Artist Profile: Neil Berger
For twenty years I was an open-air impressionist. Some combination of field, sky
and telephone pole would strike me and I would squint at it, judging how it would fit onto my rectangle. Sometimes while driving around looking for themes I would park and walk back to a scene I just passed, and find it had vanished. I was beginning to learn how the mind stitches together experience through time and across places. Everyone knows memory is a fiction, an active creation, but so is the eternal present. This explains how a comitted en plein air painter could be deeply moved by a landscape- yet when he sets up the easel and looks out would think, somewhat wordlessly- is this it? My experience couldn’t be captured in any given glance- it’s compiled over time and selectively edited.
Now I paint from memory. This gives me freedom to assemble a scene without being a slave to the facts- I smush things together, take other things out, don’t end up compulsively painting every branch or parked car- I’m more in tune with mood. I seek fidelity to my experience of a place, not my retinal vision. Yet my new paintings are no capriccios- they are vitally connected to my real experience of the city, and too much departure from what I saw makes me go cold.
My painting practice is to go out and look, usually in one particular place, for around an hour, to get enough ‘juice’ to go paint. I absorb a place by looking at it, sometimes memorizing details, sometimes more generally taking it in. I encounter a lot of cars, billboards, and buses on walks in my favorite neighborhood, but beyond all that, I feel an inebriating mix of ocean air and ocean light, Greek temples (gigantic warehouses with stately pediments) perched on the shore, the streets all ramping down to the sea, and always the raven hair of the locals gleaming in the sun. But these sensations are filtered out from a significant amount of noise. From a certain perspective, our streets reflect a demoralized, bronze age in which all new building is careless and ugly, but for a handful of exceptions, and public space is increasingly rented out to advertisers. Yet soulfulness still persists in corners of Brooklyn, especially those connected to the sea. But it can’t be pointed to or hardly even sought- it’s seen out of the corner of the eye. An artist’s job is to fasten that fleeting sensation.