands dirty ever since, with all manner of paint and ink, sawdust, Plexiglas and metal. From his early experiences under his father’s watchful eye he moved on to his first formal art training under Marion Hyde, his high school art teacher. When Erdmann graduated, Hyde said to him, “If you let it stop there, I’ll kick your butt.” He may have noticed Erdmann’s interest in music, which became his first passion right out of school. He played drums professionally, first as a studio drummer for Capitol Records, then on the road touring. “After many years playing, after enough nights of Holiday Inns, finally, from San Jose, I hitchhiked back home to get started at Weber State,” Erdmann recalls. “In art.”
His years in the music industry had provided ample time during the day to explore libraries, learning about silk screening and graphic design. And he enhanced his formal artistic training at Weber State with some real-world experience working for Mark Hanson Sign Company. “As it turned out,” Erdmann says, “[Hanson’s] son was doing the silk screening for the windows of ZCMI and I was beginning to be bathed in commercial art, doing projects for major clients from around the United States.” He stayed with the company for a decade before branching out on his own in 1984 with D/E/Signs.
“While I was running my own company, I set up a studio to do silk screens and serigraphs, which is what I wanted to do in the first place, and I thought if I set up a commercial business, it would afford me to set up my own artistic endeavors as well.” Serigraphs from these times, some of which contain over thirty colors, are still some of Erdmann’s favorite works. And his years as a sign painter are evident in his mature abstract paintings.
Computers and die-cut vinyl began squeezing out most hand-letterers and eventually Erdmann decided to get out of the business. In 1998, he opened Retro Furniture in the Rockwood Artist Studios in Sugarhouse. From his storefront property he began selling ‘50s and ‘60s furniture and hung his own art on the walls. “I was doing large-scale loose but realistic pop-inspired work such as a bowl of fruit, a donut, a soup bowl, objectified still lifes. Acrylic. Along the lines of Wayne Thiebaud. With rich impasto. The furniture and the paintings sold well; it was a Modernist aesthetic.”
In between visiting estate sales, looking for the next mid-century treasure, or reupholstering a chrome-framed couch, Erdmann starting getting out some of his old sign-painting enamels and painting abstracts. These compulsive expressions soon took over the space. “I decided I would forget the furniture because the paintings were selling so well,” he says. “So I started a gallery at the same location. It was called Chroma in Sugarhouse. I had shows for lots of people including myself; the first shows for John Bell, Andrew Smith, Linnie Brown, Jerry Fuhriman, Brad Slaugh, Mark England. The list goes on and on. “
Busy with the gallery, he had little chance to work, so in 2008 he and wife Jan closed the gallery. “We built a house with a studio in it, and I have been painting there ever since.” In the meantime his work has flourished and there have been a number of shows, some out of state and locally he’s shown at the Kimball Art Center, Patrick Moore Gallery, Phillips Gallery, and many others.
Some of his current works will on exhibit this month at Salt Lake’s 15th Street Gallery in an exhibit that opens on September 19 and continues into October. They show a mastercraftsman and superlative artist, comfortable working with a variety of materials and able to range across a broad conceptual spectrum. Works like “Arc” show his abstract technical and sensible brilliance. It is the kind of work that most of his audience recognizes, the ones “people feel comfortable with.” “Arc” is a piece that can be read in dual ways. For example, the colors can be broken down into purple, green, and orange, and most will recognize the dominance of the purple form being some kind of “arc,” that is the center of focus although the oranges are brilliant and the sea-foam green is a breezy hue that complements the other colors. An arc is a curvature that generally has a tripartite quality, thus the paramount appearance of the three hues, and the relationship between the three being one of support, alludes to the arc, but in general the content and concept for this emotively charged work is formal, and the response is on many levels.
These more straightforward paintings on canvas can be juxtaposed against much more complicated works, ones that exist on many physical and conceptual layers. His diptych “Tributes to Mortality” is a product of not only master artistic skill, but also master craftsmanship. Each piece of the pair is painted meticulously on wood panel, and applied on and between two layers of Plexiglas, with a cut square of black in the glass and then covered with another layer of Plexiglas. Every step in the process has a purpose, every element in the piece has a reason, and every articulated symbolic expression has meaning. Each piece is painted with a lively and energetic gestural articulation of sea blue, clay brown, beige, white, pale gray, and black line. How these colors are applied is something irregular, spontaneous, haphazard, with a flow that can be frenzied, interrupted, or merely a dab of color. Behind the Plexiglas is the interweaving and interconnecting of line and color that is happening between layers. All is an excited articulation of painted form.
