Jason Berger is one of the last painter's painter. On a lovely afternoon this July, I had the chance to speak with this charming, intense eighty-three-year-old while he smoked an old and elegant Meerschaum pipe. As we sat under a tree on the patio of Ernesto Mayans Gallery at 601 Canyon Road (currently featuring Jason Berger - The Master at 80), Berger looked at me quizzically as he decided whether my questions and comments were well-founded or simply silly.
Berger was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1924. A clever student, he became known early on for his puns and wickedly funny use of language. While at Roxbury Memorial High School, his obvious talent and passion for visual art led to his enrolling in the Museum of Fine Arts Vocational Art Classes for aspiring professionals. He then attended the Art School of the Museum of Fine Arts where he studied with Karl Zerbe. Zerbe, originally from Germany, lived in France and moved to the United States in the mid-1930s. His exposure to modern trends and styles in art brought a necessary and welcome breadth to Boston. Young Berger and his fellow students loved their mentor's energy and charisma. They absorbed and argued about Western painting ranging from Vermeer to Max Beckmann and they had intimate exposure to the vast and comprehensive collections of one of the world's best museums.
After art school and a brief stint in the Second World War, Jason Berger won a fellowship to travel to Europe. While there, he travelled, painted and looked at contemporary art. Braque, Zadkine, Picasso fed his visual mind while jazz fed the musical. The painter and his wife returned to Boston where, for the next three decades, he taught and painted, honing his unique style. Later, Berger returned to live in Portugal and has recently returned to Boston, which, he claims, seems just the same.
His years of training and looking at the world gave Berger an enormous amount of information and training about rendering space and visual weight. The artist still works with a combination of plein-aire-or painting outdoors-to render direct impressions from nature, and work in the studio. In Boston Public Gardens (1954), the thirty-year-old had already identified the key elements that remain in his work more than half a century later. Part painted "real things" and part "made-up things" share a space that inhabits that realm between two and three dimensions. A tremendously solid and architectonic tree anchors the canvas on the left while clouds, buildings and trees compete with washes of acid green that float across the picture plane (what looks like the front of the picture). That tension between what is depicted, or the ostensible subject of the painting, and the rendering of the painting (that is to say the act of painting itself) is what makes Berger's work special.
Perhaps the style that informs the painter's work most is what's called Fauvism. Coined in 1905 by French critic Louis Vauxcelles, it referred to the savage in art. Wild, colorful, gestural and unfinished, les Fauves melded color and emotion in their renderings of the world. The term "fauve" means a wild beast and these artists, including André Derain and Henri Matisse, seemed fearsomely natural in the first decade of the 20th century. In mid-century, however, this style seemed reactionary. To a pleasantly-leftist artist, like Berger, this was a gauntlet thrown at the feet of an art establishment that had decreed that not only abstraction but evisceration of the visual experience was necessary so that (darn it!) one could see things! But Berger was determined to let the viewer know his experiences of thinking and seeing at the same time. Thinking and seeing have been divided in the minds of the learned for a long time. The notion that seeing was direct perception and thinking was, well, doctored, after-the-fact-perception has been at the center of arguments about art since 500 BCE. But many, if not all, of the world's best artists have refused the distinction. There is, they claim in art or writing or both, no way to differentiate between what you see, what you feel, and what you know.
And Berger goes further. The first impression is that his painting is, perish the thought, decorative. Or, seen in the most dreadful version, derivative. But that is only to the eye of the very jaded 21st century viewer. In fact, Jason Berger is a terrific and intelligent painter. He has seen, understood and reconfigured the world and the world of painting to represent the necessary phenomenological point that we cannot separate what we perceive and what we think about it. And he can show us. To look at Berger's work is to feel invigorated, and washed clean. His bright colors and clever compositions make one see the world anew.
On August 1, Michael Eastman will have his debut show at Gebert Contemporary (554 Guadalupe, 5 -7 pm). Titled Urban Alchemy, the show is comprised of Eastman's poignantly beautiful images of the United States, Cuba and Europe.
Dwight Hackett Projects (2879 All Trades Road, 3 -5 pm) presents a series of luscious ceramics by Tom Sather in Stones for Sumeru.
On Friday, August 8, Jane Sauer Gallery (652 Canyon Road, 5 -7 pm) brings an early start to Indian Market with NDN Art. Kiowa Teri Greeves exhibits her contemporary beaded pieces while Dennis Esquivel, of the Ottawa nation displays his furniture.