A study in abstraction

A winning combination of talent and charm put artist Eric Mack on the fast track

While the rest of us
are content to just nose-breathe, Eric Mack gulps oxygen and information like a dying man. He gets excited about everything from the food to the ambiance while chatting at the hipster grotto Teaspace in Little Five Points. He uses chopsticks like an expert. He notices design and nuance. He solicits opinions. He is ravenous for knowledge, for stimulation, inspiration, direction. An hour or two spent in his company feels like mainlining the very essence of youth.

In Mack’s world, music is always blasting: Pizzicato Five or Nirvana or Strawberry Alarm Clock. The style may change, but the beat goes on. Mack is currently knocked out by a neo-’80s band from Liverpool called Ladytron. Later in the day, while holding court in his paint-encrusted Briarcliff apartment, he enthuses, “You gotta go get that album.”

From his dreadlocked head to his Kenneth Cole boots, the 26-year-old artist seems somehow melodic even in his attire. His art — upbeat futuristic collages with a dose of ’80s nostalgia — could be described in the same terms.

Mack makes wild-style collaged paintings. Their infectiously frenzied cacophony of colors, grids and interwoven arteries suggests electronic circuit boards, city maps, quilts and, of course, music. Chock full of snaking highways of color, scraps of pop culture artifacts, movement, energy and the frenzied, blood-pumping course of life itself, Mack’s work sings.

When talking about Mack’s success to high-powered gallery owners and local artists, the word that comes up most often is, in a nutshell, charm. With his funky United Colors of Value Village clothes, long dreadlocks and good looks, Mack cuts a striking figure, and he isn’t oblivious to the effect he has on people.

In part, that is what’s allowed Mack to adapt to the inner workings of the Atlanta art scene like a duck to water. Early on, he learned to appreciate the elements of performance and salesmanship. For instance, instead of taking the usual route of anonymously mailing slides to potential galleries, Mack decided to cut out the middleman — phone, e-mail, mail — and go back to basics. Now he always delivers slides, resumes or postcards of upcoming shows to writers and gallery owners in person.

“People like it,” he says. “That’s what separates me from the average artist.”

He may be onto something. Although he graduated from the Atlanta College of Art just four years ago, Mack has been a steadily growing phenomenon on the Atlanta art scene. He’s shown work at Youngblood Gallery, Gallery Eleven50, City Gallery East and Fay Gold Gallery. He’s sold paintings to private and corporate collectors, like the Atlanta law firms King & Spalding and Alston & Bird.

In short, Eric Mack has become a mini-tsunami on the Atlanta art scene.

Mack had an American childhood most notable for its straight-arrow normality. Born in Charleston, S.C., he spent his entire life before college in its suburbs along with two siblings, his cosmetologist mother Betty and father Arthur, an electrician.

“I played T-ball, team sports — fishing, family trips, karate, Boy Scouts,” Mack says, listing his Cleaver-esque resume. “It was, I guess, an average family life.” To say that Mack’s family was assimilated goes without saying, considering their residence was in a Goose Creek subdivision called Crowfield Plantation.

But Mack’s omnivorous visual education began early. The same pop culture elements that continue to influence his work today cropped up in Mack’s life early on. He was fascinated with the emerging world of breakdancing and video games, not to mention the formative influence of his father’s favorite pop and rock music. His interest in music was also stoked by yearly visits to his cousins in New York. There he would bask in the exciting musical innovations that hadn’t yet reached Goose Creek — found on a Manhattan radio station helmed by a DJ called “Mr. Magic.”

Meanwhile, the budding art entrepreneur made pocket change in elementary school by selling his drawings to fellow students. “I would draw Pac-Man and other game characters back in the early ’80s. I remember different breakdancing moves like the Windmill that you could do. I’d draw people doing the dance moves, and color them up and sell them for, like, a dollar or two dollars in elementary school.”

Mack took his moneymaking ventures up a notch in his teens. When he was 13, his incessant demands for frequent haircuts led his mother to buy him his own pair of clippers. “Start cutting,” she told him.

A prodigy with the shears, Mack didn’t waste any time practicing this practical art on his own head. “I cut my name in cursive,” he recalls. Eventually he was cutting hair for a cross section of his classmates, including members of the football and basketball teams.

“She got me those clippers and told me that once I learned to cut hair I would never have to worry about going hungry, because any time you’ve got a skilled trade you can always barter off for food or services, or you can get money,” he says.

Mack was a likable kid throughout middle school and into high school, though he developed a wild streak when he entered ninth grade that dogged him through his high school years.

“I started experimenting with marijuana,” he recalls. “After ninth grade, I was having fun. I wasn’t failing any classes, but I was just basically doing what I needed to get by — just kicking it, going to the football games.”

Developing a skilled trade was only one part of Betty Mack’s plan for her son’s future. She told young Eric in no uncertain terms that when he finished high school, he could either go to college or he could sign up with Uncle Sam. Suddenly, a plan revealed itself.

“I was like, ‘Look man, I gotta do something and I’m not going to shoot no gun,’” recalls Mack. “My senior year, I decided I was going to ACA. The only school I applied to was ACA. I sent that application off and I said, ‘Oh, I got to get accepted. If I don’t get accepted, what am I gonna do?’”

As it turns out, getting into ACA wasn’t an issue. But staying grounded his freshman year was another story.

“Opium, hash oil, LSD, mushrooms, weed, THC, gel tabs, roofies,” Mack says, ticking off a list of his art-school muses. “Things were experimented with. In 1994, when I got there, that school was wild.”

Life is not always reducible to epiphanies and moments of lightening-bolt self-realization. But at some point during his sophomore year at ACA, Mack’s party-boy fog began to lift and certain things came into focus. He looked back on his already-squandered freshman year, and he didn’t like what he saw.

