New York, Apr. 2011: Dutch-born, New York-based artist Sebastiaan Bremer is known for his enlarged photographs of highly personal subjects to whose surfaces he has added a “delicate mist” of pointillist drawing in inks, dyes, and retouching paint. Bremer integrates his own draughtsman's narrative of spontaneous, "hidden" motifs and imagery with "photographic memories" of extant documents, such as old intimate family photographs and re-shot canonized works of art that can be found in his most recent work. The artist summons the histories and traditions that are not always his own, reflecting the mutually-inflecting nature of our selves and the world that shapes us, mediating the present and the past, the subjective and the objective. Sebastiaan Bremer has exhibited worldwide at such estimable institutions as James Fuentes (New York), Galeria Leme (São Paolo), and Air de Paris, among many others. His current exhibition at Edwynn Houk Gallery, “Nudes and Revolutions,” is on view through April 23, 2011.
Sebastiaan Bremer, Antoinette, 2010. acrylic inks on C print; Courtesy the artist and Edwynn Houk gallery
Emily Nathan: Could you give us a bit of context for your artistic production? What influences -- artistic and otherwise -- did you feel were operative upon you, growing up in Amsterdam?
Sebastiaan Bremer: Aside from the occasional visit to a museum, or a glimpse of the art reproductions on the walls of my parents’ house, most of the art I saw as a kid was on record sleeves and in comic books. My obsession with the latter translated into a job at a comic book store, and I worked there through high school, dabbling in illustration and comics. The counter-culture style of the ‘70s was dominant in the store where I worked -- they had an enormous stock of underground U.S. comics, as well as all of the European ones -- and it wasn’t until after I finished school that I took up painting. I remember being specifically influenced by a print of the Dutch painter Melle that I found terrifying and exciting, full of Hieronymus Bosch-like visions. I suppose you can find some remnants of those influences throughout my work.
I think my lack of formal art training and my reliance on intuition and subconscious impulses created work that I might describe, for lack of a better word, as Surrealist. It was never my intention to work that way. I have been in New York for a long time, but I’m still a foreigner here, and I think that affects the way I look at Holland and its cultural history; the scenery that you see in the historical Dutch paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the same as it is now -- the skies, the light, the buildings. I see the images that have been produced there not only as objective and historical but also as images that represent home to me -- so I guess there is a bit of nostalgia, and perhaps an odd pride, in using those works as a reference. But the true reason my referencing of the history of Dutch art is that I feel like the hubris of paintings from the Golden Age has its parallel in contemporary Western cultures. The fact that I’m Dutch simply makes my referencing of Willem Kalf's still lifes, for example, a bit less of a stretch.
EN: How did your practice of adding ink and dye to the surfaces of your photographs come about?
SB: Sometimes I want to use a photograph because of the talismanic power inherent to the picture. The person or situation pictured in the image is meaningful to me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that specific photograph communicates it in the way I think. By pouring dyes on it (a technique I started experimenting with in some early pictures, and still use, but only occasionally), I feel that I literally imbue the piece with another identity, one which is much more relatable and much less contingent on its meaning for me exclusively. Then the work I do on top of that again has been further liberated, and has even more freedom. Sometimes I really want to communicate what the power of the picture is, and I will find a way make that meaning and message accessible to viewers, by any means necessary.
EN: What sort of dynamic between content/subject and form/decoration do you find compelling, and why?
Sebastiaan Bremer, Schoener Goetterfunken I, 'A loving father must dwell', 2010, acrylic and inks on C print; Courtesy the artist and Edwynn Houk gallery
SB: I don't really choose my style. I think that aesthetics are a way to communicate -- as a writer, you have to use language in order to write, and I do the same with visual language. The way I draw now is the result of many years of drawing, and part of that is intentional, and part of it is almost determined by my biology.
My process of making work is labor intensive, but it also allows me time to reflect -- while literally recording the passage of time itself mark by mark. My thought processes are recorded in real time as I make the work. I think that the more involved you are in looking at details on the surface, you are getting lost in them, travelling along the surface of the work. By spending time in this sort of reverie, you are freed from your own reality a bit. If the work is any good, something gets communicated in there, and that is not merely superficial. I think “decoration” is a word that sometimes gets misused, as it accrues the connotation of being shallow and superficial, which I think sells it short. I think there is a lot to see in the “decorative,” in wallpaper, clouds or the swirling patterns of marble. Losing yourself in the “surface” allows the mind to travel, and sometimes I use that in my work as well. I draw on my pictures so you can see them through my eyes.
EN: Is your integration of various mediums and methods based on some conceptual framework, or is it an aesthetic, formal decision?
SB: Both. I originally intended to find a way to literally get into the physical space of the picture. I found that by making marks that were very small and round on the surface of an image I was able to assert myself not outside or on top of the image, but rather as part of it.
