AN INTERVIEW WITH KELLY BERG
By Amanda Quinn Olivar
West Coast Editor
Kelly Berg was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1986 and raised just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and has maintained a studio in Los Angeles since 2009. Her work has been featured in exhibitions at The Barrick Museum, The Carnegie Art Museum, The Manhattan Beach Art Center, Mana Contemporary and the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, among other notable venues.
Amanda Quinn Olivar: How would you describe your work? Is it autobiographical, spontaneous, intuitive?
Kelly Berg: My work is intuitive and has mostly been autobiographical, but not always in an obvious way. I choose subject matter that intrigues me or that I’ve experienced in some way, tapping into both my subconscious and observations of the world around me. Much of the imagery is metaphorical or symbolic.
Since I began creating art so young, it is almost impossible to separate my process from my way of life; they have always been intertwined. My childhood was full of drawing, painting, and sculpting, which always reflected my interests of the time, with the most common theme being nature. I recently rediscovered my first artworks, which included marker drawings of volcanoes. It made me realize with my recent Divergent Earth series just how long these ideas have inspired me and have been evolving over time.
I have never liked being limited to one medium or way of working. I am simultaneously interested in many things that are often in opposition. I need the constant challenge of taking on new risks with my work. My main goal has always remained the same however: to create worlds that the viewer can enter into and have a unique visual experience, and to expand the language of painting.
AQO: Your work explores and reflects your lifelong fascination with geology. Can you tell us about your early exposure to nature, and how that interest has grown and changed, as you have matured as an artist?
KB: My family moved from Massachusetts to Minnesota when I was three years old, which brought new travel opportunities due to our location in the middle of the country. I have many memories of visits to National Parks we would drive to in our RV. Our first family road trip in the Midwest was to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I fell in love with the jagged windswept landscape--it was so different from anything I had seen.
Both my parents are fascinated by geology, so we were always sightseeing at these geological points of interest. My mother grew up in New Jersey, and my grandfather had an extensive rock collection and shared his love of rocks and fossils with the whole family. He also had a great collection of books on Ancient Egypt and unsolved mysteries of the ancient world that I would love looking through.
During our summer visits he would take us to the Franklin Mineral Museum. Franklin, New Jersey is known for its rare minerals, including Franklinite and Willemite, which glow florescent colors when viewed under black light. There is a whole area of the museum with these mysterious colorful glowing rocks shown under black light, and seeing them as a kid was a very visually memorable experience. I still have my bucket of rocks that I collected in the boulder field in Franklin, which is a part of a much larger and ever growing rock collection that I have. I’ve always felt very connected to rocks and rock formations. They represent such monumental energy and shifts in the earth, which is now what I am trying to capture about them in my work.
AQO: Your paintings are quite sculptural, with their thick and dynamic applications of paint and other materials. Is your work primarily inspired by natural phenomena (such as volcanic eruptions), or is there also a dialogue with other artists or art movements?
KB: I have always experimented with combining painting with sculptural elements, but became even more committed to that direction after my visit to Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, in 2012. I saw the formations of volcanic rock left from the lava flows, and was captivated by the sharp sculptural forms and how they seemed to represent the power of nature frozen in time. I wanted to make paintings that are strong and solid like rock, yet that expressed a sense of gesture and movement: something both fleeting and eternal at the same time, which is what I saw in the volcano.
The eruption happens quickly, completely changing the landscape, but then the lava hardens and this spontaneous movement turns to stone and becomes something that will stand the test of time, possibly for millions of years. I find that when I move thick paint around the surface spontaneously, and then wait for it to dry, I feel more connected to this process in the earth.
A similar evidence of the passage of time is one of the reasons why I am so fascinated by archeology and ancient structures that are made of rock, like the great pyramids in Giza. Going to Egypt and seeing the pyramids, in addition to all of the ancient works at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, inspired me immensely. I felt very connected to the geometric shapes and symbols I saw in the artifacts, and their representations of nature. This is why I have been simultaneously investigating pyramids and volcanoes. I feel there is an interesting connection, not only with the common triangular shape, but also the mythology surrounding both, and their symbolism.
Recently the artists whose work I relate to most are those expanding the language of painting through the use of unconventional materials and texture, and also pushing the boundaries between painting and sculpture. I am a huge admirer of and feel the most connected to the works of Jay DeFeo, Anselm Kiefer, Lee Bontecou, and Llyn Foulkes. I find that while my paintings may be very different in approach, there is a dialogue with those artists who are exploring new territories with their medium and subjects connecting to nature, landscape and human history.
AQO: You employ a variety of materials and techniques in the creation of your works. Can you give us insight into how you go about constructing one of your paintings?
KB: I usually start a painting with a visual situation I find challenging. It could be an unexpected color combination, or two opposing visual elements that don’t initially relate. The entire process then is finding a way to bring those opposing elements together, while also preserving the original tension between them. Sometimes I work out ideas for my paintings through experimentation in everyday life, like putting together fabrics and fashion elements to come up with color schemes. In each painting, the process unfolds in a different variation.
With most of my works, there is an element of both pictorial imagery and abstraction, but the creation process always reveals new directions, and by the end I’ve taken surprising twists and turns and discovered something new. Throughout the process, I remain open-minded and never limit myself by sticking to a plan. An example is the large volcanic lightning painting in the show Ring of Fire. For a long time, the painting was completely black and white acrylic. Anyone who saw it in my studio in this state was very surprised when they saw it a few weeks later and it was filled with warm, fiery hues of orange and yellow which I created through a series of translucent glazes. In this case the texture was applied last, to accentuate the darkness of the volcano.
