From interview with Temple of Apelles – June 2016
Silhouettes of palm trees darkened the balmy Los Angeles evening, the first time I made acquaintance with Shaun Berke. Somehow out of place in all the technicolor, is a man of keen intelligence and a Rasputin-esque elegance, with darkly devious paintings that feel at once earthy and ethereal. His palette is wintry; his figures shrouded in mist. Indeed, Berke himself seemed to emerge from the mists of a Tarkovsky film as he greeted us at the front door of his mid-century apartment, an air of understated humility and refinement about him. He had prepared a three course meal for myself and my partner and we stayed up late into the night talking, drinking wine and pouring through his stacks of painting tomes, surrounded by his easel, chat noir, and an altar- like gathering of talismanic objects.
Berke’s solo exhibition Sancrosanct was on display at the time, at Los Angeles’ La Luz de Jesus gallery. His series of nun paintings displaces the holy sisters from their cloistered surroundings of flying buttresses and copal smoke and into the dust of a heathen wilderness. There they appear immersed in an ecstasy of the senses; naked flesh, the elements of nature, and ritualistic carnality. In Sacrament, two figures with woven hands sink into a watery scene of penitence. In his Deathcrush, three veiled women draw water from a vessel, seemingly suspended in an apocalyptic landscape. The figures are reminiscent of the Norns, the Norse fates who are the deciders of men’s destinies, drawing holy water from the well of Urd.
M.: There are those who would consider the subject matter of your compositions to be edging on sacrilegious. From a contrary perspective, there is a reverent treatment of the human body, and I don’t mean in a bride-of-Christ way, but in a manner not usually portrayed by historical Christians and other iconoclasts of the female figure. The bodies are harmoniously possessing of both sensuality and spirituality. Does that tension between the natural and mystical inform your work?
Berke: Very astute, I’d say. I’m glad that you’ve been able to read the paintings. Generally I hear my paintings received as being lascivious only. But yes, my intention with the nun paintings has been to first capture the viewer, then to hold them so that they might have a chance to consider how humanism permeates conventions. In any case, sacrilege is relative. I have no trepidation about it.
M.: What is your relationship to your nun paintings’ subject matter, to religious iconography, and to religion itself?
Berke: I’m very fond of the stories in all of the recorded religions. When I was thirteen, I was baptized. It was in the woods and I like water and the church man had perceived me as leading some day –pretty cool shit to hear when you’re a kid. Rituals are in our bones, very old. Religions are as many tongues speaking as many dialects. I like the sound of a librarian’s pantheism most of all.
M.: Plato postured that to depict nature is futile, even dangerous. For over a half-century the Art oligarchy has turned it’s collective Platonic nose up at such things as painting representationally. What challenges do you find yourself up against as a dangerous portrayer of human beauty?
Berke: The challenge is in weathering a storm that shreds at my soul; in being inundated with the tediousness of novelty; in being out of step with the trend forecast. However kind the people may be, engaging a scene so starkly disparate is difficult to say the least. Once, a mother said to her child, “follow your heart” and then that actually happened. It is as hard as it is rewarding.
M.: You’ve described your body of work thus far as “Gothic piety and Sienese humanism in a Venetian light, only with more chaos…” Is this concept of chaos significant to you? Do you believe there is potency to the idea of Chaos, in a theoretical sense, or in a magickal way?
Berke: Yes. Chaos is central and ubiquitous, the beginning and the end; it’s at the roots of mythology; it’s a natural law essential to our existence. Whatever lofty aesthetic I might strive for, chaos is a part of me, and so my work. I find it peaceful and beautiful. Without chaos there could not be a murmuration of starlings.
M.: You’ve chosen to place yourself within the lineage of the Bellini-Titian school, or the Venetian School as it is sometimes known. Would you describe the school, and how you realized you fit within that tradition?
