Chris Berens encapsulates everything beautiful.bizarre looks for in a featured artist. He is intriguing, his process is one of a kind, and the work he produces is stunning. The artwork displays the most fantastical imagery, providing scenes starring surreal characters and creatures from deep inside of Chris’ imagination. beautiful.bizarre interviewed Chris for Issue 013 and we present the full interview to you here as an exclusive offering with our digital edition.
b.b: How did you come to formulate your technical process and how did you nail down a distinct style?
CB: I graduated in 1999 to start working as an illustrator. My original goal was to illustrate children’s books. It was quite a sincere wish, and I had planned to pay my dues as an illustrator for magazines, newspapers, and such and slowly wiggle myself into the inner circle of children’s books publishers. Of course, sincerity and honesty is paramount when it comes to creating. So that world inside me got fussy pushing to get out and started peeking out through the illustration jobs. When in a briefing for a new commission, I’d do my best to pay attention and appear interested in a piece about politics or economics, when I would sort of disconnect, withdraw and dissolve into this place inside me, where I go for comfort. It’s a world, or more like a universe, I have carefully built up for as long as I can remember. This place, lacking a better word, is actually just me. It’s who I really am, it’s what I see when I look in the mirror, or at you, it’s the way my mind works, it’s the detour my system takes before I open my mouth and try and deliver a full sentence. And those were the two obstacles I was not prepared to take: neglect and ignore all the images inside me, and constantly selling and defending my work with words. I feel most comfortable expressing with images than words.
As a child, I found it extremely difficult to act like a human being. I found the way people talked, acted, and described the world and all elements of it to deviate from the way I saw things. Over the years, I learned to remember which stands for what and how to turn the images in my head into words and all other accepted forms of communication. I think in pictures. Not paintings or still pictures, everything moves. But it’s not color and shape, come to think of it. It’s light. And all is affected by all. I can slow it down or relive it, but never make it stop. And it keeps on expanding. It feeds on all I see, both inside and out. And sometimes I come across images from outside that fit right in, and everything else is digested and morphed to shape to fit in my universe. And it leaks out. I’ve been drawing all my life. And so that’s what I do. I would make films if I had the means and knowledge, as that is the medium closest to it, especially now that Hollywood’s found stereography. And I will, and in the meantime I’m very happy painting it all by distilling them into static images.
So what was the question? Ah yes, technical process. Well, I could draw, and I could handle a brush, I was just always frustrated with the result. Either because time pressure, or just because of lack of skill. So I locked myself up and worked and experimented until I felt I was on the right track.
As for the distinct style, it becomes more and more similar to what it really looks like. However, the original thing in constantly changing too, so it’s quite a whimsical pursuit.
b.b: How do you define success? What have been the high points of your career so far?
CB: Success for me is being able to support my family, to provide my fiancée and two daughters with a warm home, doing what I do. To have a working day consist of creating, collaborating and making plans to do so and not be bothered with bookkeeping, updating websites, answering e-mails or phone calls. To stumble from one awesome project into the next while remaining on top of stuff and maintaining overview. To be healthy and happy. The latter sounds a little out of place, but in fact is quite crucial. I have only one measuring stick when it comes to the things I create, and that is that it has to be honest, true, genuine, real. It’s actually not even a choice, it is the only way to fly for me. The path has to be clear between myself and the canvas or whatever carrier or medium that might be standing in front of me. If there’s stuff in the way, it either will fail miserably, or the obstructing crap will tag along for the ride and dissolve into, affect and define the thing I’m working on at that time. When I’m working, I feel like an open nerve. They’re so much static, distractions, deceptions and other noise, that I have to –or want to- utterly open up and expose in order to hear them whispering. That’s the only way the end result satisfies me, it also makes both it and myself extremely vulnerable too. So that’s why every image I have ever made, reads like a journal to me once it’s done. It’s a film. A story. I relive what I was going through when I was making it. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what a painting is about though. It has no beginning, no middle or end, no plot, no moral or message. It just is.
But I’m drifting off. What was the question again? Oh, right, high points. Well, so far it’s been quite a ride. One of the ultimate high points still remains the day my Amsterdam gallery called and invited me for a chat and a glass of water in their gallery. I remember every minute of that day. It was quite magical. On my first show, half a year later, we had a painting called Toontje van Esch was er ook (Toontje van Esch was there, too), referring to a friend that died in high school. The day after the opening night, Toontje’s sister walks past the gallery. As I have come to understand it, his family and old friends annually gather around the painting and swap stories about Toontje. I find that quite magical. That’s quite an extraordinary high point to me.
