DUTCH artist Sef Berkers escaped the Covid pandemic and the lockdown in New York just in time after his art exhibition took place in the Big Apple. His works however haven’t made it back yet. The experience of this city changed his life and his art in unexpected ways.
Back in his studio in Venlo, the words ‘Transparency, repetition, motion, brightness, chance’ are hung on the wall, above his desk, lest he stray from his artistic quest. His muses are travel, music and film. When combined, the unique formula for his artwork is realized, in which freedom is paramount. Abstract art is about freedom from the constraints of realism/naturalism, especially if the artist (as is in this case), follows the abstract expressionist path. Creating an art of freedom, is a tricky business, because even freedom in art needs structure, but it is something that Sef Berkers has mastered. His paintings are enigmatic, and don’t aim to spell everything out to the viewer. Instead, they ask questions, and exercise the viewer’s imagination in a most poignant manner. They are carefully planned, painterly odes to freedom of expression.
There is also another side to Berkers’s art practice of a more conceptual and experiential nature, called ‘Archives’, which comprises of stacked and packaged items from his life as an artist. Berkers explains this life-long project: “The ‘Archive’ shows my life as a total work of art. I have been numbering my work since December 17, 1993 and began to store it in boxes. This resulted in an archive which is living and expanding. This concept contains sketches, paintings, monochromes, diary fragments, polaroids, etc. Each piece is related to each other. The archive is often part of the installation in exhibitions. It is an autobiography and has different periods in long-term series.” With 92, 532 objects in it at the moment, ‘Archive’ just keeps on growing. “It will be finished when I stop making art… It is impossible to show it all in one museum!” explains the artist.
Berkers’s painting explorations
Apart from an earlier Mondrianesque period of square colors neatly organized in rows, Berkers’s painting has travelled in two main directions: towards total abstract expressionism, by bringing together the art forms of music and art, but also towards analyzing the human condition, by people-watching on his travels (especially in train stations), but also observing them in films.
Both the non-figurative abstract expressive side of his work, but also the more figurative human side, present his free and expressive handling of oil paints in particular, managing to create a rich combination of colors, shades, tones, not to mention the many uses of line and mark-making, usually via a very limited palette. Black, white and another color (very often ochre), suffice for the artist to prove that less is indeed more. A short film by Rob Hodselmans on his art-making process has shown how important physical movement is to Berkers when painting. TV cameraman Hodselmans, a lifelong friend of Berkers, has been filming the artist since 1993, and plans to do so for Berker’s entire life. What the short film documents is Berker’s kind of painting choreography in action. This is not a stayed and tranquil form of art, it is a dynamic, impulsive and emotional one, which follows the heart’s urge to paint. Although the works are carefully structured in terms of composition, and emphasis is made on creating different kinds of depth and form, the artist also finds ways to ‘bypass’ the logic and control of the mind, so that the result on the canvas is an exciting and spontaneous experience both for the artist, and the viewer.
New York experience
Just before the coronavirus changed the world as we know it, Sef Berkers had travelled to New York to realize a solo show there, at Gallery 104, situated in Manhattan’s New York Art Center. “I felt at home there, the people were very friendly. The vast spaces of New York opened my mind – things are big there!” says Berkers. Although he managed to return safe and sound to Holland, just before the coronavirus pandemic overtook the Big Apple, his works are still stranded there. The influence of this trip to New York has already led the artist to push his art-making process and themes further, creating a new series of works with a different dynamism and logic. From the ‘Starring’ series, which he exhibited in New York, and which involve the process of taking stills from movies and filtering them through his own artistic perspective and painting process, Berkers has now moved on to a new series which also focuses on the idea of the film poster. These new post-New York works display a slightly more pop aesthetic, and the introduction of new colors such as yellows, greens, oranges, which add a different dynamism.
Movies, music and travel
Movies play an important role in our lives, and the way they deal with the human condition helps us also to deal with it. We often see ourselves in the characters, we can relate to them, empathize. And of course filmmaking is an artform in its own right. So, to take all that and rechannel it back into the artmaking process, is a really interesting thing to do for an artist, especially when it is processed in a very abstract expressionist manner. In fact one could say that the result is a total transformation of that original movie scene. Yet even so, when it comes to movie stars, Berkers has an incredible knack of being able to capture the essence of their character and features, with a minimum of expressive brushstrokes and lyrical lines.
Berkers chooses from a variety of films: From the elegant actors of the ‘50s, with their trilby hats and suits, to the modern man with denim jacket, carrying a bag as if he is carrying a heavy cultural burden. “When actors do things in films, they do so with great expression, emphasis and even drama. When an actor carries a bag, he is really carrying that bag” says Berkers. From the beautiful young girl on the phone, to the road sweeper, the drunk and the junky, Berkers is interested in exploring a large spectrum of ‘protagonists’ in his works, from all walks of life
Also a musician, who sings and plays the guitar, Berkers’s series of works which have been executed to the sound of specific pieces of music, are the more abstract side of his oeuvre. Like Kandinsky, he seeks to find the connections between art and music, trying to translate a wide variety of pieces of music into art: from Amy Winehouse to the Beatles, Metallica to Lou Reed. These works present how abstract art is about real freedom of expression.
Berkers has travelled to many lands, and has drawn from this experience for his art. India was especially inspiring for the artist, whose works ‘Bombay’ and ‘Calcutta’ won him the Euregio Art Prize in 2001. Back in 1993, his travels also led him to Greece: “I was thirty years old and went hitchhiking. I went to Alonissos and made some friends there, who invited me to Athens. I have never experienced such hospitality in my life. I was treated as family. A few years later, I travelled with a friend through Greece to go to Egypt. We were sleeping rough in an unfinished building site. The builders found us there and allowed us to stay for a few days more! That’s something that would never happen in Holland. The people of Greece have a unique sense of hospitality. And they are not interested in who you are in terms of status, but who you are as a person. They are still humane!” Berkers’s works from his travels in Greece include seascapes which capture the essence of the landscape. Sketches of people in central Athens’s Monastiraki and Exarcheia, are also part of his Greek works. He hopes to return one day to paint some more there, or maybe to even have a show.
But for the moment, Berkers is preparing a documentary on his trip and exhibition in New York, which has been filmed by Bert Lenssen, and will be released soon. Plans for a return trip to New York are also on the table, plus talks for another exhibition there underway.
• Check out more of Berkers’ work via his website: http://sef-berkers.com/