Berke: The Venetian School is a way of painting where feeling eclipses procedure. It is painting, not coloring. Exemplified in the difference between Titian and Michelangelo. The rift is as substantial as between Aristotle and Plato, and it continues to this day. It is an issue at the college. What is strange is that my affinity for Venetian painting turned out to be substantiated by a lineage of teachers. A teacher of mine connects me through the centuries back to Fra Angelico. I found the published pedigree tree and wrote to a fellow who welcomed me to the lineage! It sounds pretty cool but there are no secret meetings or anything…
M.: You tap into some old craft knowledge in order to make paintings which will withstand the test of time. I’ve also heard that trace amounts of bone, that enduring and primordial of human element, can be found in your pieces! Talk a bit about the tools and materials you employ, as well as your limited palette.
Berke: The materials are a fun thing for me. The palette, for example, can be a any number of surfaces. In considering which surface best serves the utility, I tried the variety of options. In the end, I discovered just how suitable a wheel is for a cart. So I went out and collected Moonwood to make a palette. It’s smooth like glass, light to hold, on hand to match color, and durable enough to not have a care. The materials don’t make the painting, but the woodgrain is so lovely it’s a sight worth maintaining. The colors I am using expand from the Apelles palette to a bespoke earth-tone palette. For example, I keep a red ochre for its roots in cave painting. I gave each color hopelessly poetical names that reflect an aspect of their origin. So, amusingly: Bone Dust, Iron Ore, Roast Ore, Woods Marrow, Blood Ore, Iron Mud, Meadow Ore, Bone Oil, and Titan Powder. M. : Briefly, you touched on the urge for Ritual being knitted into our nature as humans. Do any rituals bear weight in the way you do life; in the process by which you create your work? Berke : Certainly. Mine are just the maintenances of a recluse. I feed on books, care for my familiar, and run around outside for lack of any meal to chase. Most importantly for me is the cycle of a daylight painting schedule. Nocturnal was a dream. Speaking of which, to sit on furs and drink ewe’s milk from a stone cup is part of some kind of process for me, it would seem. So there’s that.
M.: Have any particularly illuminating works of music, film, literature inspired your own work lately? Do you like to listen to anything as you paint?
Berke: Well, in Paris I was moved by a statue – a marble Athena brought tears to my eyes. I stood there for some time. In regards to inspiration, music tends to add to a particular atmosphere yes? So mostly medieval and folk, sonatas and such. This one metal band, Galdr, is really excellent; and their name refers to a practice that I first heard about at Nerdrunskolen from Jonas Landstad. What really astounds me is how Rachmaninov’s compositions never lose their potency; it is for all time. When I work in silence, I keep an ear out for the crows and ravens, sometimes I play bird calls for them. Literature is essential company – recently Kenneth Clark, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Edred Thorsson.
M.: Last year you were awarded a travel grant to Paris. Did the city of lights reveal any new treasures to you in it’s countless wonderful museums, palais, or churches? Tell about your time there!
Berke : The first afternoon, I had a walk, smoked a pipe, saw the leaves move across those wide boulevards. That night, I watched the blood moon from the sacred heart basilica. It was very exciting to get to see so many wonderful paintings and sculptures. I would gasp or exclaim or mutter to myself in coming across a work expected or unexpected. I would stand there, looking closely to see how it was painted. I had not realized how swiftly a horde will come and go, collecting token snapshots without even seeing. The daylight on a marble would shift slowly; the shadow cast would come alive as visitors hurried along through the light from the window. They missed it entirely. The lesser-known works tended to be from antiquity or else the middle ages. I hopped a fence to see a monument of Charlemagne; came across a lute player in the latin quarter; sang a song for the wanderer; found a font to send a soul; I drank wine and made some friends.
M.: What creative territory will you traverse next? What themes have you delved in to as of late?
Berke: Devotion and persecution are themes of some working paintings that feature beheadings; some allegorical, autobiographical paintings; the newest works are of comparative mythology for a future show with a certain someone. I look forward to announcing that one.
M.: …and finally, the burning question (just for the pleasure of it): name your favorite deity or character from mythology!