Especially the first 5 years of my career as a painter have been a dream. Not a day went by where I didn’t feel the need to pinch myself. Or scream. Or dance. And we did. And then there’s the first e-mail I got from Kirsten Anderson, my beloved Seattle gallerist, the trip Robbert (van Ham, owner Jaski Gallery), Esther took to Seattle to vigorously celebrate our first overseas show. More pinching, screaming and -I’m afraid- dancing.
Through my first New York show we got in touch with some extraordinary people and mind blowing musicians, who were at the time in the midst of recording sessions, on the plane ride back home I sketched up the cover to that album, early demo’s in my ears.
Then, a documentary was made about my work and life. Then a Young Adult author used some of my paintings in her story, and in the next volume of that same series, a ‘lost Chris Berens painting’ emerges, and I myself enter the story as a character.
Right now, I have a museum show in my hometown, in a museum I wandered around a big chunk of my own childhood, getting lost inside the miniature worlds of 18th and 19th century paintings.
Above all that, Hollywood is peeking around the corner and we’re slowly getting involved with some very exciting stuff over there. And the most wonderful thing of all, is I get to do it all with the love of my life beside me, and seeing our two wonderful daughters grow up in this surreal daydream.
b.b: Where do you find inspiration and what motivates you to create?
CB: What motivates me is the uncontrollable urge to spill what’s inside me. It’s such a whirlpool in there, there’s no way I can contain it and stay sane at the same time. I actually fear for my health when I go places without so much as a piece of paper or pencil. Never happens by the way.
Inspiration could come from anywhere. Films, books, pictures, paintings, commercials, my kid’s drawings…I don’t go looking for it. I just happened to be built that way. I was in the South of France, making a painting after Vincent van Gogh for a TV show. I was sitting in a clearing by a lake, under a tree, trying to paint. Dead silent, just crickets and filming crew, when the director suddenly shouted we had to cut and wait until that weird noise had passed. When we looked around, we saw the sound engineer had wandered off with his mic and he was lying on the ground, recording the dripping of condense in a small cavern. We all walked over and stood around him. He had the most blissful look on his face and when he finally saw us, he wiped his damp eyes gave the headphones to the director and said, “Oh, right. I’m sorry, but listen how beautiful”.
It’s like that for me, with images. It’s all around, and –depending on the way your clock ticks- some things just stick. They click. They look familiar and you can’t say why. And you don’t need to. They’re from your home planet. Feeling lost, like you, then you find one another, and you stick together. I just feel the need to give all those lost souls back their home.
My wife and I can look at the same face, object or film, and see something completely different. I mean absolutely without any similarities whatsoever.
b.b: How has your work evolved through the years?
CB: The images in my head have always been from the same place. The place is just evolving, as I am that place. I always wanted to depict it, only not before 10 years ago did I find the discipline and patience to sit down for a year or two and master a technique that allows me to come quite close.
Knowing I had to go the distance to master that and knowing there’s no cutting corners when it comes to skill or knowledge, I until that day would arrive did not depict my world and its inhabitants, I made the art they would have hanging on their walls. What a painting of mine would look like if it were in there. Like if you would be a cartoon, drawing a cartoon, it wouldn’t look like a cartoon, as inside a cartoon, a cartoon is reality. And then I locked myself up and worked on technique. I strongly dislike technique, it always feels like a waste to go from the perfect form inside my head, tear it all down and learn how to put it back again in a crude matter such as paint and canvas, or in my case inks and paper. I know it’s not a waste, and a fine skill to master, it just feels a little off to me. Anyway, when I was satisfied with the status quo, I came out of my cave and gently switched from their art to them.
b.b: What are some common reactions you receive from viewers concerning your process and content?
CB: People respond quite emotionally to my work. I consider myself extremely fortunate to receive messages labeled ‘fan mail’. That is the most rewarding thing of all. The stories people share with me are just wonderful. Usually they’re very personal and emotional. Frequently it is about life changing events and they’re trying to make sense out of. Then they are confronted with one of my paintings that I feel I portray their feelings or emotions, and that’s wonderful. I always very badly want to leave it there. Not because I want to remain something of a mysterious person or something, the one question I’ll rather not answer is what a painting is about. Of course, I do understand the question, especially on an opening night, where it’s a social gathering; people come to see the paintings, so you kindly show your interest to the creator. It’s just that to me that question doesn’t make any sense. It’s like asking what you are about, or what life is about, or Tuesday. Instead, I like to bounce it back. What is it to you? Why do you ask, why about this painting? Why do you want to know? Do you want to know?
Perhaps that’s what a painting is about then, come to think of it, trying to make some sense out of all of it and finding my way through the mists. Only in my case, it’s a polar bear.