ERIK FOSS for THE NEW ORDER MAGAZINE (Australia/New Zealand)
It is mind boggling that Erik Foss is not a douchebag. By any measure of his peers, Foss has all the qualifications for a master's degree in Asshole; He is equal parts mega-cool bar owner, exclusive gallerist, rising fine artist, and owner of a phone book that, if dropped into the wrong hands, would force every dirty rockstar, fashion model, and celebrity artist below fourteenth street to change their numbers. It's an intoxicating cocktail of power positions. On paper, Foss conjures images of narcissistic excess, debauchery, and flash. A too-cool-for-you type who spends his time passing judgement and coke mirrors between successful pretty people.
Instead, on the day of our interview, Erik is wearing one of the same three pairs of jeans I've seen him in for the last four years, dirty and paint splattered, sipping a fresh squeezed juice outside of a health food store on Ludlow street, and in a characteristically pragmatic fashion statement, he is using a well worked in shopping bag for a carry-all. "This thing is great!" he grins. "I've got a digital camera in there, keys, a cell phone, a book, and Carlo McCormick's fuckin' dog food.' As surprised as anyone might be by the last ingredient, it goes understood that he would be carrying around the dog chow in his plastic man-purse of one of New York's best known art writers. That's just the kind of guy he is.
Standing six foot four and littered with tattoos, Erik Foss cuts a lanky, long-torsoed silhouette. These days he wears his jet black hair in a strict side part, or whisked straight back. He favors skinny jeans and black leather ankle boots, eyes often obscured behind a requisite pair of ray-bans floating above a warm, goofy smile. Judging a book by it's cover, his appearance is an amalgam of generations, equal parts 1910 and right here and now, a touch of nazi Germany, with a dollop of blue collar America. According to his birth certificate, however, he was born in Chicago, Illinois, some thirty odd years ago. His mother was a strict catholic, and a professional housewife, and his father a retired marine. Needless to say, flexibility was not their strongest trait, and the senior Foss' controlling hand soon reached too far. Upon his parents' split during Erik's adolescence, he and his mother moved to a trailer park in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was raised. Eventually, hemmed in by his mother's religious devotion and the meager offerings of the family's locale, he left for wilder shores, leaving behind all things Jesus and protected, arriving in New York on Halloween 1996, dead broke.
The East Village of the 90's was a different animal than it is today. It had bad breath and a mean bite - equal parts addict and freak. Today, at a glance, downtown is all corn bred farm boy and greasy yuppie, a side effect of a lethal bout of NYU infection, of which symptoms include obsessive Ugg wearing and $12 cocktails. Everything has been contaminated except a few filthy holdouts to which creatives and natives flock, where sparkly strap tops and flip flops are turned away at the door. Eight years ago, sensing the impending cultural apocalypse in the neighborhood, Foss hatched a plan. With his partner David Schwartz, a deceptively intimidating Yin to Foss’ Yang, the pair decided to open a bar and a gallery to cater to their people: open minded artist types, alternative, strange people, people who had to work to become what they are. But the dream was not without obstacle: the partners were penniless. As he explains it, “when poor people want to start a business, they don’t know rich people, yet when poor people walk into a bank asking for a loan, they call security.”
No one would back them, so they did it their way. For six months straight Foss worked three service jobs at once, funneling every penny he made into David’s hands, working all his nights doing construction on the business. On the ominously harmonious day of February, 2nd, 2002 (2.2.2002), the proverbial ribbon was cut, finally opening the doors to Lit Bar, and Fuse gallery.Despite Foss’ dismissiveness about any symbolisms in the odd timestamp, the place is clearly of the same flesh and blood as he is. “93 means love!” he says, referring to the bar’s address, and upon further investigation, in the study of numerology, the number 2 stands for something to the effect of kindness, generosity, warmth, peace, and sensitivity. Any way you slice it, 93’s love plus 2’s general saintliness, does not equal your standard asshole.
