Sunday, August 31, 2008

Chris Berens' Luminous Visions

In the course of my wanderings throughout the web I happened to visit Roq la Rue founder Kirsten Anderson's blog, Right Some Good, where I became acquainted with the astonishing Dutch painter Chris Berens, whom she will be showing on December 12th.

"First Snow (Guide Me Home)"

Berens paints visions of his internal universe as if he sees it through an ancient handmade lens which warps and obscures his view of that curious place in unpredictable ways. His kaleidoscopic mirror world, inhabited by an exotic menagerie of beasts, mysterious Madonnas and lost children, is richly represented with color palettes, environments and themes reminiscent of Golden Age Dutch painters like Jan Vermeer and Rembrandt, yet its overall effect is vaguely disturbing, in the manner of Rosamond Wolff Purcell and the Brothers Quay.


Despite appearances, Berens' work is completely hand painted – there are no digital or photographic elements in his paintings. He starts off with raw pencil sketches, which he then refines into drawings in colored drawing ink and bistre on glossy inkjet paper which has been coated with a clear layer of parquet lacquer. The intermediate drawings are then divided into fragments. The glossy coating on the surface of the paper is peeled away from the base and then collaged onto wooden panels with bookbinder's glue, creating a deliberately layered semi-transparent assemblage which often consists of hundreds of separate elements.

Once he is satisfied with the composition, Berens begins marrying the fragments into a unified whole using drawing ink and alkyd varnish. His soft-focus effects are achieved in part through allowing the wet ink to blur under the influence of a hair dryer. The combination of many layers of ink with the transparency of the varnish seems to approximate the luminous shine-through effect of glazing in oil painting, and the water-based inks and synthetic varnish have a way of reacting with and against each other, creating interesting textural effects which recall the time-ravaged surfaces of the 300-year-old paintings of Vermeer.

"Today We Escape, We Escape"

Perhaps coincidentally, Chris Berens' paintings remind me of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials novels, in which humans have animal spirit guides called daemons which remain inextricably linked to them for life. Interestingly, Pullman's daemon concept was inspired by three paintings of women with animals – by Da Vinci, Tiepolo and Holbein. Like many painters of a pop surrealist/magical realist bent, author Philip Pullman was heavily influenced by William Blake, so there may be some synchronicity at work.


Chris Berens was born in 1976 in Oss, Netherlands, and studied illustration at the Academy of Art and Design in Den Bosch, graduating in 1999. While working as a freelance illustrator, he began to paint in makeshift studios he set up in several semi-abandoned buildings in the countryside near his childhood home. More recently, he relocated to Amsterdam, where he began showing his work in 2004. His first solo show was at Amsterdam's Jaski Gallery in November 2005.

"Just Above the Well (Birth Day)"

In Berens' strange alternate world, gravity and the nature of matter itself seem to be mere suggestions, rather than laws – some float while others walk, and space seems to shift in ways unknown to earthly physics. Despite its surreal nature, his body of work exhibits incontrovertible evidence of an expanding narrative. Berens says that he began to have visions of the mysterious world he paints at an early age, and his desire to represent it faithfully has led him to improve his painting skills at a remarkable pace. Nonetheless, he feels his skills still fall far short of expressing the true nature of what he envisions.

"On a Midnight Voyage" (after Paul Delaroche's "The Young Martyr")

With the assistance of an intriguing Chris Berens interview conducted by Ruud Lapré – which was included in the limited edition book 2239, an overview of Berens' work to date – I was able to gain a little insight into Berens' work. Here are some excerpts, in his own words:

"What I make is not a distortion or reshaping of the reality which everyone sees around them, or of events which actually happen. That is not what my work is about. I simply try to paint the world inside my head. This world has been with me since I was a child. It is populated by people and animals and is filled with landscapes, villages, cities and scenes. All kinds of things happen in this world and various stories unfold. But it's not the ‘normal’ world, and they are not the things that happen in the regular world."

