At age 91 painter and printmaker Suki Berg brings a wealth of history and imagery to this retrospective. There is something in the broad ocean of time that Berg has pursued with her themes and methods of image making that is fascinating. Not only for the way the way her work slips in and out of art historical moments following its own course, but also for the perspective Berg’s ongoing dedication affords us in considering how art shapes the artist’s identity and all the humanity that reveals.
Berg is a prolific painter and printmaker, so exhibits like this require us to wade through some of her extensive output looking for signposts, connections, threads and notable moments. Over the past fifty years she has consistently used abstraction and the figure to explore the emotional territory of social and personal alienation. Because her career started when Abstract Expressionism and the intensely articulated gestural mark were dominant, that movement’s attitude of painterly freedom and emotional self-expression remains a keystone to her art making.
From the beginning Berg’s paintings and prints have dealt with estrangement. In some of her earliest imagery it is the family circle in particular where isolation is most intensely felt. The 1956 oil painting, “The Family on a Beach”, is a long vertical landscape with thick, flat horizontal bands of bright color sharply sliced along one side by two long, intensely colored adult figures. Simply and loosely painted they stand close together but their simplified faces look in opposite directions, physically connected but detached from one another. In the lower corner of the image is a small childlike figure seated on a pink blanket. Pale and roughly painted against the brushy yellow sand, its empty face looks toward the standing figures to create a haunting triangle of disengaged attachment.
|In Berg’s painting brushwork is energy but it is the human figure that serves consistently as the charged emotional ground. This is typified by the vividly colored “Ulysses and His Alter Ego” (1999). This image is centered on a bright pink and purple profile of a man outlined by a brushed and rubbed light yellow background. While that face gazes with open interest toward an indistinct figure over one shoulder, another murkier face and body emerge like a cast shadow from the back of his head. That phantom then pulls the viewer’s eye toward an array of vaguely architectural electric blue pillars or bars that weigh heavily in one corner of the image. Within the myth of the homeward bound hero Berg has deftly pictured the churning, mixed internal territory of desire and reluctance.
Berg has written of her use of the human figure that she continually searches “for the image that bespeaks man’s frailties”. So it is not surprising that in the early 90’s, when she began to have troubles with her hands and painting and printmaking became increasingly difficult, she began to explore photography as a way to keep working then turned the camera on her own nude, 80 year old body.
Unlike her paintings and prints where figures are always generalized forms and emotions swirl in a language of paint and pigment washes, Berg’s self portraits are shockingly straightforward and direct. In “Self Portrait with Mirror Image”, a black and white photo etching from 1996, she stands looking directly at the viewer, her slightly curving shoulders outlined graphically in the mirror and a penetrating, slightly puzzled or fearful look on her face. Her shoulders and arms look almost ageless as she modestly crosses her arms across her breasts, but that very modesty only serves to outline the curl and knobby texture of the arthritis in her hands.
If John Coplans’ photographs of his aging body explored the strength and humor to be found in the creases and folds of a body growing old, Berg’s self portraits expose the psychological vulnerability of it. Yet remarkably, Berg suggests a sense of power exists in that space of vulnerability, a power for reinvention. As her “Self Portrait Series” continues the artist’s crossed-arm figure dons a speckled mask. The effect is like looking something transmuting, becoming alien and not quite human. In “#7 (The Family)” from that series the figure is both old woman and changeling, with the artist’s slightly bent figure seeming to embrace itself, as well as cradle a miniature of itself; an archetype of frailty, difference and nurturing that, because of its tripled direct gaze, seems utterly aware.
In the spirit of remaking and Berg’s determination to continue to make art despite the limits of her physical body, she has developed new prints entitled “The Flower Series” for this exhibition. Made from two found etching plates of flowers she reworked over and over with acid baths, these images are strikingly different from the self-portraits. While outlines of leaves or stems can be seen here and there, overall they are entirely organic, abstract washes of bright, intense colors whose liquid flow suggests aerial photographs of flooded or volcanic landscapes.
There is much in the luminosity of these painterly prints that suggests the freedom and exuberance of her earlier painting. Not one to plan out a painting, Berg preferred to “find” her figures with her brushwork and then develop the picture. In these newest prints she looks with admitted failing eyesight into the puddles and eddies of the acid’s burn for simple, accidental shapes that give the individual works their titles. If the radiance of the new imagery is any indication, despite her ongoing physical limitations, this is a joyous return to spontaneity and discovery for the artist.