Dots in particular show up in various cultures and art movements, and there are plenty of artists using a variation on the idea of the “small mark” as the most basic element of the visual image: you have pointillism, aboriginal art, and even Vermeer. For me it started out just as a small experiment that seemed to fit, and as I got more involved with the method, it acquired new meanings and functions on other levels. I think this might be true for many artists. Experimentation and persistence can lead you to content and understanding.
EN: You often use your own subjective experience as the foundation for your work, and then embellish and modify it by integrating motifs that reference other histories and traditions. How do you negotiate the subjective and the objective, present and past, lived and imagined?
SB: Everyone is stuck in his or her own subjective experience and reality. Then again, I am always struck by how much of experience is shared and recognizable to different individuals, no matter their background. There are so many things we all wrestle with and long for, and in these shared desires and drives we are distinctly not unique. Sometimes that communality feels comforting; sometimes I am frustrated by our lack of progress. Murals in Pompeii and Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, have the power to touch us all. I guess I am interested in the human experience and the artistic expression of it, and I don't see myself as isolated in the present time. When I’m working and feel inspired, I have no rules as to what I allow to influence my work. Of course I have ideas and ambitions, and try to be relatively coherent and intentional about what I want to communicate, but if something seems to fit, I go with it. If an association comes up, I use it. Most of the iconography I use is my own, I feel, even if others can relate to it as well. Culture is a very complex brew, which took a long time to make. I like the ideas of Carl Jung in this respect -- I like how certain symbols pop up all over time and in most cultures, and how different gods and goddesses and stories show up, barely disguised from the previous incarnation.
EN: What sort of commentary does your work make about photography’s ability to exist as a truly "documentary" or "objective" medium?
Sebastiaan Bremer, Proud Bloody Mary, 2009, acrylic inks on Lambda print; Courtesy the artist and Edwynn Houk gallery
SB: I think photographic images carry a lot with them, and to me photographs, especially on paper, have a talismanic power. All of the issues you have raised in this interview have been seriously considered and discussed at length by very smart people, and yet there is still some mysterious power to the photograph. Even just seeing the black photo paper carries a power, the feeling of the potential for something to be recorded -- and I love that.
Maybe that is something that will pass away with the gradual disappearance of optical or dark room printing, I can't tell. I do what I do to make what I have in my head come out into the world, and I add to it and change it and sometimes I even start from scratch, making it seem as though there is a photograph underneath. I don’t think anyone would argue that there is anything objective or documentary about a photograph anymore, if there ever really was. That said, when we see a photograph, it somehow convinces and seduces us to feel that it does indeed have the potential to express Truth. That power is something magical.
EN: Have your interests or methods evolved or changed as the cultural sphere at large has transformed into a brand new sort of beast? How?
SB: No, I don't think so. Of course I’m influenced by pop culture, but I tend to look at things in the long term. Things are always evolving and changing. My practice is very old fashioned in that I make each of my works by hand, except when I do etchings or silk screens, which is rare. So in reality, I make a painting, one at the time, slowly. It’s the opposite process from photography, really. A photograph is an image recorded in a very brief amount of time, which is then reproduced ad infinitum. My work is recorded and created very slowly, and there is no real reproduction possible. It’s a pain because I have to make a new show every time, and sometimes I wish I could show the same series in different continents like many artists can, if they make editions. But there is something to be said for the unicum, I think. And I think my work looks good in reproduction -- but it has more power in real life. There is a material, tangible side to it which is hard to experience when it just reproduced in a picture.
EN: Does your new work, currently on view at Edwynn Houk Gallery, reflect a new path or interest for you?
Sebastiaan Bremer, Sprung Spring, 2010, acrylic and inks on gelatin silver print; Courtesy the artist and Edwynn Houk gallery
SB: Having my work exhibited in the context of that gallery gave me a reason to reflect on the medium a bit more. Originally I was going to try to obtain a series of negatives from the Rijksmuseum's collection, photographs taken one hundred years ago by the painter H. Breitner, who wanted to document his studio and use photographs of his models as studies for his oil paintings. He was very much influenced by Rembrandt's nudes. I thought this fitting for me to use, since I am hardly a photographer, and these photographs also demonstrate the use of the medium for the artistic purposes of a painter. It turned out that the images I had selected were not available to me -- bureaucracy prevailed -- and so I was stranded for a bit. Then I realized that I had taken iPhone shots of the prints in the museum’s archives, and I resolved to use those.
This turn of events was a happy accident, I think, which ultimately made the work much more subversive and interesting. The final works, in which I combined Breitner’s style and images with Rembrandt's, retains the reflections and coloring caused by my shirt and the overhead lighting in the museum when I took the images with my phone. Everything just seemed to click.
As far as my work for the future -- I have no one way of producing. I am currently working on the Schoener Goetterfunken series, and I have a lot of other plans, some of which I developed in relation to the work in the Houk exhibition. I tend to have many ideas at a time; sometimes, it just takes a few years for them to come to fruition.
Artslant would like to thank Sebastiaan Bremer for his assistance in making this interview possible.