Credit: 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, livingroomrealty.com. 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.

Credit: 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.

Credit: 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

Credit: courtesy Derek Erdman