AQO: Some of your paintings appear more abstract, while others look to be direct representations of a natural setting or occurrence. Do you work from direct observation, memory or photography? Or possibly a combination of all three?
KB: I’ve painted for years through direct observation, closely studying different lighting situations, and doing plein air painting in various locations. I also take a lot of reference photos with future artworks in mind when I travel. With the knowledge and practice of working directly from life, I now work intuitively and often use a combination of reference materials to create my compositions.
Sometimes the imagery for my paintings come from dreams or memories I have, and then I look for references accordingly. This is how the cave paintings Grotto Aurora and Violet Underground began. I had several dreams about caves, and started researching them and the mythologies surrounding them in different cultures around the world. Using my memories of visits to several caves such as Luray Caverns, and references from multiple other caves I researched, I started incorporating them into my paintings.
The abstract elements within my paintings come from exploring what effects and reactions I can create with paint and the expression of the movement or power of the subject matter I am working with. Some paintings also begin after a trip to the art store, a craft/hobby store, or even the antique store down the street from my studio. I get inspired by investigating and searching for new materials.
AQO: What are some of the most unconventional materials you've worked with? Are there any new materials that you're exploring currently?
KB: During my time at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], I really experimented with materials and new techniques. I would visit the local recycling center to pick up random plastic components to use in my work, and I was always altering and creating my own clothing to be wearable art pieces. When I moved to LA, I starting discovering all sorts of new materials, mainly different types of sheet plastic and plexiglass, which I’ve been using in my latest series.
I am also an obsessive collector of costume jewelry, and used to do a lot of metal-smithing and jewelry-making myself, so I had always wanted to use metal in my paintings. About three years ago I began using aluminum, copper, and brass metal mesh as a sculptural structure to apply paint onto and make the texture element even more extreme. Going forward, I see myself exploring more with metal and also natural materials directly related to my subject matter, such as volcanic rock and ash.
AQO: Where would you like to travel, to use as inspiration for a future body of work? A place you haven't been to yet...
KB: I would like to travel to unique geological and volcanic areas here in the US and the world. Sites a bit closer to home that are on my list include Mono Lake, “The Wave” sandstone formation in Arizona, and Devil’s Postpile. I am particularly intrigued by the columnar basalt formations found at Devil’s Postpile, as they are similar to that of my longtime favorite rock formation: Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, which I’ve visited three times.
Through my research for the cave paintings featured in Divergent Earth, I found that there is an area of hexagonal basalt formations at Fingal’s Cave in Scotland and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Internationally, these formations are high on my list, in addition to Cappadocia in Turkey and the volcanic regions of Japan.
AQO: Please relate a memory that influenced or changed your life and/or career.
KB: Moving to LA has greatly changed and influenced my life as an artist. I fell in love with the city and surrounding nature, and was set on heading to California after I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. I have always related to the American tradition of heading west for new opportunities, wide open spaces, and freedom, and to the artists who adventured west in the early years, like those of the Hudson River School.
In 2009 I arrived in LA, after art school, where my work had been focused on the figure and the interaction between urban landscapes and nature. I was just starting to explore the contemporary art world and was living with my brother Mike in Echo Park, experimenting a lot in a makeshift studio I set up in our living room. I met my husband Andy Moses, who is also a painter, through an artist friend of my brother, Timothy Williams, who I began assisting at his Black Cat Gallery in Culver City.
Andy had a painting in the first exhibition I helped hang at the gallery, which is how we met. I was immediately drawn to his painting, and we connected at the exhibition opening and started dating a few months later. Not only did we share many interests such as our mutual love of rocks, but he really became my mentor when it came to learning how to actually live as an artist and navigate the art world.
I kept diligently working through many changes in my own work, until one day I knew I had to break it all back down to the basics in order to build up a completely new direction for myself. Using the simple materials of acrylic and ink on watercolor paper, I started a whole new series that later on became the basis for Subterranean, my solo exhibition at Frank Pictures Gallery in Santa Monica, in 2011. Since then I have gone through many transformations in my work, always embracing change, and remembering the freedom encapsulated in that first new piece.
AQO: You just had a terrific show at Sloan Projects, called Divergent Earth. What's next for you?
KB: I already have so many ideas for my next series! I am planning on gathering new reference material, by traveling to some of the unique geological sites I had mentioned earlier. I am determined to capture the energy of volcanoes by directly painting and observing them from life, so I am currently working on my plan to make that happen. I am also going to be investigating further the connections between geology and ancient sites.
AQO: What is your favorite art accident?
KB: I think art accidents are more like discoveries, and they happen to me all the time. Earlier this year in my Venice studio, my dark cement floor had become intensely covered with the iridescent paints I had been using. For a long time I had been trying to figure out how to create an effect of rainbow iridescence that felt less synthetic, and closer to nature. Late one evening I looked down at my floor and saw the effect I had been searching for, created by chance, through the way the paint had fallen in layers over the pavement. I figured out how to recreate the technique, and used it in several of the paintings in my Divergent Earth series, the very first one being Electro Aurora.
Top: studio portrait by Eric Minh Swenson