Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

Abstracting reality; Robert Berlin at the James Allen Gallery

After this article came out, my publisher bought me this small Robert Berlin photograph.

When Mark Rothko, the great abstract painter, visited Italy, he fell under the spell of Brother Angelico’s frescoes in the monastery of St. Mark’s. He returned home with the determination to somehow attain the same soul-stirring effects in his own work. Brother Angelico, however, lived in an age with a rich iconographic vocabulary whose elements were so widely recognized and so closely identified with their meanings, that grand and powerful messages could be universally understood. Rothko’s challenge was to invoke this same power in a post-modern world of Babel. Peter Selz, then curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, spoke about this problem:

But no angels and Madonnas, no gods, no devils furnish a common property to be invoked in Rothko’s paintings. There is no public myth to express the modern artist’s message for him. The painting itself is the proclamation; it is an autonomous object and its very size announces its eminence.

As difficult as this may be for the painter, imagine how much more of a challenge it is for the photographer. Rothko could at least put shape and colour wherever he chose; the photographer, however, is restrained by the limits of the world around him. His art consists of objects. “These objects,” says Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea, “they inconvenienced me; I would have liked them to exist less imposingly, more dryly, in a more abstract way.” The modern photographer who wishes to do something besides photo-journalism is likely to agree.

Robert Berlin’s work is a study in the art of abstracting reality. The objects he photographs become Rothkoesque paintings: shapes whose texture and dimensionality belie their original source. Most of his pictures are of buildings, but it is the configuration of outline, shadow, colour and form that are really his subjects. In his “South Beach” series, for instance, nothing separates the strip of sky from the structures. There is no “foreground” or “background,” there are only shapes and lines. Balance and form is objectified, made real because it is a photograph: “Balance,” says Berlin, “is a poetic thing and a sense of balance is poetry.”

He points to Rudolph Arnheim’s statement that: “whereas the painter invents, the photographer discovers.” Berlin, however, is trying to create the best of both worlds. In his Artist’s Statement he says:

My desire to bridge this dichotomy has led me to a different artistic process. While photography carries an ideology of realism, it may also serve as a toll for abstraction; in this case through the application of translucent photo-image pigments, along with paints and glazes, directly to aluminum surfaces. The photograph is approached as a painting, the painting utilizes photographic elements.

A closeup of an exterior Mexican wall with various sections of colour and texture becomes a study in colour fields; but on its own, it lacks the size and texture needed to reach true grandeur. This image is then enlarged and each section transferred to an aluminum plate. The translucent pigments and glazes are added and the panels arrayed to recombine the image. “The closeup deconstructs the image, and the panels deconstruct the image more.” The result is a powerful abstract that is nonetheless recongnizable as an element of the real world: objectified abstraction.

One of the curious, and compelling results of his technique is that a certain amount of light passes through the image on the aluminum and is then reflected back. This gives many of the pieces a peculiar three-dimensionality, although not in the expected fashion. An inset door, for instance, remains a flat geometrical colour, but the peeling paint shimmers as if trying to reach out past the surface. Another effect is the sobering, even profound blackness of the blacks. There is no reflection at all, although the rest of the piece shifts and changes with the motion of the viewer.

His works, despite the fact that hs is essentially abstracting architecture, are strongly humanist. “I’m often asked,” he says, “why there are never any people in my pictures. Actually, they are always there in some form.”

To return to his Artist’s Statement:

People leave traces of themselves in the spaces they inhabit. Though unseen, one feels their presence. And this sense of recent departure or imminent return creates a tension, an expectation that is never fully realized, but always anticipated.

Berlin’s work has recently been gaining much deserved recognition, including a recent show in one of New York’s Soho galleries (Ward-Nasse). His next show, appropriately title, “Presence & Absence,” is scheduled for the James Allen Gallery, from April 11 – May 1 (the reception will be on Saturday, April 18, 6-9 pm). This is the perfect opportunity for serious art patrons to view some truly unique and compelling new work.

Originally published in What’s On Queen?, April 10, 1998

Notable Interviews

To the right are a few of the noteworthy interviews I've conducted.

Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin sends a secret message to Carol Burnett's mother.

Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy

Astronaut James Lovell

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