"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.
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.
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.
"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...