Dutch artist Chris Berens has made a name for himself by documenting the landscapes that he sees in his head, an artistic tradition that follows in the footsteps of surrealist painters like Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró. The Only Living Boy in New York at Sloan Fine Art Gallery (through January 23rd) is Berens' guided tour through his own personal dreamscape, a fantastical place full of adorable oddities. It's a world where fat, smiling hamsters float like clouds, ships sail through the sky, and the sun never really rises. The sky is a perpetual blend of icy blues and silvery grays, a pink tinge on the horizon the only indicator of an elusive morning that never seems to come. The obvious comparison is to artist and animator Tim Burton, another purveyor of interior fantasy (who currently has his own exhibition at the MOMA). Both artists are able to manipulate imagery that is equally childish and grim with remarkable dexterity; somehow those warring sensibilities meld into a landscape that is consistent, believable, and beautiful to behold.
The one thing that Berens has over Burton, though, is a suspense that resonates with an adult audience. While Burton's work has oft been dismissed as sexless and emotionally stunted, Berens' imbues his works with a strange yet palpable sexual tension. His images are populated by a harem of moon-faced girls with wide-set eyes and upturned noses. They gaze out of windows and from the tops of staircases, solemn and sad, at the only male figure in the entire series: Berens himself. He portrays himself as a heroic figure, dressed in either Victorian costume or the silver robes of a monk, but with his round face and bright blue eyes he fits into the composition seamlessly. In "Bridges Over Half Moon River" (2009) he pulls a ship filled with two girls and a myriad of baby animals through the misty sky over Manhattan like some sort of modern Noah-like figure, the one man upon whom the fates of many depend.
Even upon close inspection, one might swear that his images are digitally enhanced, some sort of postmodern photomontage. The slick icicles that hang from building facades sparkle, and the downy softness of his lambs begs to be touched. But all of his compositions are rendered entirely by hand. Berens began documenting the places he saw in his dreams in make-shift studios set up in abandoned buildings while still a child. When he couldn't find a traditional medium to achieve his desired effect, he developed his own. Berens begins his completely unique process by sketching scenes in ink onto glossy photo paper. He then cuts out the figures and landscapes into smaller squares and rectangles. Before the drawings dry, he peels the top, shiny layer off of the paper and secures them randomly to a canvas with bookbinding glue. Berens never knows what an image is going to look like until it is done; he layers the transparent squares one atop of the other until he is satisfied. To soften the lines and tones, he gently blows the wet ink with a hair dryer, smudging and blending the ink until the image achieves the ethereality he is looking for.
Even though the skies are dark and the settings eerie, the saccharine sweetness of the characters and creatures that inhabit Berens' landscapes ultimately make it a friendly place. But it's the architecture framing almost every composition in the series that really makes The Only Living Boy in New York resound with viewers. The New York landmarks that have become all too familiar to us pepper every composition; the Chrysler Building is full to bursting with fluffy and nondescript creatures that peek from its windows, the Statue of Liberty looks more like a Kewpie Doll than a national landmark, and the Flatiron Building is a constant, ominous presence looming in the distance. Berens' works may be utopian for some, but for those living in New York it's not much more romantic than home itself.
(images courtesy Sloan Fine Art)