"Party of Three"

"I take very good care of this world inside my head, and it provides me with an endless source of inspiration. Just as I develop in the regular world, so does this private world of mine develop on its own as well. In many ways, it's similar to the regular world, but at the same time looks and feels quite different. So what I paint is not an artistic representation or adaptation of animal or human figures or landscapes from the regular world. For me, it's an actual representation of what I see, no more and no less."


"I can't live without my sketchbooks, and end up practically panicking if at important moments – for example during a visit to Paris – I become convinced that I've left my sketchbooks behind. I need them because there is so much I'm experiencing and wish to record. I can't store it all inside my head. A photograph might seem to be a useful tool in such cases, but that doesn't work for me. It can't really show what is inside my head and what I see."

"In the Waitingline"

"The creatures that populate my world are alive. They have their own character, and I try to discover that character and get to know it. That's what I use my sketches for. A human or animal creature develops along a certain line in my sketchbook. At first, I have just a vague idea of a character and simply start drawing. Slowly, the character then develops under my hands and in my head. Before such a character becomes fully formed, possessing all the characteristics I consider important, I search for it in innumerable sketches. Only after I have become familiar with and really understand this living creature and its characteristics can I place it in a particular setting and start dealing with the compositional aspects of the painting."

"Waits at the Window (Where Do They All Come From?)"

"At first, I was able to transfer only a small part of my inner world to the canvas, perhaps 5% or 10%. At the time, my technique was still too limited for what I wanted to express. Fortunately, my ability has increased, and I can now represent almost half of what I have in my head and wish to reveal. I've definitely come a long way, but I’m still far from satisfied. There is so much happening in my inner world that I'm never short of inspiration, and never will be. And my inner world wants to be revealed and seen – and therefore painted – by me."

"Her Majesty (Mr. Sniffles)"

In 2007's "Heaven Show" at Jaski Gallery, Berens introduced a body of work which represented a great leap forward in both skill of expression and depth of meaning. Much of the work in that show, as well as his previous show, "Silver," was influenced by the long illness and death of his father.

"There is a great deal of beauty present in the moment of death. After witnessing the pain and struggle of dying, you also experience the lightness of acceptance and letting go.
For those my father left behind, there was the weight of sorrow. But for my father, it was a beneficial transition to peace and lightness, to a new heavenly world.

When I made the last paintings for the “Silver” series, my father had just passed away. The painting titled “In Paradisum” is a portrait of my father, surrounded by loving and protective angels in the shape of polar bears, rabbits and other animals, on the way to heaven.
For me, the entire process of creating paintings for "The Heaven Show" was a kind of search. I didn't have a predefined goal in mind – heaven as a target would have been much too presumptuous. Heaven itself is not an easy target to aim for, in terms of a painting – the path there was much easier for me to visualize and deal with."

"Circle of Friends" (Triptych interior)

"As a follow-up to “In Paradisum," I painted a parade of people and animals leaving for good in a peaceful migration, escorted by the guardians who had previously watched over my father. For me, this triptych was my most important work at the exhibition. I chose to execute it in the form of a triptych due to the symbolic significance of this form in the history of art and its historical connection to depicting the heavens. For me, the “Circle of Friends” represented the closing of a circle, the end of a physical journey and the beginning of eternity. All the main players meet once again as friends for eternity."

"Heaven on Their Minds"

“I treat every painting as I would a diary, in which I, instead of using words – because they are just too straightforward – draw and paint my thoughts and feelings," Berens says. “Naming a painting feels like closing a case. To me, a title is the affirmation of something I have suspected all along. Peace at last.”

Chris Berens is represented by Jaski Gallery in Amsterdam and will have a solo show at Seattle's Roq la Rue on December 12th. There is little doubt that we'll be hearing a great deal more about him before long – to quote Kirsten Anderson, "I'm trying to figure out how to make people understand the insanity of what these things are in person." Rather than making any further attempt to encapsulate what is so compelling about his work, I'll simply leave you with a sneak peek at the phantasmagoria we can look forward to at Roq la Rue this winter...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nimit Malavia's Transformative Energy

A couple of months ago, I started noticing a new artist on the scene who was projecting a profound and compelling emotional message in his work. Nimit Malavia has been creating some very fine art recently, and seems to be progressing by leaps and bounds. In the past two months, Nimit has shown work in group shows at project:gallery in Los Angeles and Jerome Jenner Gallery in Toronto, and he will have a piece in the i am 8-bit show at World of Wonder on August 14th... all of which is leading up to a four-person "Fresh Faces" show at project:gallery on September 6th.

