After eight years in Seattle, Derek Erdman is back in Chicago, and he’s having a show | Feature | Chicago Reader

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After eight years in Seattle, Derek Erdman is back in Chicago, and he’s having a show

The artist/writer/prankster has moved beyond city rat poster parodies to a gallery.


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  • Ashley Armitage

If you look closely at the flyers stapled to your neighborhood telephone poles, you might spot a colorful counterpart to the city's anti-rat posters. They're nearly identical to the originals but instead of warning against the rodents, they urge Chicagoans to give the rats a free meal & say hello.

The culprit behind these copycat posters is artist Derek Erdman—best known for his candy-colored paintings of miscellaneous pop ephemera: burgers and Ouija boards and curling-cord telephones and nuns blowing bubble gum.

After eight years in Seattle, Erdman, who's 44, returned to Chicago last October with his partner, photographer Ashley Armitage. Ten months later, he still has yet to have a formal art show—until now. "This show's going to be sort of a coming-out show in Chicago," says Erdman. Though he and Armitage have hosted exhibitions in their home before, this one takes place in a less domestic "living room," a realty office turned gallery shared with Girls Rock Chicago's headquarters (where 10 percent of the show's profits will go).

The show is called "A Young Person's Guide to Hot & Sour," a title borrowed from a tape Erdman made "a really long time ago" of microcassette recordings "transferred to a CD in an electric storm." Though seemingly nonsensical, the title illuminates the theme of the show: duality.

“A Young Persons Guide to Hot & Sour”
9/8-9/22, Living Room Realty, 1530 W. Superior, 312-226-3020, Opening Sat 9/8, 7-11 PM.  F

"It's about right and wrong and the moral compass," says Erdman. "The majority of the paintings are about that, things that are bad, things that are good." The show features Erdman's newest works, large paintings that depict scenes rather than individual portraits.

Part of why it's taken this long for Erdman to put together his inaugural Chicago gallery show is that he waited for a gallery to reach out to him, rather than engaging in the self-promotion typical of artists. "I wouldn't say I'm bad at hustling, but I'm a little shy," he says. "It's hard for me to pitch things." This seems inconsistent with his work, which comes across as anything but shy—he was recently served a cease and desist order from Kylie Jenner's attorney after selling T-shirts that read kill and eat kylie jenner and now includes a copy of the letter with every purchase.

I grew up in Seattle, so even before I learned his name I'd seen Erdman's art around for years, hung on the walls of the Capitol Hill hangout Little Oddfellows cafe or used as album art for an early release by Hardly Art favorites Tacocat. His work seemed synonymous with the self-aware playfulness of Seattle, where bedazzled femme-punk reigns on high and the calculated anti-cool of Sub Pop records pervades. Erdman's move back to Chicago, where he'd lived in the 90s and aughts, took Seattle by surprise. Faced with a changing Seattle that was rapidly becoming unrecognizable to him, Erdman felt it was time to go. The alt-weekly the Stranger (where Erdman worked as a writer and illustrator) referred to his departure as a "local tragedy," and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard included an ode to Erdman on his newest album, Thank You for Today, in the form of the song "You Moved Away."

Erdman sees the move back to Chicago as a welcome challenge, and a chance for his work to evolve. Though he forfeited his status as local celebrity in leaving the insular Seattle arts scene, he now has a chance to start over in a new environment. "This place has a style. The street art has a style. It's a little defeatist, it's a little negative," Erdman says of Chicago. "I would say it pokes fun more at other people than itself, and Seattle pokes fun more at itself."

Erdman hasn't necessarily had a hard time adjusting, but he's still processing the transition to moving back to a city with a rat problem, a city with a strange emptiness. One way he's been doing this is through poking fun at the flaws—printing out hundreds of the pro-rat posters and stapling them all over Chicago, and creating mock advertisements for another "eternally empty storefront" coming soon to Logan Square. "Creating those things was kind of my way of getting used to the city," he says.

  • courtesy Derek Erdman

There can be a giddy anonymity in living in a big city, an ability to move under the radar that you're not afforded when living somewhere more compact, and Erdman has been taking full advantage of this: "You can secretly make this city your own. You can get away with stuff, and nobody might notice it. And if it does get noticed, there's a big chance it might not be attributed to you." In the face of a police force with bigger problems to deal with than pranksters, Erdman has been testing the limits—messing with the street lights on his block, adopting a tag depicting a waving hand that reads hi! He laughs as he tells me about it. "I've never tagged before," he says. "I'm a fucking fully grown adult, I should not be tagging."

Though tagging is a new development, Erdman has long been a fan of pranks—a full section of his income tax form was once money earned from his "revenge raps," a service where Erdman would record prank phone calls under the alter ego Rap Master Maurice. The calls were directed at those who had wronged clients to "get back at [the offender] but not in a shitty way." The hi! tags and revenge raps carry a similar ethos that I feel is central to Erdman's personality—he's playful to the point of irreverence but never malicious, always with a friendly edge.

  • courtesy Derek Erdman

Erdman's works also serve a purely aesthetic purpose, intended to be able to stand alone without always conveying a pointed message: "I started painting for decoration because I wanted to decorate my house, hence this house being full of my own paintings." His Logan Square home is covered in his and Armitage's works, wall-to-wall colorful prints accented by woolly rugs and potted plants with large, flat leaves. His home is both personal gallery and studio; Erdman paints in the basement using tubs of house paint and a projector that looks like it came from a middle-school science classroom.

Erdman has an affinity for art's relationship to the everyday, as evidenced through his use of art as decoration. His work has a characteristic visual boldness and artistic simplicity that come from the memorabilia he grew up loving. "I think a lot of my influence came from record [albums]," says Erdman, citing their square shape and direct imagery as inspiration: "This image will hit you on the head, put it in your living room." Erdman's love of records has further manifested itself in other aspects of his professional life, in side projects and day jobs: he worked as a receptionist at Seattle's Sub Pop Records, and co-owned Hyde Park Records at 53rd and Dorchester for nearly four years.

Moving forward, Erdman wants to cut down on the side projects and concentrate on one thing at a time. "There was a time in my life where I wanted to do everything, and now I just want to slow it down and make fewer, grander things." "A Young Person's Guide to Hot & Sour" is a move toward this. But of course it maintains his signature playful delinquency.   v

  • courtesy Derek Erdman

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