“I said, ‘Basically one year is already down. I have three more years of school. I can’t let this money go to waste, I can’t let myself go to waste. I need to find out what I’m here to do,’” Mack says.

That year, he took his first painting class with Atlanta artist Charles Nelson, and he learned about a phenomenon no one had ever told him about.

Black painters.

Suddenly, Mack was aware of not only being connected to a tradition of art making, but he experienced firsthand, from Nelson’s example, that the tradition continued in a new generation.

“I saw Charles was fresh out of grad school — he was a young teacher. I liked his work. And he told me of other African-American artists I could look at and kind of see paths that had been laid,” says Mack. “Just looking at those guys’ work, I saw similarities in some of those older artists’ work and what I was doing in college. I [realized] I was about to be on this path without even knowing about these guys. I felt I was totally in the dark, and I had to catch up.”

As any of his friends and mentors will tell you, Mack is soppy with absorbency, eager to mop up the art world’s advice. He asked Nelson to recommend artists and books he should study, and he surrounded himself with an informal support group of older, wiser artists like Nelson, Kevin Cole, Kojo Griffin and others.

Mack had started at ACA as an illustration major for practical reasons — i.e. making a living. But with Nelson’s encouragement, he took a leap of faith and switched to painting.

The idea of a tradition of African-American art seemed to give Mack focus and a fire in the belly that, coupled with his charismatic personality, began to attract attention. Three months after graduating with a degree in painting, Mack remarkably scored a solo show, Tribal Funk, at Gallery Domo, a now-defunct Peachtree Street art space. He has continued to doggedly show every year since graduation. And in December 2001, he achieved what many Atlanta artists would give their firstborn for: The town’s highest-profile gallery owner, Fay Gold, which represents national artists like Andres Serrano and David Levinthal, decided to represent his work — highly unusual for an unproven artist.

Like many of the people who have worked with Mack, Gold was impressed not only with his work but his persona. She decided to represent Mack’s artwork because she found him to be sincere and approachable.

“There’s an honest feeling” about Mack’s work, says Gold. “It’s feel-good — and those are two key words to people buying art post-9-11.”

It’s worth noting that, along with the postmodern death of the Great White Male has come the death of the Great White Epically Dysfunctional Artist whose mystique could actually be enhanced by a drunken piss in an art benefactor’s fireplace. As a young, hip African-American producer of upbeat abstractions in an age of high-profile exhibitions for black artists, Mack is a new breed of artist cognizant of the demands of this changed landscape.

“I think the days of the diva artist are over,” says Nelson. “There’s a million artists out there; a million-and-one artists graduating from art school every day. So what’s going to separate you is not only your work, but also your personal relationships and how you interact with people.”

Part of Mack’s promising ascent is certainly attributable to word of mouth and a sense that this artist is the kind of friendly, talented, young newcomer who established artists are more likely to tell collectors and gallery owners about.

But it’s not just sales hype. “He’s doing what is honest to him, whereas a lot of artists will go with what sells,” says Kevin Cole, a local artist and curator who included Mack’s work in a show for the National Black Arts Festival last July.

For Cole, Mack marks a necessary progression in art by local African-Americans, as his work departs from the representational forms of Kojo Griffin and Radcliffe Bailey to achieve a new aesthetic in abstraction. And Mack could be emerging into the Atlanta art market at a serendipitous time. There is a growing interest among local African-Americans in collecting and learning more about contemporary and abstract work, says Cole, pointing out that Atlanta is a city with a high concentration of black millionaires.

It’s Friday afternoon, and heads are being pruned for the coming weekend. The Barber’s Edge is rapidly filling up with warm bodies.

The shop has the slightly grungy feel of a locker room or college dorm. Shorn hair coats every available surface, and the faint smell of urine pokes out from behind the barbery smells of aftershave. It’s the kind of place where guys who don’t care too much about $2 words like “ambiance” congregate. A thirtysomething guy is face down on a bench, sucking Naugahyde until it’s his turn for a trim. Jay-Z is blasting, the Coke machine is gurgling, a baby is crying — just another din amid the human fracas of Buford Highway.

“It’s like a male lair,” says Mack of the Buford Highway barbershop he co-owns with a Vietnam vet. He turns his attention to the customer at hand, one in the seemingly relentless stream of men who pass through his shop — a guy sipping malt liquor from a brown bag, a father with his infant son in tow, a clean-cut financial manager, students, gangstas, blue-collar workers. As he cuts, Mack also attends to constant phone calls as more customers try to squeeze in a cut before the weekend. From morning until night, Mack does it all: “Flattops, fades, skin fades, shadow fades; babies to old people, black, white, Chinese, Mexican, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Africans, anyone who has hair,” he says.

The similarities between cutting hair and painting are obvious. Both require fine motor skills and a winning way with people, and it’s clear from watching Mack at the Edge, that the guy can talk to anyone.

“A lot of times, clients feel comfortable with someone doing their hair when they seem like they’re on the same wavelength with you,” says Mack. “It’s a real personal kind of thing.”

For Mack, barbering is a way to pay the bills, but it’s also a distraction — a barrier between him and his dream. When Mack thinks of his five- or 10-year plan, barbering isn’t in it. “Success will be being able to live off my work — just sit on the floor and paint all day,” he says.

There’s no denying the influence Atlanta’s black artists have had on Mack — from ACA instructor Charles Nelson to the players on the local scene. But maybe there was something about the education he got at his mama’s hands that has proven even more beneficial in his art career: Cutting hair is a dependable vocation, and it’ll pay the bills until he can realize his dream. But perhaps more importantly, it provides him with a forum for honing his people skills. Because putting his customers at ease, making small talk, keeping the customer coming back for more — whether for a flattop fade or a $6,000 painting — that is the essence of the Mack charm.