The Desperados of the OC Art Scene
Baldemar Fierro, Eric Gerdau and Andrew Myers herald a new generation of independent artists
Sculptor and conceptual artist Andrew Myers sits outside of his studio and takes a pull from a bottle of Stella. It’s afternoon in Laguna Canyon and the sun that filters through the oak trees has lost most of its midday fury. Everything in this little corner of the world – from the curving canyon walls to the corrugated tin buildings to the thrift store chairs – seems to hold the light just so.
It’s easy to see why a creative mind would be drawn to the spot.
“It’s our little collective out here,” Myers says with pride, “a place for us to show work, meet clients, and host dinners – but it’s also evidence of what it means to be an artist. Because you can see by spending any amount of time here that being an artist isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are.”
The statement draws a nod from painter Eric Gerdau, whose own studio is just steps away. The two of them, along with photographer Baldemar Fierro, compose the collective that Myers is referencing. As a group they’ve eschewed traditional representation in favor of savvy self-promotion. For Gerdau this risk-taking creative community is part of what brought him from New York to Orange County.
“Historically, there have always been collectives and movements that started outside of the gallery system,” he says. “One interesting thing about us is how widely our art practices differ. There’s very little overlap in our content; it’s more about similar philosophies.”
Though their mediums vary vastly, the trio’s thought process on the business of art is often unified. They are skilled self-promoters with an outsider’s ethos but an insider’s keen awareness.
“Eric and I both started out in the gallery system,” Myers explains. “But only getting 50 percent of each sale makes it hard. After materials, I was making 20 percent, which wasn’t cutting it — I thought there had to be another way.”
In recent years, all three artists have had success selling directly to their clients through studio visits, on the Internet, by showing work at restaurants, and by participating in Laguna Beach’s Festival of the Arts. They are quick to make clear that they aren’t anti-gallery, but they do seem to enjoy the freedom that comes with working outside of its structure.
“For my part, I haven’t experienced being with a gallery before,” says Fierro. He’s usually a fixture at these afternoon conversations in the canyon but has Skyped in from Stockholm this time. “What I do know is that dealing with restaurants, or the festival, or meeting clients online has created freedom to show whatever I want, set my prices wherever I want, and negotiate on my own terms. I never feel trapped.”
Laguna Beach has a history of anti-establishment artists — the Sawdust Festival was founded around that very notion — but Fierro, Gerdau, and Myers aren’t dealing in low price points and high volume, they sell their work in the $5,000-$40,000 range. Those prices require a well-heeled clientele, the sort that galleries typically provide for their artists. By stepping away from exclusive representation they’ve had to find new ways to connect to the fine art buying public, including showing work in restaurants (in this case, Laguna Beach’s Broadway by Amar Santana) — a practice that had long been considered futile.
“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have even thought about it,” Gerdau admits. “But in 2014 it works — and I love the ironic metaphor: rather than being starving artists, we’re literally setting the table.”
Fierro savors the fact that diners get to experience his work for an hour or two at a time. “I had a woman call me up and buy a piece seven months after she saw it,” he says. “And I think it was because it had time to take hold in her consciousness, rather than stepping into a gallery and stepping out five minutes later.”
As a result of the success at Broadway (all three artists have sold pieces during their exhibitions there) Myers and his art team VP John Yerkovich are launching a consulting business to host curated shows in premier restaurants.
“People have been putting art in restaurants for decades,” Myers says. “What’s new is the focus on creating an experience — one that’s just as good as any gallery show.”
Working with restaurants may be more feasible now, but it’s the rise of social media and the power of the Internet which have really thrown the doors open for fine artists and art buyers to meet. Myers and Fierro both keep active Facebook fan pages, and all three men cultivate a strong online presence. Fierro’s work naturally lends itself to the photo-sharing app Instagram and many of his patrons follow him there to keep tabs on the travels that generate much of his content. Myers’ series of “screw art” paintings, made with thousands of individual screws, have been featured on popular photo sites like TheChive.com, Flavorwire.com, and ThisisMarvelous.com all of which generated huge spikes in web traffic. Though that sort of publicity doesn’t always translate to immediate sales, the long-term effect helps build a pipeline of fans.
“The seventeen year-old who liked my work when I was starting out is thirty now,” Myers says by way of explanation. “And he’s got enough money to buy a piece. You have to open doors and build relationships.”
Gerdau isn’t on social media but he hosts his work online so that fans can follow his widely varying shifts in technique and aesthetic.
“My website is treated as a virtual gallery,” he says. “People who see my work in any forum have a place to go back to. And I generate a lot of sales and commissions from there.”
Without the aide of galleries (which often use these same methods of web, e-mail and social media promotion) the trio has to fend for themselves — a role that all three are naturally suited to. They are charming at every turn. When being interviewed or showcasing work, none of them comes off as particularly tortured—another artist stereotype that they’re quick to put aside.
“We can’t be the artists crouched in the corner in the fetal position,” Myers says. “We have to be in front of people, connecting, in order to make sales. The festival taught me that when I first started eleven years ago.”
The festival that Myers is referencing is Laguna Beach’s Festival of the Arts, where Fierro and Gerdau also exhibit. This year, Pat Sparkhul, curator of the festival’s permanent collection, acquired one of Fierro’s pieces on the festival’s behalf. Sparkhul holds all three artists in high regard and sees the Festival of the Arts as a key ingredient for working around traditional gatekeepers.
“The Internet offers a new paradigm for how to get your work out there,” he says. “That being said, one of the challenges is actually getting to see the work. The festival gives these guys 55 straight nights of artist reception every summer so their clients, who might only know them online, have a chance to meet them and look at the art in three dimensions.”
Sparkhul’s comments hint at the common thread between the methods that Fierro, Myers and Gerdau rely on to build their businesses: They are open and generous with their time (when showing work at Broadway, the three often stop by — it isn’t uncommon for a diner to comment on a piece and be introduced to the artist sitting two tables over). This open-door policy differs greatly from galleries, where the artists desire a firewall between themselves and the public.
“You could show in a gallery for a long time and never come face to face with whoever is buying your work,” Gerdau says, “but in the way we have shows in private spaces and at festivals, we’re able to build relationships. Some of the people we meet might be intimidated by the gallery system, they might not be art buyers per se. Having a direct contact with the artist offers them a new comfort level.”
Of course all the promotion in the world doesn’t matter if the work doesn’t measure up — and Myers, Gerdau, and Fierro are intensely aware of this fact. Above all, they take their artistic practice seriously and part of their relationship dynamic is about pushing one another to evolve, to never rest on laurels, and to make time to experiment.
“We can talk our heads off, but at the end of the day you have to have a good product,” Myers says. “That’s where we really pride ourselves: in the work. We push one another, but it’s more camaraderie than competition.”
Myers finishes his thought and reaches for a second beer. The shadows are growing longer in Laguna Canyon. Dinner plans are being discussed. Perhaps they’ll play a round of “Canyon Golf” in a dry creek bed running alongside the studio. Fierro signs off of Skype to go explore Stockholm with his medium-format camera in hand. For a group of guys so fearlessly independent, so confident in their ability to chart a new course, the whole crew spends a ton of time together. They are friends first, doing the work they love, in a way that makes financial sense for them — a win-win-win.
Eric Gerdau leans back in his chair and passes a hand across his stubble. There are e-mails to return, and calls to make — and of course, the next painting is always waiting on the easel. But for now, it’s good to just hang out. The afternoon has a nice way of lingering in this shady spot.
He takes a moment to survey the life he and his friends have carved for themselves. “We’re a system of our own,” he says, “proving that independence doesn’t have to mean isolation.