Through an admixture of academic naturalism and whimsical surrealism, artist Ard Berge examines themes of American experience, identity, and history. Works such as Conquest of the West, Pegasus Reborn, Uncle Cincinnatus Hitches Up the Plow, and Manifestation of Destiny center on motifs of rural Americana while exploring the disjuncture between national ideals and contemporary reality. By means of the artist’s meticulous aesthetic, Berge renders his figures and environments with a combination of uncanny precision and wry social commentary. Below, the artist answers our questions regarding his practice and subject matter.
1.) When did you first get interested in exploring Americana culture in your work?
An American perspective has always been a part of my work and something that has always interested me. I was born on the West Coast to parents who loved history, enjoyed traveling to different parts of the country, and who instilled in me an interest in both the immigrant and early American ancestry of my family. As I have traveled to far-flung corners of the world, I have further grown to appreciate the qualities of American culture that I grew up with and to reflect upon them. I also feel that artists make their best work when they embrace their origins while exploring what they’re interested in learning more about—using art as a means for both self-knowledge and studying the world. This has been my approach and so, Americana becomes an inevitable feature in my painting.
2.) In what ways is your work personal?
My work is very personal. It addresses issues, ideas, and concerns that both deeply trouble and delight me. At the same time it also endeavors to be universal—to visually speak to others in a way that, I hope, is also meaningful for them. It’s very important to me for my work to connect with its viewers.
3.) Give a brief backstory behind each of the works in the show.
A Manifestation of Destiny, August 2007, oil on linen, 8”x10”:
This imaginary confrontation set in the American West portrays a frontiersman killing a bison at point blank range. The animal’s physical presence dominates the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. Such an act reflects the nature of the conquest that preceded settlement of that landscape and the subsequent extinction of the natural world.
Conquest of the West, June 2008-January 2010, oil on linen, 48“x60“:
A young girl poses in equestrian garb astride a bison. Isolated within the grandeur of its vast landscape, this formidable beast appears tamed and positioned at the extreme edge of a precipice.
Pegasus Reborn, September 2011-November 2011, oil on linen, 28“x32“:
An abandoned Mobil gas station set within a bucolic northern landscape has become the temporary stable for a pair of horses. The presence of Mobil Corporation’s Pegasus logo reminds the viewer of the ancient Greek myth in which the winged horse was born from the head of Medusa after she was slain by the hero Perseus as well as the once ubiquitous use of the horse for transportation.
Uncle Cincinnatus Hitches Up the Plow, February 2012-July 2012, oil on linen, 30“x24“:
An American veteran of World War II is depicted before a field with an antique tractor and the rusting hull of a naval aircraft carrier in the background. The name of the portrait’s subject refers to the Roman Consul Cincinnatus who left his farm to lead the Roman army against a foreign invader only to return to plowing his fields once the foe was vanquished.
4.) In this age of pervasive digitalism, do you believe that there is such a thing as an American identity anymore? Explain.
An American identity persists, but it is experiencing unprecedented changes—this is what makes this cultural moment so interesting to explore. It’s true that people around the world freely and easily share their cultural perspectives across a diverse range of media platforms. It’s also correct that this means different cultures have many more things in common than they once did. As noted by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in his writings on Cosmopolitanism, individuals further have greater freedom to pick and choose which cultural practices they value. Come to think of it, freedom to form one’s own opinions and destiny strikes me as rather “American” too. In any event, American identity certainly exists but I feel that it has become much more fluid and informed by an ever broader scope of influences that individuals may embrace.
5.) What is your process? Does intuition play a big role in the creation of your pieces?
Intuition is one of the most important faculties that any artist uses. Our culture has become acclimated to the idea that bravura brushwork or jarring and random pictorial associations equals intuition. In my work, intuition is often not so overtly apparent. In fact, given that I normally work from life, I’m constantly making intuitive decisions about how to organize a composition, accurately capture a specific form, or relate a series of colors to each other. While I find it pleasing when the representational elements of my work make my paintings accessible, I sometimes feel that the intuitive parts are overlooked because they may not be self-evident.
6.) Despite hinting at photorealism, your works are quite surreal. What role does surrealism play in your overarching message?
I’m glad that you asked that question. Several people have suggested to me that my work is surrealistic which, I find perplexing. Surrealism is an early modern art movement that uses dreamlike imagery to express the subconscious mind. And yet, I mostly paint from life and philosophically ground my work in visual reality. For example, it’s very important for me to accurately depict whatever I’m drawing or painting.
My paintings also tend to portray scenes that are either theoretically possible or which, I have actually seen. I look at human actions and the settings for unfolding events and am struck by the strangeness of what might be quite an ordinary moment or event. The work further endeavors to depict a moment or moments in which several potentialities exist but their outcome is uncertain. My pictures try to resist interpretation by literary analysis or logical narratives—touchstones of Post-Modern thinking. Instead, it is an art of suspended possibility that I actually find to be quite hopeful.
7.) Your approach to painting is quite traditional and it seems that painting, especially in recent times, has been usurped by new and mixed media. How do you think painting remains contemporary?
I am a classically trained artist but I do not see my work as being traditional. True avant-garde art challenges people’s experience of life by changing or elucidating their perception of it. This can be done in any medium. Of course, it’s easier to challenge people’s perceptions when they’re looking at something that doesn’t belong to a 30,000 year tradition. And yet, people have been painting and enjoying painting for at least that long. I’m quite certain painting will always be contemporary.
Berge’s paintings Conquest of the West, Pegasus Reborn, Uncle Cincinnatus Hitches Up the Plow, and A Manifestation of Destiny are currently on view as part of Underline Gallery’s exhibition “The Good American,” on view through August 12. For more images of his work, view our image gallery from the show here.