Eric Inkala at the opening of Chaos Complex. Credit: Submitted image (Sharolyn B. Hagen)

Eric Inkala at the opening of Chaos Complex. Credit: Submitted image (Sharolyn B. Hagen)

High contrast

Eric InkalaÂ’s graffiti-influenced paintings evolve

NORTHEAST PARK — When Tricia Khutoretsky visited Eric Inkala at his studio in Brooklyn two years ago, she found an artist on the cusp.

“He was looking. He was searching for something,” recalled Khutoretsky, the curator and director of Northeast art space Public Functionary, where an exhibition of Inkala’s recent paintings opened in late November.

Still clearly inspired by the punchy, high-impact graphics of graffiti, these new paintings show the 32-year-old Crystal native exercising a newfound restraint while at the same time pushing his work toward geometric abstraction. Like a chef making the leap from food truck to white tablecloth, he’s reworking familiar flavors into something more refined and elevated.

“(It) feels a lot more grown up than anything I’ve done,” he said.

Inkala, who moved east in 2009, emerged several years earlier in Minneapolis as a graffiti writer-turned-painter whose poppy combination of clean lines and bright colors made him an in-demand muralist. Much of his work featured what Inkala refers to as his “characters”: rubbery, polymorphous creatures with clenched Chiclet teeth and cartoon eyes, painted in homage to the iconic figures found in the work of Keith Haring, an early influence.

Inkala added a new element to his visual repertoire between the move to Brooklyn and Khutoretsky’s visit in 2012. The Ace Hotel chain commissioned him to paint a mural for one of its New York City rooms, and when they decided one of his characters would be too bright, Inkala came up with a piece built entirely on text: a cluster of words painted in glossy black on a dark grey wall.

Now, fields of dense but fluid cursive writing appear in his paintings and drawings. The letterforms squash together like an accordion’s bellows, abstracting the graffiti writer’s tag into a graphic texture.

Still, Inkala wasn’t satisfied. After showing twice this year in Copenhagen, Denmark, through the Brooklyn-obsessed Gallery Poulsen, he said he felt he was “exhausting” the work he could do with his characters.

Just three months before he was supposed to show new work in Minneapolis, Inkala was drawing obsessively to come up with new ideas. After he started cutting up those drawings and reassembling them into new compositions, the new images came pouring out.

“I painted this whole show in seven weeks,” he said.

The biggest shift may be that Inkala erased the looping outline that once bound his language of geometric forms (it was “a crutch,” anyway, according to Khutoretsky). Those trademark scrolls, teardrops, clouds and lightening bolts now all jostle together in space. Flatness was a key element of even his character work, but now it’s Inkala’s high-contrast palette that defines the shapes instead of his line.

Bits of his characters remain in the form of disembodied teeth and eyes. Patches of Inkala’s elegant graffiti scrawl tie the new work firmly to his roots.

Khutoretsky, who’d pitched a show in Minneapolis during that 2012 New York trip, said it was the breakthrough she’d been waiting for.

“I saw him switch his style and I’m like, ‘It’s there. Let’s do it,’” she said.

And so, a week before Thanksgiving, Inkala was back in his home state and at work on a mural in the Public Functionary gallery. Even as it came together in a caffeine-fueled session the day before the opening, it was clear it would look nothing like the Inkala Minneapolis used to know.

“I think with this show, people are going to walk in and be like, ‘What the (hell)?” he said, sounding pleased.


Eric Inkala: Chaos Complex

Where: Public Functionary, 1400 12th Ave. NE

When: Through Dec. 20

Info:, 238-9523