Berke: Prometheus and Sisyphus spring to mind from the greek pantheon; Svarog from slavonic; Koschei from russian folklore; Mimir, Groa, Surtr from norse, but it is the wanderer who is most dear to me, without a doubt– Old Harr, Harbard, Hangatyr, Valtyr, Hrafnagud, Alfodr – Odinn, father of the slain.
From interview with Hi-Fructose Magazine – October 2014.
HF: How would you describe your show’s aesthetic?
SB: I like to think of it as cave painting, after waking up for the Renaissance, and then being hit in the head by Modernity. In general, I describe the work as traditional, figurative, allegorical painting. More specifically, I would say it is Gothic piety and Sienese humanism in a Venetian light, only with more chaos. The aesthetic of this show parallels the Kitsch school, as they are rooted in a love for classical antiquity and long dead friends.
HF: Where are we in your paintings?
We are at Mars, breathing without spacesuits. On the plains of a war god, disagreeable to being alive; on the Elysian Fields, being dead with Kronos; in the Book of Revelation, where everything has gone to shit and eulogistic hymns carry on the wind. A world of ghost-oceans, where water is sacred.
HF: What is the theme of your exhibition, and how is it different in theme, color and style from previous shows?
SB: The theme is Spirit and Intuition, disregarding Reason as the frequent mews of a domesticated animal. This show is an examination of sanctity and instinct, expanding from the previous series’ emphasis on carnality. The color is mostly limited palette, building from prehistory and antiquity. The style is my hand, with Chaos, in the Bellini-Titian school. The Bellini-Titian school is a lineage of teacher-student that is traced from Fra Angelico, through the centuries, to this idiot-with-a-brush.
HF: Is there a piece that you particarly liked how it came out, or a piece that was especially challenging to work on, and why?
SB: I’m pleased with how Mudlark turned out, in particular. It was the least troublesome, and the most adaptive. I learned of the term ‘mudlark’ from Odd Nerdrum when he was speaking at a painting conference earlier this year. It’s a lovely analog. As a mudlark scavenges a river for anything of value, the kitsch painter sifts through history for exemplars. I like the term.
HF: You typically dress your subjects in 17th century Dutch fashion and often depict nuns, but you yourself are not particularly religious. How do you explain your affinity for this style and the inspiration behind it?
SB: Well, Dutch and Spanish painting was certainly formative for me, and it continues to inspire. But the whole nuns thing stems from a heathen’s penchant for sacrilege. Christianity won a popularity contest over the gods of the earth; and for the dead gods, a heathen might appropriate the brides of Christ to haunt the faith.
As a youth, I was baptized Christian. That did not last, and eventually I found science to be a clearer window to the world. And as reason guides science through nature, so intuition guides the spirit. It was always Chaos, it will always be Chaos. Anyway, with adding panes of history and mythology to the window, I came to recognize religion for living-mythology. And I really like mythology, so I warmed up to it all. I have a great deal of respect for the devotion of nuns. Their devotion happens to be Catholicism. In my paintings, Catholicism is the window to speak about a hominid’s sense of spirit. Or else, nuns because lulz.
HF: One of your pieces reminded me of Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, which is notoriously a self portrait of the artist he painted on the walls of his home. Can you tell me about this piece?—Are your paintings more personal to you like Goya’s, or are they meant to address broader themes that can be universally understood?
SB: Thank you, Goya is an inspiration. Ideally, my paintings would be an entanglement of the personal and the universal. I paint out of necessity, however, it is good to know that we are not alone.
This painting of mine is called Corpse Swallower, which comes from Old Norse, Hraesvelgr [a giant who liked to be an eagle/windmill]. In my picture, a reverend mother, or eagle-transfiguring giantess, cannibalizes her children. A frame I considered for this piece had American flags and fourth-of-July sparklers. In this piece, the embedded mythology is an undercurrent. The broader theme of patriotism and religion, mortality and ethics is intended to be understandable. However, the language of a visual narrative is out of common use, generally relegated to obsolescence. ¶