Within the tiny cultural mecca that is downtown Manhattan, Lit’s reputation is colossal. In it’s eight short years of liquor slinging, the club’s cavernous black rooms and filthy goings on have become the stuff of legend. Lit is where you go to sweat, and be seen sweating. It is where you go to dance until you can’t stand up anymore. It is where you go when all the other parties are over, and you’re too fucked up to have to deal with self-awareness; to find cheap beer, good music, and real people, (and, in previous years, to see someone getting coke snorted off their dick on the dancefloor - note: this, no more). On the main floor, past a string of cocktail tables, a hand-crafted bar, some turntables, and two of the dirtiest bathrooms in New York, there stands a profoundly creepy original statue by HR Giger, one of the most famous fantastical surrealists in the world. The little iron creature stands guard at the barrier between the front’s grime, and the clean, white walled world through the thick glass door at the very back end of 93 2nd Avenue. This little space is Foss's cathedral. This is Fuse.
Back in 2001, while Erik reveled in the instant viral success of the front part of the bar, Fuse burst into it's first year wearing a cape of dark surrealism. Coached by a now estranged curator, the new gallery hosted a slew of paintings of mangled, fantastical creatures, replete with bug eyed little girls, and tattoo culture references. It took until the summer of 2006 for the directorship to fall into Foss’ capable hands, at which point the tides turned. In came a wave of thinkers, out of the box conceptual artists, underground stars of the moving screen, and dirt-bag intellectuals, eager to share everything from their photos, to full-room installations.
Around the same time as he became Captain Canvas at Fuse, however, Foss went through a far less glamorous series of events in his personal life, culminating with his ex-girlfriend knocking out one of his front two teeth with a full bottle of Heineken. In a haze of dentist visits and peace meal memories about why he was also nursing a broken leg, Erik decided it was time to quit the sauce. He went stone cold sober from one day to the next. It is not to be under-estimated what a tremendous feat sobriety is for a person in Foss' position. Lit had become a mainstay for many of downtown's ravishing beauties, eager to suck down whiskeys with the owner of their favorite establishment. And often, Foss noticed, if one waited until the last ice cube melted, many of them were all too eager to gulp down other things besides booze, simply because he owned the key to the front door. He became hyper aware of the fact that, as he puts it, “when people drink, they lose all control.. you can do whatever you like to them.”
If Erik was to successfully manage to keep all his teeth in his mouth, he had to immerse himself in something else entirely.
Disenchanted with watching people destroy themselves in the pre-dawn haze, Erik replaced booze with iced coffee and began exploring what the daylight hours had to offer. Out went drugs, and in came spray paint as he submerged himself in his art. Ever the provocateur, he began working in collage, using cut outs from the stacks of vintage porn magazines he had been amassing for years. “The porn in my work has to do with Lit, with that power the girls give you, just the dirty things you see as a bar owner." Erik says. "It all has to do with human rubbernecking and taboos.” As his eyes adjusted to daylight, a new central theme emerged: poverty. This is a subject that has always struck home with Erik, ever since his days in the trailer park. He has a profound appreciation for those who earn what they have, and an even more intense desire to help those who have nothing.
“One of my favorite things to do is creep up on bums and sneak a twenty in their pocket without them noticing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that. It’s just the greatest feeling in the world, to anonymously give to people who need it. Nothing brings me more pleasure than giving.”If Erik had his way, destitution and the destitute would be something the world would deal with, so when, in 2008, his good friend, San Francisco gallerist Justin Giarla gave Foss his first show, the centerpiece of the exhibition was a massive American flag constructed out of signs he bought from homeless beggars on the street.
On the back of this warmly received debut, Foss began showing his cheek everywhere from the NY armory show to V1 gallery in Copenhagen. He moved his studio out of his apartment and into a proper workspace on the top floor of an artist collective on the Northern border of Chinatown. In contrast to the self-centeredness that recognition might provoke in other artists, Erik’s excitement about the world he was finally infiltrating, only charged his desire to support others.
Over the last year the Foss/Schwartz partners teamed up with a developer known as “Chickenhead” to open another bar and gallery, this time in a grimey, working class quarter of Philadelphia. Like a devoted parent, Kung Fu Necktie tirelessly labors at hawking liquor and parties to be able to fund it’s artsy upstairs progeny, Shadow’s Space gallery. To purchase the space and open the doors, Foss invested his life savings, a move that left him where he is now; “Broker than since I was a waiter”.
Like a walking measure of New York’s obsessions, Erik weathers the current climate; with the art market crashing, the booze market skyrockets. And while the greedy kings of yesteryear’s excess scramble to shield their nuts, Erik’s gap-toothed smile and altruistic philosophy prevail: “It’s my responsibility to take care of others. The universe will take care of me.”
© Copyright, iO Tillett Wright 2012