"A Look Inside"

Nimit's work first caught my eye when I saw "A Look Inside" hanging on the wall of a pop-up show project:gallery launched during the Culver City Artwalk. I was really struck by the wild energy running through this piece, which made it seem as if its surface was poised on the edge of crawling into motion. What was especially compelling was its raw emotion, and it seemed to me that its naked vulnerability was a rather rare subject in this new contemporary/pop surrealism/ [insert name of your choice here] genre.

By a few weeks later, Nimit's name had slipped my mind, but as I started exploring the excellent Start Drawing site, I ran across another piece Nimit painted earlier this year which I also found fascinating.

"Dark Polar"

That led me to Nimit's blog, which held revealing remarks like this:

"The theme throughout these 3 pieces is the idea of the "Dark Passenger" – the burden of one's desires vs. one's sense of self, and the exploration of the shadow self, as well my own personal archetypes. It's a concept that was semi-inspired by the show Dexter.

The concept behind 'Bi-Polar' deals with the idea of the separation of the conscious and subconscious self, and delving into the shadow self with both feet... Bless you Mr. Jung!"

"Nostalgia" (Dark Passenger series)

"Guardian" (Dark Passenger series)

My obsession with Nimit's work soon became impossible to ignore, so I contacted Beau at project:gallery, who was kind enough to set up an opportunity for me to meet Nimit, which was a great pleasure. I wound up picking up "A Look Inside," which is just the first of many of Nimit's creations that I hope will find their way into my collection.

I thought it would be very intriguing to hear a little more about where Nimit was coming from, so I asked him if he'd be interested in doing an interview for my blog. I'm thrilled to report that he thought it wasn't a bad idea, and as a result, Erratic Phenomena now presents its very first original artist interview.

The Questions:

Erratic Phenomena: Fill us in on the usual vital statistics – age, hometown, et cetera. What got you started in art? When did you realize you were going to be an artist? Did any childhood experiences influence the direction you took in life (and art)?

Nimit Malavia: I am 20 years old (turning 21 in October), and I was born and raised Ottawa, Canada. I’m currently entering my final year at Sheridan College, to earn my BAA in Illustration.

Honestly, I don’t think I can remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or painting, constantly trying to capture the images that were floating around in my mind. I have many fond memories of my childhood, when I would doodle on a Pizza Hut napkin with crayons… even after the pizza had arrived. (To be fair, it’s something I still do today.)

It’s my belief that everything in your life plays a role in shaping who you are… and that being said, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been surrounded by talented and supportive individuals throughout my life, from my parents and family to my peers.
Specifically, I’d have to say my father’s interest in art was probably one that had a great influence on me. He was never able to follow his passion for art while growing up, so he wanted to give my brother and me the opportunity to do so. I remember we would make him draw Batman and Ninja Turtles till his wrists were sore.

"Our Dance"

EP: Tell me something about the theme, philosophy or underlying principles of your work.

NM: In my recent work, I’ve felt a need to portray a kind of unconscious vulnerability. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there is an essential beauty in the extremes of life. Sometimes it feels like trying to catch a glimpse of someone in a private moment of helplessness – stripped of their natural defenses, they stand there, open and honest. Nothing left to hide what’s inside.

"Siren's Song"

EP: I've noticed that most of your work is rather kinetic, and incorporates a state of flow – the flowing of water, text, energy, thought, emotion. In some of your pieces, the central figures could almost be seen as being created by the wild energy surrounding them. In others, it bursts from within, and a transformation seems to be underway. What are you trying to express?

NM: With the ‘transformative elements,’ I try to use them as an archetype for change. The sense of flow and energy is an attempt to sort of emulate the raw nature of change, as I perceive it. I feel like I’m at a point in my life where there are few constants and everything is undergoing a constant state of change, which is something I’ve grown to accept and at times embrace. The change can come in many different forms, and have many different effects, be it positive or negative. The lessons learned from these experiences are something I choose to value.


