Plan A for new art-school grads is simple. Make a big splash, get a big name, head for New York, make big money.
By those metrics, Eric Rieger is following Plan B. Since graduating from Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2007, he has kept his head down, worked mostly under a pseudonym, holed up in St. Paul, and yet somehow pulled in enough work to support himself.
These days he’s better known as HOTTEA, the graffiti-inspired yarn artist who has insinuated his work into the streetscapes of London, Berlin, New York and Los Angeles. Last summer the Minneapolis Institute of Arts commissioned an installation by him that filled a three-story rotunda with a cascade of bright sun-colored yarn. His low-key approach has, improbably, attracted commissions from Converse, Red Bull and Google, among other marquee corporations.
Still, he remains so far below the radar that Minneapolis gallery director Jennifer Phelps spent two frustrating years trying to track him down.
“It sounds weird that you couldn’t find someone in this day and age,” Phelps admitted recently as Rieger and assistants put the finishing touches on “Inner Workings,” his first solo show, which runs through July 7 at the Burnet Gallery in Minneapolis.
His pseudonym was part of the problem. She was looking for Eric Rieger, the guy whose minimalist paintings had been snapped up in 2005 by her boss, Minneapolis real estate mogul Ralph Burnet.
But Rieger had abandoned his brushes and taken up yarn — gaudy lengths of hot pink, orange, yellow, azure and lime that he wrapped around telephone poles, through chain link fences and between suction-cup hooks attached to any suitable surface. Typically he spelled the word “HOTTEA” in blocky isometric lettering that looked like cubistic play-school blocks.
“I’m really picky about things I do, which is why I don’t really put my contact information out there,” Rieger said recently during an installation break at the Burnet Gallery. “People really have to want to figure out how to contact me.”
That elusiveness doesn’t surprise Piotr Szyhalski, the MCAD professor whom Rieger credits with opening his eyes and mind to the world beyond his major in typography and graphic design.
“He was super-focused, engaged and true to himself both as a person and as an artist,” Szyhalski said of Rieger. While most students’ work fades from memory, Szyhalski recalled an ambitious multimedia project for which Rieger designed signs and video-documented himself begging at a freeway entrance to raise money for the homeless.
“There was an undeniable selflessness at work there, so I can’t look at HOTTEA as a mark that is self-centered,” he said.
All of Rieger’s complex personalities are evident in the Burnet show, which includes yarn pieces, wall paintings, installations and sculpture deeply infused with autobiographical motifs.
Two images that he’s spray-painted on yarn backgrounds depict cheerful Raggedy Ann dolls holding alternately an infant and an overgrown boyish version of Rieger himself. Like Catholic madonnas, the first doll is enshrined in a glowing, shell-shaped niche while the second suggests a happy Pieta. Votive candles spout from the first and devilish prongs from the second — thinly veiled metaphors for the inevitable tensions that rend many families as children grow up.
“Most of the work in this show derived from family memories,” said Rieger, who grew up in New Ulm, the middle child between two sisters. His parents divorced after the kids graduated from high school, leaving Rieger cherishing sunny memories of bygone times — especially his mom’s fondness for cornbread with honey and hot tea, sipped at a Bakers Square restaurant in nearby Mankato. “I was trying to capture that childlike innocence,” he said.
In the show, two mural-sized heads, one upside-down, are “sketched” with tiny staccato strokes of black yarn tied between nails driven into wall panels. They represent both the artist and his biological father, whom he’s never met. A pair of foam sculptures — of men wearing orange masks — are roped together and climbing the walls. Aqua letters, which spell HOTTEA on another wall, provide a template for shelving to hold childhood mementos.
And in the gallery’s front windows facing Hennepin Avenue are large, white fabric boxes that protrude from the wall at shoulder height. Their bottoms are open, and visitors who duck into them may find themselves staring deep into the eyes of other visitors, while their “headless” legs and torsos remain visible from the street as surrealistic “living sculptures.”
“The point is eye contact, to get rid of every distraction and either to really see another person or to create your own self-portrait” in the conceptual void, Rieger explained.
The show is a real stretch for a commercial gallery, but owner Ralph Burnet is unfazed. The two minimalist paintings he bought from Rieger now hang in guest rooms at the hotel, and he is eager to see what the artist is up to.
“Eric is a really good guy and we are really thrilled with what he’s doing,” Burnet said. “We just like to see new things and I’m not particularly concerned about the medium. It can be acrylic or yarn or collage. I just love art; I’m not picky. I’m interested in the way people express themselves and everybody does that in a different way, so seeing new art is just an adventure.”