Erik Laffer has a cartographic interpretation of life.
The Schuylerville artist (owner of The Laffer Gallery) has always understood life visually, and found means to express himself artistically. But it wasn’t until he packed away his beloved Picasso books and took time off from regular museum pilgrimages that his unique vision started to emerge. An abstract style emerged – entirely distinct from his earlier “Picasso-esqe,” figurative works. He calls it “cartographic” art.
Laffer’s work is abstract, but references the concrete world through an implied horizon line, suggestions of structures and routes, and a vocabulary of symbols. Like a map, though, the paintings are only one way of interpreting things. Laffer sees his work as a journey that is different for each person.
“It’s a map,” Laffer noted in a recent interview, “it’s a map of my world. Places I’ve been, people I’ve met. If you have a map of Alaska, or a map of Florida, if you look at them, they almost look . . . like any map does: a lot of colors, roadways, keys. But if you follow a specific highway, or, in my instance a line or a certain texture, or a symbol, it takes you to a completely different place. And that’s how my paintings work.”
Laffer was born on Long Island, and moved to Greenwich, NY, at the age of three. After that, his life was continually in motion, with stints in Bethlehem, Albany and Saratoga. Part of a large family who also raised foster children, he grew up surrounded by people, yet he felt isolated by frustrations with schoolwork. Most academic subjects just didn’t allow for the visual, hands-on way in which Laffer understood his world. That’s where art came in.
“Academically, I always struggled,” he explained, “So I found art and creativity – building things and making things – was kind of an outlet to express myself.”
After high school, Laffer decided to skip college to follow what had become an artistic passion bordering on obsession.
“I wanted to paint on my own terms. I wanted to go the unfiltered route. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. I didn’t want to become a teacher. So, to go to school to paint and get a degree I can’t use anywhere – it just wasn’t for me.”
He started working at Celeste Susany Gallery in Saratoga and observing everything that worked or didn’t work in running a gallery; interacting with artists; and framing. Meanwhile, he continued to refine his own artistic vision.
One of the artists the gallery represented was Lawrence White, a NYC dance photographer, who clued Laffer in on routes into the art world. He suggested he pack up some of his paintings, head down to SoHo, and sell them on the street. Laffer thought this sounded like a crazy idea.
But, one morning about 10 years ago, he found himself doing just that.
[The first time] it was like 3 o’clock in the morning,” Laffer remembered. “I just packed my car with paintings and got some ridiculous looking racks to display my art and I went down to the location where [White] had told me to go to, set up this little booth on the street. It was a kind of crazy, surreal moment in my life. I’m in NYC, the art capital of the world. I’m in my early twenties, trying to sell paintings. And I sold a $1,000 painting that first weekend.”
Laffer embarked on a schedule that would last up until the economy crash of 2008. He worked at the Celeste Susany Gallery Mondays through Fridays, painted at night, and drove his canvases down to the city every weekend.
Within this new routine, elements of the trips themselves started to carry over into his paintings as weather symbols, clocks, roads and bridges. Suddenly there was consistent symbolic language, although Laffer admitted he didn’t immediately understand the meanings.
“I’ve created specific symbols that mean specific things, almost like a map key,” her explained. “The suns and the clouds for instance, those represent different people in my life . . . Those are on a conscious level. [But there are] dominant symbols in my work that . . . I still don’t know what they mean. A lot of times I’ll [paint a symbol] and then months later, or a year later, I’ll be putting that symbol in and get this very clear thought of what this is or why I’m doing this.”
Thirty layers of paint
Laffer has a studio on Broad Street in Schuylerville, a few doors down and a flight of stairs up from his gallery. One room is for storage, the other is for working. The airy space proves conducive to the canvases he stretches directly onto his studio walls.
He uses modeling paste as a base for his paintings. The paste dries in 30 minutes – so he must work efficiently to incise it with all the textures and lines he envisions.
“[The artistic process] is really intense. It’s like flashcards in my head: there’s a thousand different thoughts going on at one time. A lot of times I’ll close my eyes and start creating the line, and the energy or movement of a certain texture [has tangible references]. If I have this thought in my head of going for a run, and I step in a puddle – the motion of the splash – I’ll create that energy in my work.”
The modeling paste is allowed to dry overnight. Then Laffer applies from 20-30 layers of thick oil paint to the canvas – wiping the canvas off between layers with a cloth – creating a strong tonal background for the symbols and lines.
”My [high school] art teacher, Andy Masino, said, ‘it’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint it.’” he said. “And for some reason, that’s always stuck with me. It’s just a very powerful statement. For me, when I look at artwork and I appreciate art, it’s not necessarily the object . . . it’s the texture, the color, the energy. And [trying to] comprehend where that artist was coming from or where they were in their life.”
It takes Laffer anywhere from 12-18 hours to create each painting, from blank canvas to completion – when there is a point of completion.
“[A painting is finished] when it feels right,” Laffer explained. “And there are days I’ll decide that it doesn’t and toss it. A lot of times you can’t go back into it [due to] the process and how the paint works.”
The Laffer Gallery
Erik Laffer continued to follow his creative passion as a fulltime artist.
And then, in June 2012 he opened The Laffer Gallery.
“When this space became available, I saw the possibility,” he said. “I’d always wanted to open my own art gallery. Financially, I don’t think there will ever be a ‘perfect time,’ so I just jumped on the opportunity and kept my fingers crossed that everything would be alright.”
Nearly two years later, the gallery and custom-framing shop are thriving.
The gallery offers several distinct environments for art. The front area of the main room is reserved for featured artists – the back area features a collective of other artists Laffer represents. But the art doesn’t stop there. There’s also a workspace that serves two purposes:
“This back area is where I’ll do the framing,” he explained. “And after each exhibit I’ll keep two or three pieces from each artist and I’ll continue to represent them [salon style] . . . I really do well in this back space. I think it’s psychological for people – they’ll come to a current exhibit, and [then in the workspace] see what was here last month or two months ago.”
He also created a small living-room type space to convey how a painting might look over someone’s couch or across from their TV – as opposed to hanging in a pristine gallery display. The room also comes in handy during opening receptions, which attract anywhere from 150-250 people.
Part of this success may be due to geography – Schuylerville is only 20 minutes from Saratoga, and offers an eclectic combination of the historical and the chic.
A greater part may be due to Laffer’s careful exhibit philosophy. Although he occasionally does group or solo shows, most exhibits pair a local artist with an artist from outside of the area, concurrently highlighting local talent and bringing in new ideas. Visually, Laffer decides on these pairings by “the overall energy and feel of the work,” seeking a harmony that transcends medium or subject-matter.
Laffer’s approach to art, to his gallery, to life, all combine in a holistic, creative way of doing things. His life is art, his art a reflection and expression of life.