EP: I know your sketches often go through several rough versions before you commit to the final incarnation, but they seem remarkably consistent as they evolve. Are you sometimes hesitant to take a drawing into color? What mediums are you most comfortable working in? What would you like to explore in the future?

NM: To be frank, I’m pretty much terrified to take a drawing into color! Usually I have a vision in my mind of what I would like the piece to look like, and from there it’s the struggle of remaining true to that vision. I think the nervousness to apply color usually comes when I’ve become too precious with a drawing. Lately, I’ve been trying to add a little bit of spontaneity to my process, so that I can avoid the pitfalls of becoming too attached to a drawing I’ve labored over. So sometimes, I’ll try to work up the drawing with glazes of acrylic, as opposed to drawing it out with pencil.

Acrylics are a medium that I’ve become more and more comfortable with, albeit I don’t necessarily “paint” all that much with them, they do provide a great amount of flexibility to either gradually apply the color or go opaque with it. It affords me the chance to use it in combination with other mediums like inks, pencil, crayons, what have you, to give the image what it needs.

I would like to explore as much as I can... pretty much anything and everything. I’m a student of personal growth, so I can’t see myself settling on any one thing. I hope to be able to move away from drawing a little bit and try to develop my painting in a more traditional sense, while still being able to mix things up. Maybe try my hand at sculpting… it’s been years since I’ve done that, I’m anxious to see how that would go.

"Endure" (progress stages)

EP: What artists or art movements do you find most compelling? I sense some Japanese and Russian flavors in the mix, along with street graphics, Expressionism and perhaps Art Nouveau – maybe some Klimt?

NM: J.C. Leyendecker, N.C. Wyeth, Gustav Klimt (of course), Alphonse Mucha and Yoshitaka Amano are a few of the artists that I look to for inspiration. I was pretty much raised on comics, both American as well as Japanese Manga, so they have definitely influenced my tastes. Along with Art Nouveau and Expressionism, I’m also very intrigued by Mesoamerican art (specifically Mayan).
"Standing Still"

EP: What else inspires you – in literature, music, film? Psychology, philosophy, spirituality?

NM: Hayao Miyazaki, Haruki Murakami, Yann Martel... Oh, and The Dark Knight has pretty much changed my life. I’ve developed a great interest in Jungian philosophies – the shadow self, as well as the collective unconscious. I think it’s had a lot of influence on my growth these past few years. Joseph Campbell's 'The Hero’s Journey.' Bruce Mau’s ‘Incomplete Manifesto’ – I enjoy reading some of his views on personal growth.

As far as music, I can’t get my hands on enough. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of
Corinne Bailey Rae, Starsailor and Nujabes while I paint… Oh, and the Dark Knight score, haha.

"The Spark That Hath Set Fire"

EP: When I saw your recent crouching lion drawing, what came to mind at first was of course the lion door knocker, symbolic of fortitude and protection. The lion can also represent concepts such as courage, strength and rebellion. Your lion seems embattled, perhaps conflicted, yet immensely powerful and brave. What was your inspiration?

NM: As well as being a symbol of courage and strength, for this piece I wanted to explore the lion and its representation of ‘Pride.’ There are interesting qualities about the proud that I wanted to bring out – how it can afford them to become beautifully lavish creatures, capable of the extraordinary – but out of foolishness, overextend them to the point of self-destruction.

"A Tale Worth Telling"

EP: Favorite esoteric or archaic word?

NM: Esoteric: Strong. Archaic: Squire.

EP: What are you excited about right now? Plans for the future?

NM: The Dark Knight! Haha… Honestly, I’m happy to be participating in a number of shows coming up throughout the year. And I’m looking forward to having that Illustration degree under my belt. Also I’m VERY excited about my “debut” show at project:gallery in their annual Fresh Faces show – it will be up starting the 6th of September.

EP: Thank you, Nimit!

"Touch the Poison of Illusion"

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"