Distorted world of Eli Craven

Pulled, twisted and manipulated imagery is Eli Craven’s thing. Often with a little hint of sexuality, Eli alters the visual to showcase his own idea of reality.

Plea for Tenderness (Red), 2014

Eli is an American artist whose primary interest is photography, though his oeuvre also covers installations and sculpture. Eli manipulates the ordinary and tries to come beneath the surface of everyday consciousness. Eli’s frequent collaborator is none other than his architect wife, Maria Chavez. At the moment the pair is working on an ongoing project that began as a sculptural reinterpretation of the American Red Cross manuals imagery. Just days before his new exhibition opening at Open House Contemporary in Chicago, we sat down with the artist to talk about his idea of altered reality, fears and what puts his imagination to work.

Eli, the beginning is a very fitting place to start this interview off, don’t you think?

Indeed, it is a very fitting place to start. I was born in Idaho Falls. A small, conservative place that is very isolated, homogenous and religious. I was, of course, born pre-internet too, so I relied on magazines, television, and movies to learn about what existed outside of my hometown. The issues I investigate in my work really developed while being raised in a strict household there. Not strict like militant, there was love and care, but strict in regards to what my parents allowed me to view, read, or watch. They were concerned with the influence that images could have, especially the images in the magazines that I wanted to look at.

What kind of art did you start with?

As a kid, I didn’t want to be an artist. My father was an artist, a landscape painter, and I thought that was all there was to art – painting, I mean. He tried to coax me into learning painting techniques with him, but I wasn’t interested. I was only interested in music and skateboarding. Anything I associated with my parents wasn’t cool. So, I started with photography. I taught myself how to use a camera and I built a darkroom in my sister’s basement laundry room. I didn’t think of it as ‚art‘ at the time, and I actually grew to hate it once I had a taste of working for a client. It didn’t suit me, but much later I found I was still interested in the photograph as an object. The materiality of the photograph and the image’s ability to communicate led me back to photography as an artist.

How did you come up with the imagery you are known for today?

An important aspect of the work for me is searching for sources, images and objects. I spend a lot of time at estate sales and second-hand stores. While I look for anything that catches my attention, I find I am drawn to the images I remember from my youth and the types of images I wasn’t allowed to see. I locate images that I am attracted to in some way and that I find to be problematic. For example, in the Screen Lovers collages, I stumbled upon that book at an estate sale. I was attracted to the imagery of romantic film stills, but upon further investigation, I realized there was something off about all of the images, they didn’t reflect reality. That is when I felt the urge to alter them.

To alter them to match the reality or to alter your own reality?

I suppose it is my own reality because the manipulations came from my imagination. I was thinking of the complexity of sex and how it can take many forms and I didn’t see that in the original stills. The images were frozen in the moment before contact. There were romance and a suggestion of sex, but the rest is in the viewer’s imagination. I wanted the actors to come together and do what comes next. In some of the images, I tried to make that happen by placing the characters in position, in others I just folded the two together, obscuring the original, making a new form. I wanted the images to closer reflect a reality that exists outside of the movies, but it is possible that they simply reflect what’s on my mind.

Tell me more about your work process?

The act of looking for images and at images seems to drive the work. It is in the search where I come up with a lot of ideas. Sometimes I find a source that instantly sparks a project, other times I see something I am drawn to but I’m not sure why. I will pin it up in the studio, or if it’s a book, I keep it around and revisit it occasionally. I look for images, I think of images and create images then I arrange them in the studio, spend time with them and play around with how they can be re-made. Eventually, ideas take shape, and then I work with more focus. In the end, the process is always changing depending on what I am working on, and I like that. The work always seems new to me, and I continually get excited about it.

What do you think is more important, the idea or the execution?

Ideally, I think good work has both ideas and execution. If I have to choose though, I say the idea. If poor execution distracts from the idea, the content may still be present. However, even with perfect execution and an attractive work of art, if there is no content underneath, the work might fall flat once the initial attraction wears off

Traces of sexuality are often present in your work, but everything is semi-hidden. Is sexuality more interesting when mysterious or is it about putting viewers imagination to work?

I think both. Some of the work is about teasing the erotic out of the every day through covering or withholding information. I am not so much interested in using overtly sexual imagery. I am more interested in the relationship between photography and desire and the act of looking like an erotic act. That is how I approached the Plea for Tenderness collages for Baron Magazine. The original images were taken from fashion magazines, and they became erotic or sexual once covered or altered in some way. When the view has obstructed the desire to see is intensified, and the viewer’s imagination makes assumptions about the hidden or removed content. The viewer’s imagination is then put to work through the mystery of what is hidden beneath.

What puts your imagination to work, aside from what we just spoke about?

Most of my ideas form when searching for materials or when working with the materials in the studio, but sometimes projects develop elsewhere – books, movies, music, etc. The Naïve Objects work started when I was reading about naïve optics, studies about the misconceptions of mirror reflections. At the same time, I had acquired a box of family photographs and was thinking about my childhood and family. I had these ideas floating around in my mind about mirror reflections, and I had all these emotions tied to my family history. The result was a body of work investigating my naïve perceptions of family and how the photographs told a different story than my memory. There is often emotion behind the work, whether it is fear, desire, or sadness. It seeps in at times and the music I listen to, and books I read can influence what I make. Lately, I have been listening to a lot of Lambchop and Aldous Harding in the studio, and I am currently reading a book about boredom. We’ll see where that takes me.

Lastly, what do you fear?

I fear so many things. Fear actually is a source of content in my work. I am afraid of heights, large bodies of water, etc. Death, rejection, judgment, loss, being alone, embarrassment from an interview, revealing too much about myself, so many fears.

Text: Katja Horvat

Photos: Courtesy of the artist