Read for conceptual meaning — which is Erdmann’s hope and intention — we find a visual irony in this diptych. We find the colors of life, of earth, of water, of sky, of ether, of motion, and all of this in a state of ebb and of flow. We see life happening in each of these canvases, with twists and turns, the beginnings and ends, the predictable and unexpected, the random and the chaotic, and the rhythms of life. But central is death itself, not twisting or turning, no beginning or end, nothing predictable or unexpected, nor random or chaotic, it is simply what it is, and it is exact, and it is precise. It is a dense and dark void. Nothing can penetrate it. And Erdmann needed two canvases, not one, to emphasize this, and this is life paying tribute to its own mortality, life paying tribute to death, the great irony of the diptych.
Erdmann has always been a great experimenter, working on different supports like stainless steel, and more recently, Plexiglas. “Having a sign shop I learned about Plexiglas, and I learned how to layer materials, I learned the same way I learned about welding, and if I didn’t know something, chances are I knew somebody that did,” says Erdmann. With Darryl Erdman, which is something most don’t understand about his work, if he has the idea, there is nothing standing in the way of his realizing the materialization of the concept. “It’s not a question of me being all over the place,” he says of his experimentation with different materials. “It’s a question of me having a full range of ability to reach the concept in any way I desire, Plexiglas, steel, wood, canvas… it takes what it takes.”
When one looks at a work like “Ecos,” one realizes the physical reach that Erdmann has with his materials, and the freedom he has to articulate his concepts. “Ecos” has none of the characteristic abstract sensibilities of “Tributes to Mortality” or “Arc” but the refined and concise articulation of a master craftsman who also happens to be a conceptual artist. The piece is a 3/4 inch thick structure of smoked Plexiglas, incorporated with 3 1/8 inch inserted Plexiglas panels, painted on both the front and reverse of each panel. The piece is an evocative and very sober statement on the fragility of the earth’s ecosystems, namely our local one, and the fragile webbing that is a non-linear system, and the state of disrepair of a non-natural linear system. In a very orderly and cogent manner, Erdmann makes an almost reverent allusion to nature that is bold, while being understated, as the best statements are.
Titles are incredibly important to Erdmann and, most often, a way to encourage viewers to absorb the visual language of his work conceptually, and allow key signifiers to enable paths of understanding. “Vibrato” is a musical effect consisting of a regular, pulsating change of pitch. It is used to add expression to vocal and instrumental music, and gives the viewer a way to enter the artist’s painting by that name. It also refers to Erdmann’s enduring love for music, which is evident from the piano and guitar in his front room, to the drum set in his studio. This piece has a much more variegated palette, and is highly and delicately nuanced. Without the definitive thin line of black that finds its way through the canvas, playfully, the canvas would lose focus and the articulation would become diffuse. But given this line as a sort of grounding to the delicate azure blues, taupes, white, beige, and citrus, these soft colors are allowed to do just what the title indicates, and a vibrato is manifested as colors pulsate and are given change of pitch, from one hue to the next, all to the added expression of the black line.
“Recital” also refers to music but is a painting altogether different in style and approach. It is not about a quality of music or the matter of music but very matter-of-fact, like “Ecos.” In a sense, it is more literal, it is controlled. Instead of a vacillation with nuances, here is a literal mechanization of music, being amplified from a box through a wire; the scene has an element that is very “Pop.” The composition is red, the music is “hot” and has a rhythm and an intensity, and as it is played from the amplifier through the zone of color, it shifts in hue until it passes through, transformed, having been seen and heard. It is a literal passage, and a transient abstraction, thus Erdmann saw this more graphic approach, one attributed, like “Ecos” to his years as a sign painter, as his visual vocabulary of choice.
“If I get an idea of what I want to express, lots of times the title and the feel of that piece supersedes whatever I have to do to get to that end… and that’s what I’ll do.” This may seem like a brazen attitude to painting, but for the artist, who believes that “the concept of the piece is 5,000 times more important,” he had better be prepared to achieve that concept, whatever it may be. A life of events and an insatiable passion has found him in a position of artistic freedom and license to make choices. Whatever concept may be his driving force, the means of conveying that abstractly are made available to him, without limitation through choices. Whether it be an obscure and malleable concept that demands the flexibility of his loose and gestural abstract style that has evolved, or whether it be a more literal and restrained concept that might demand a more structural approach acquired through sign painting, he has a choice. Be it a concept that might demand only canvas and paint for full fruition, or be it a construct of layers of Plexiglas, or even steel, and metal, Erdmann is prepared for anything. “Lots of people will say ‘You’re talented enough to be able to do that,’ and I will respond, ‘Well, no, I spent years silk-screening, I spent years painting signs, I did so much work with materials that I learned how to express myself, Plexiglas, paint, stainless, wood, it didn’t matter, everything was an adventure for me. And it still is.’”
A variety of work by Darryl Erdmann will be on exhibit at Salt Lake’s 15th Street Gallery in an exhibition that opens Friday, September 19th.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.