STEFAN BERG: VISUAL POET, NATIONAL TREASURE
Stefan received a BFA from OCAD University, along with the Solomon Painting Award and Eric Freifeld Drawing Award. His work has been exhibited in Canada, the United States and Europe, and featured in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Telegram Journal. Stefan has received grants from The Canada Council for the Arts, The Ontario Arts Council, and The Toronto Arts Council.
Can you describe for me your childhood?
What kinds of creative activities did you engage with as a kid?
I was very lucky to be encouraged in many creative activities: dance, music, poetry. I wanted to be a visual artist from as early as I can remember. I have a hyperactive attention disorder, so school was rather difficult and learning how to read was a struggle. I spent a lot of time looking at art and architecture books. My literacy challenges seem to have benefited my abilities in visual narrative.
What kinds of art forms were you experimenting with at that time in your life?
Did you have any standout teachers?
What artists or works of art left impressions on you in your youth?
I was always drawing. Mostly characters from my mind, somewhat inspired by Ralph Steadman illustrations. I first attended life drawing with my Dad when I was about 14. Around this time we began painting together in the fields around our cottage in Bruce County. This was my introduction to the plein air method in which I work today. My father bought me a John Constable book around this time. My first artist of influence was Egon Schiele. I have always preferred realists. A standout teacher in university was Richard Robertson. He taught me how to see essentially, and introduced me to the work of David Bomberg, William Coldstream, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and Antonio Lopez Garcia. All of these artists work from life.
What route did you take after graduating from University?
What questions were you most interested in exploring?
Do you have a favourite painting?
Who are your influences?
I spent a few years travelling for the purpose of seeing art in person. I lived briefly in Berlin, and Lille. I visited the National Gallery in London several times, drawing from Rembrandt’s Belshazzar's Feast and Piero Della Francesca’s Nativity. In Madrid, I visited Goya’s Black Paintings in The Prado every day for a week. In Amsterdam, Vermeer of course, particularly the Milk Maid, it's one of his more hefty pieces. I saw a Peter Doig retrospective in Paris, in 2008, which made a significant impression regarding landscapes specifically.
I traveled to Fort Worth Texas, In 2012, to see a Lucian Freud retrospective, this totally changed my perspective on painting, and how to paint physically. I spent the following five years or so painting people from life with my family and friends as my models. I could easily spend 30 sittings on a work (about 100 hours) and end with something incomplete, or have my sitters walk out on me out of exhaustion. It was professional suicide, but I leaned a lot. Part of maturing as an artist involves sweating out your heroes. I realized it was not in my nature to work in Freud's manner, I do not have the attention span, nor do I find pleasure in the scrutiny.
Painting is a dialog with history, other painters and paintings. I admire all the artists previously mentioned, as well as Giorgio Morandi, Gwen John, and Alberto Giacometti.
Currently I am painting landscapes outside and therefore looking at Rackstraw Downes, Elenor Ray, and Itee Pootoogook. A landscape painter in Canada cannot avoid the Group of Seven, however I prefer David Milne. My favorite landscapes are by Balthus, most people will know his provocative nudes, but his landscapes are not often discussed.
When did you first hear of Glenn Gould?
What initially drew you to him?
What does the 'architecture of music' mean to you?
There is a connection between Gould’s music and my landscape. I hear the late Goldberg Variations when walking in an evening snowfall for instance. I grew up in Toronto in the neighbourhood where Glenn Gould lived as a child. Gould was greatly influenced by his own imagination of the landscape. His documentary The Idea of North contemplates the notion of solitude and the identity of place. This shared relationship to a sense of place was the draw.
Within the wordless narrative genre there is a common theme: the artist leaves the city to find meaning in the wilderness. Examples would be Wild Pilgrimage by Lynd Ward or Passionate Journey by Frans Masereel. It’s interesting that Gould’s favourite book was The Three Cornered World, wherein an artist abandons city life to wander into the mountains to meditate. Gould gave up Europe and the United States for the isolation of the Canadian winter. “The Idea of North” suggests finding inner peace and artistic liberation through self reflection. For Gould to “go north” meant to go into oneself. He is the perfect character to use in telling a story about solitude.
