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 attracted commissions from Converse, Red Bull and Google.
Still, he remains so far below the radar that Minneapolis gallery director Jennifer Phelps spent two frustrating years trying to find him.
“It sounds weird that you couldn’t find someone in this day and age,” Phelps admitted recently as Rieger put the finishing touches on “Inner Workings,” his first solo show, now open at the Burnet Gallery in the Le Meridien Chambers hotel.
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, 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.
“I’m really picky about things I do, which is why I don’t really put my contact information out there,” Rieger said. “People really have to want to figure out how to contact me,” 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 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.
“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. “I was trying to capture that childlike innocence.”
Two mural-sized heads 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. 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. 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 show is a stretch for a commercial gallery, but Ralph Burnet is unfazed. “We just like to see new things and I’m not particularly concerned about the medium. 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.”