I thought maybe you guys had heard enough from me about Chris Berens, but last night I bumped into an Erratic Phenomena follower who suggested that I do a recap of the December 12th show at Roq la Rue in Seattle – so here I go.
Chris Berens, his lovely girlfriend Esther, and his agent/gallerist Robbert van Ham are all very warm, friendly, generous people, and it was a great pleasure to meet them. Robbert was kind enough to show me some of the aspects of the work that he appreciated most – for example, in "Halfway There" and a number of other paintings, there are rudimentary pencil sketches that remain unfinished amidst the painting's more polished surfaces. In Europe, apparently, there is a great appreciation for the simple sketch – less finished paintings with more negative space are actually more intriguing for that audience.
One of the most interesting aspects of the show at Roq la Rue – aside from the chance to experience the amazing depth of detail in Chris' work – is seeing it hung in progression. This is Chris' first show outside of the Netherlands, the source of much of his visual inspiration (Rembrandt, Bosch and Vermeer, for example) – so the concept for this show is the journey of his visionary universe from the Old World to the New World.
As many of you won't have the opportunity to experience the show in person, I thought I would lay it out in roughly the same order in which Chris chose to present it. Perhaps that will lend a little more structure and coherence to your perception of these 32 fascinating paintings.
"The Whaler, the Ermine and the Bait"
"Little Captain Sparrow"
(Here we have one of the orrery-like devices that reappear throughout this series.)
"The Darkest Hour Before Dawn"
(I see this one as a benediction and farewell.)
"Glad You Could Make It" (still available)
(The wave that carries them to the New World begins.)
(Note the vaporous raccoons emerging from the smokestacks, which reappear in the background of "The Departure.")
(This is a massive painting with insane density of detail and a wealth of cultural references. Note Westerkerk Tower in the upper right, the tallest church tower in Amsterdam and the burial place of Rembrandt. It reappears throughout this body of work.)
Just to give you an idea of what's really going on in "The Departure," here are a few detail shots:
"Out of the Blue, Into the White"
"Pushing Daisy" (bought by Robbert van Ham)
"Riders of the Storm"
(Traveling over Africa, perhaps?)
"Something's Up (Going Down)"
(A little visit Down Under... Note the similarity in their stance to that in this painting by Bouguereau.)
(Once again, note the finial of Westerkerk Tower traveling along with them.)
"The Kiss (It All Comes Down To This)"
(A sweet little piece that Chris kept for himself. Note the porpoise emerging from the wave to complete the kiss.)
"Half Way There"
(The wave travels over the tundra, picking up polar bears...)
(The Queen, the Whaler and other characters reappear...)
"Tumbling Up and Round and Round" (still available)
(This seems like an underwater zoom-in on "Blue Days," with many of the repeating elements drifting in the ink-dark sea.)
"Welcome to the Great Below"
"Meet the Andersons"
(Chris' tribute to Roq la Rue's Kirsten Anderson. Note the paper floating downward through the frame – it bears a diagram which reappears throughout this body of work of Seattle's Space Needle next to Amsterdam's Westerkerk Tower. Also note the dark marks left on the wall from paintings that have been taken down.)
(Another massive painting of incredible density, in which the wave arrives in Seattle. Note the fishlike creature at left bearing part of the Old World on its back, and the lady from "Just Like Rain, Dear" presiding over the Space Needle.)
"Not Just Yet (Waiting to Exhale)" (still available)
(I find this one fascinating – here, we have the tower diagram from "Meet the Andersons," the floating squirrel from "Blue Days" and the frozen polar bear/searchlight from "Out of the Blue, Into the White"... also, some dimly lit feet disappearing into the deep... It's the embodiment of Robert Smithson's dictum, "Establish enigmas, not explanations.")
"Just (Surrender, Submerge and Keep Breathing)
(I love how she calmly gazes at us as light wavers down upon her from the ocean's surface. She is clearly unconcerned, perhaps on some sort of underwater mission amongst the fishes. The dark eye staring from the lower right is another delicious unsettling touch.)
These last two paintings feel to me like a final coda to the show's main theme – Old World vs. New World.
"Just Like Rain, Dear"
(Incidentally, each of Chris' paintings have a small ink drawing on the back which relates to the painting. They are a fascinating view into his process, and sometimes they even enlighten the viewer somewhat. For example, the verso image for "Just Like Rain, Dear" is a fuzzy night-black creature with a shining eye... which must be what's lurking in the lower left corner of this painting. You can see many of these little lagniappe drawings on Chris' website when you pull up an image and then click on it.)
"Passed" (still available)
If there's any way for you to get to Roq la Rue in Seattle and see this show before it closes on January 31st, you really must do it. Make sure to leave yourself some time – one could spend hours getting lost in these paintings. While you're there, you can pick up copies of his three gorgeous limited edition books at a very good price.