Architecture of Music first takes advantage, then subverts the readers’ pre-existing sense of Gould, to then reinterpret the idea of Glenn Gould. “The architecture of music” is a term Gould used to refer to music’s structural makeup, the composition, the equation, the many parts which come together to form a whole experience. Gould wrote very little, his talent was interpretation, re-imagining the scores of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schoenberg.
In my project, the individual print is like the individual note, they are considered separately, yet together they form a narrative (Architecture of Music is a wordless narrative in 30 linocuts, published in 2020). Gould was not only the subject of my project, he provided many conceptual layers. Interpretation is what visual narrative is all about. The idea is to control a succession of images in time, it is in the reader's hands to develop their own interpretation. This simultaneous role of creator and viewer is Gouldian. I encourage my audience to interpret Architecture of Music as Gould would a musical score.
More on Architecture of Music: A Gouldian Perspective: Presenting Architecture of Music by Stefan Berg, The Glenn Gould Foundation.
I know you have some particular thoughts about the importance of a place.
Could you share some of them with us?
Why is place important?
What places are particularly significant to you?
What do you find most challenging and most exciting about capturing a place?
I’m working from a landscape I know very well, painting places where I grew up and continue to live, places steeped in memory and personal experience. I often paint places people deliberately never look at: factories, highways, apartments, public schools. I don’t necessarily intend to say anything about these places, I’m more interested in the dynamics of a composition. Circumstance plays a big role in observational painting; can you draw out and emphasize a compelling geometry?
These landscapes are found in all cities, for instance the suburbs are the same wherever you go, the mundane is actually deeply rooted in our collective sense of place. These are not typical picturesque scenes, but a fresh and honest look at the immediate world. I don’t go out of my way to find banality, nor do I attempt to sweeten it. I like the way it is, and I try to capture the personality in a way that will excite someone living in that area, not just because it’s recognizable, but because it’s real.
My attention is drawn to places where architecture and nature converge. This is the reality of living in a city; it is impossible to find a place that has not been marked or transformed by humans.
With my recent painting of the former Unilever Plant, the subject initially appears to be an obsolete factory slated for demolition, and therefore a recording of the past. As you continue to scan the painting your focus then comes to the electrical wires that run from one transformer to another. This is not meaningless, our city is dependent on this drama. And within there is an exciting geometry. The act of scanning the scene, embodying the physical experience of looking, this is the real subject, and a great challenge.
The most exciting aspect of painting outdoors is the light. Light is geographic, it is fundamental in creating a scene of place. I feel a kinship with artists like Jack Chambers or Mike Bayne because we are painting the same regional light.
Can you describe to me your full process when you work outside?
Do you work in all seasons?
What do you bring with you?
How long will you sit and paint for?
What do you enjoy about this particular approach to painting compared with sitting inside a studio?
Working outside involves working within time. Being on-site, responding to the moment in flux and having all one's sensations stimulated is very different from painting in the studio. Painting on-site is painting a landscape in motion, it is literally the opposite of painting a still image. The subject must be present because we are dealing with presence. The temporal aspect is what provides the work with life, a breathing quality, an impossibility of pinning down reality, and yet the thrill of trying to do so produces a rich series of visual hiccups which speak volumes on perception.
There is no substitute for this process, no shorthand, and it is an effort to arrive on-site day after day with your equipment, especially in below zero temperatures. It is like a portage, the absurdity and yet the necessity of carrying a canoe on your head. I work in all seasons and each requires a different kit, a different gameplan, a different window of opportunity. Part of my success is that I'm a bit neurotic and like to pre-plan. I work in the early or late hours during the summer to avoid the heat, and the light is more dramatic. It's the little things you wouldn't think of that really matter, how much water you need to take along, where you're going to relieve yourself of that water. I prefer winter... the light is magnificent, there are fewer people about, and no bugs; you just have to dress for it and know how much you can stand. I typically paint for two to four hours, depending on the conditions, and often I return a number of times. The larger piece composed of several panels might take ten day. I work fast but revisit. When you’ve been doing it for twenty years you get a sense of how to read the light, how long you’ve got, how fast you must work. The process is entirely responsive to the situation.
Can you tell me about your upcoming two person exhibition in July?
The Value of Weather is a two person exhibition of plein air paintings at United Contemporary, running July 8 to 31. Chuck Beamish and I have spent the winter working outdoors, Chuck in the county, and me in the city.
Chuck is astonishingly good at capturing winter light, the isolation, and immense beauty of the North. He brings to his practice a lifetime of camping in Algonquin Park.
My work in this exhibition includes urban landscapes of Toronto: The Water Treatment Plant, The Hearn, The Don Jail, The Gardiner Expressway, The Leslie Street Spit, and The Brickworks, all painted during the pandemic. Painting outdoors was a way for me to cope with the lockdown measures during the winter.
A number of my works are composed of several panels, each depicting a different day and therefore different weather conditions. Mounted together, the shifting of the season is evident as one panel shows mounds of snow and the next a thaw, or storm clouds transitioning into clear skies.
Learn more about Stefan's upcoming exhibit at the United Contemporary Gallery here:
(Opening Reception date, July 17th 12-6 pm)
What non-visual-artforms do you enjoy thinking about?
Music has always been a big influence. I used to see The Happy Pals play every Saturday afternoon at Grossman’s Tavern. New Orleans Jazz has tremendous energy. These visits inspired me to create Buddy Bolden's Last Parade (a wordless novel in 70 linocuts published in 2007).
At the Jam Factory, I was one of four coordinators in a life drawing and live music program. The act of drawing from the nude model, set to live improvised music was exceptional and unique. Both art forms searching at the same time, seeking out the right lines. Four of the musicians who played at the Jam Factory formed a band called Sketches (Aaron Comeau, Michael Eckert, Wesley Allen and Galen Pelley) and I continue to draw at their performances, and have them play at my openings, you can actually hear the charcoal on the recordings because my board is mic’d.
Sketches will be performing Thursday July 22 7pm-9pm at United Contemporary, corresponding with The Value of Weather.
When I was living on Lower Dawes, Aaron Comeau was running a recording studio called The Trailer. I often ended my work day by going down to The Trailer to listen to songs made that very day. Aaron sat many times for me, for paintings and drawings, improvising on his guitar. I also used him as a model for Gould in Architecture of Music. Our practices continually influence one another.
Performance and conversation between Aaron and Stefan for the exhibition Counterpoint, 2020 :https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t904rA3uFg8
Do you think that Toronto is an artist-friendly city? What changes would you like to see happen in order to better accommodate our artist populations?
I am happy to say that United Contemporary is an inclusive, diverse, and approachable gallery. Burke Paterson’s mandate is to run a commercial gallery more like a co-operative where the artists have a lot of freedom and a voice in the general operation. It’s a unique gallery and it would be nice to see more like it in Toronto.
It would be lovely to see more mentorships, encouragement and generosity among pears. Besides showing my own work I have curated a number of exhibitions, in doing so I try to extend the opportunities I’ve been given on to others.
Since Covid, and the relief benefits, I think artists in general have been more productive. It is exhausting to worry about money all the time. It inhibits your ability to think of anything else. I don’t think our society realizes how poor “the poor” really are. Universal Basic Income would have a significant impact on the arts community across all fields. I disagree with the conservative opinion that people would be lazy; artists would feel liberated and would work harder, and certainly take greater creative risks in their work.
What are you looking forward to?
I am looking forward to painting people again. I miss the one on one sittings. As you study the individual you work on the presence of the person. The sensation of being alive is felt when mixing a particular colour on the palette to match the sitter in front of you, when you get it right the image starts to come off the canvas. It's electrifying.
I would also like to break away from realism and continue to focus on the inevitable abstraction of prolonged observation. The fleeting effects of light and atmosphere, observed on-site in a constant rush against time. The surface built upon past attempts could create a rich pentimento, time seen in three dimensions.
I’ve begun a series of self portraits like this, under suppressed light conditions, the last hour of daylight as light dwindles, and I’m working without my glasses. I return to these small panels again and again and paint literally hundreds of self portraits on top of one another until a presence emerges. In these works I am thinking about Giacometti, and deteriorating frescos, an image emerging and vanishing into the matter of its being.
Learn more about Stefan's practice here: