Sef, welcome to Reprehensible Digest. Tell the audience about yourself – your background, where you're from, what you specialize in as an artist.
Hello! First I want to thank you for the opportunity to talk about my work and motivations. I hope that the readers will enjoy it! I was born in Venlo, a little town in the south of The Netherlands, very close to the German border. When I was a little boy, we only had three channels on our television: two in Dutch and one German. So we learned that language automatically. I grew up in the country with two younger sisters. We were always playing in nature, climbing trees like Tarzan that we saw on television. Our Tarzan spoke German and the forest became our jungle. We had two horses, some cats and a dog. I always made drawings of everything I saw around me, including the horses. I loved their wildness. This was a very happy time in my life. As a child, I started to learn painting by myself.
How long have you been an artist and when did you realize this was your calling?
Since kindergarten. I was a shy kid, but whenever we did anything creative like painting, my shyness disappeared. I felt at ease and lost myself in it. Although I enjoyed learning, I didn't like school at all, so it was a relief for me when I could go to art school. I felt the urge to paint at a very young age. At first I confused this urge with a kind of madness. Later, at the art academy, I understood that I was quite normal. Unfortunately I didn't fit in that system either. The first year was very classical. I learned a lot, but I couldn't handle the system and eventually went to three different art schools.
It was impossible for me to stay in one place longer than one or two years. I didn't finish art school, but luckily I was selected for the post-academic year called 'The Ateliers'. That was a very free and fantastic year with guest teacher artists. I lived in Amsterdam during this period. Quite a wild time. I needed adventure and wanted to see the world. I hitchhiked through a lot of countries in Europe. Eventually it led me to Athens where I developed a special bond with the Greek people. There in Exarchia Square, I started to draw the people. This became the basis for my further work as an artist.
What mediums do you prefer working with? What are your favorite brands?
When I came back from Greece, I started my train station project called Je Suis à la Gare (I Am At the Station, 1993-1996). I drew thousands of travelers at train stations. I used all kinds of materials and worked with videos, photos and even polaroids. Along the way I concentrated on working with oil paint, and ever since I use only oil paint. Five years ago I accidentally discovered a special oil paint recipe in a book by Xavier de Langlais. This recipe became a great help for making my colors much stronger and to achieve more transparency. To clarify: I don't make the oil paints myself, but I use them in a special way combined with two types of resin. I shared this recipe with Marina Syntelis, as featured in your previous RepDigest interview, because she's such a great painter. Her way of working is perfect for this use of oil paint – and here she gets credit back for using this method in a wonderful way. The brands I use are Old Holland and Schmicke oil paint. For works on paper I use a study-quality Winton oil paint.
What is the art scene like in the Netherlands compared to other European locations?
When you fly over Holland you'll see all kinds of rectangles. It's like a Mondrian painting really. Everything is structured. They are the champions in making rules for everything. Imagine how that feels if you have a free spirit – the art scene is quite like that. Great Dutch painters like Van Gogh or Karel Appel went abroad. In Dutch museums we see the famous names. It is very hard to get into the art scene yourself, so I gave this up. But I did get a few exhibitions in Belgium rather easily. There, many things are possible. They like the extraordinary. In Germany, I could exhibit rather easily, too. The Germans are very curious and polite. The art is presented with absolute respect, very professional and very broad. You'll find it all. I love German museums. In a one-hour drive I'm in Cologne or Düsseldorf.
Your most recent exhibit in New York… How did this milestone event come about for you?
For the exhibition in the New York Art Center, in Gallery 104, I was invited in July 2019 by a curator who came across me through social media. She found my work exceptional (her words), and of course it was very special for me to go to New York! The exhibition opened on March 5, 2020. I showed works from my STARRING series – paintings inspired by movies. It was my first time in New York and I was there to show my paintings, so of course it was a major milestone. It felt like a present! I was also able to see my family again in Brooklyn, relatives who immigrated to the U.S. in 1950 after the war. It was a wonderful place to start from and visit Manhattan where the gallery was located.
Was this your first time visiting America? What was your most lasting impression as an artist?
I was not traveling alone. Bert Lenssen, a cameraman and friend who is making a short documentary about the exhibition and trip to New York, traveled along and filmed everything. It was our first time in the U.S. indeed. We felt like two school boys on an adventure. New York had a huge impact on us! There were so many impressions and we let it all come in. I felt immediately at home. The people are friendly and the feeling of being in a metropolis made me feel free. The vast spaces of New York opened my mind. Things are big and wide. The influence of this experience changed my work indeed. Bert is still working on his documentary, which will come out in September. He filmed before, during, and after New York, so you'll be able to see this change.
Were you able to explore the New York art scene or take in any interesting sights?
Just to be in New York was an interesting time anyway. To see the subways, the streets, hearing the sirens from police cars you normally only hear on television. Grand Central Station, Times Square, the enormous skyscrapers… We arrived on Saturday, went to Manhattan on Sunday, and built up the exhibition on Monday. All went quick and well. I made contact with the curators of a nearby gallery. One of them suggested I could show my paintings there in the future.
During a walk through Central Park, I became ill. I was feeling very sick the next day, but still managed to attend an exhibition that evening in the same gallery I was invited to. On Thursday evening was the opening of my own exhibition. Still very sick, I managed to be there. Bert filmed it all, so you'll see me very sick, LOL... Friday and Saturday I was back in bed. I really wanted to see the Museum of Modern Art and the Gugenheim Museum of course, but Sunday we flew back and I stayed in bed for another whole week. Maybe it was Covid... who knows?
Has your production been impacted by recent world events, namely Covid?
Just a few days after we returned, I saw the lockdown from New York on the news. I was completely shocked. The streets where we had just walked were empty. So bizarre. I realized it was like that around the whole world. Everywhere is abandoned streets. I heard that in Gallery 104, the exhibition had closed. My painting course, with which I make a living, had to stop. An upcoming exhibition in a London gallery has also been postponed, as well as a planned exhibit in my home town featuring works that are still stored in New York. The only advantage is that I have plenty of time to paint, but I do hope all this will be over soon. At the end of this year I hope to return to New York to pick up my work and eventually plan another exhibition there.
Name three artists from any genre, past or present, who are a major influence for you?
Good question! There are so many great artists, so I will pick three that immediately come to mind, starting with Pasolini, the Italian poet, writer, and film maker. He showed me how to be completely devoted without making compromises to your work – with or without success. A rebel and genius, I adore all his works and films. Sigmar Polke, the German painter. He opened new doors with his extremely unconventional works. As if he said "...and now for something completely different." I like his playful way with images. He is the modern alchemist of paint and images. Third I think of Frank Zappa. I can say so much about this guy, but for now only this: he changed my way of painting!
You have an interesting series of paintings based on the unique musical collaboration between Metallica and the late icon Lou Reed. Explain this fascinating journey into music…
I think real changes are rare. In my case it happened by accident in my studio in 2007. Painting figures since 1993, I felt the need to change, but didn't know how. I painted a few abstract landscapes, but they were still figurative because of the landscapes you can see in them. A painting that suggest something from reality makes it figurative. Abstract works are without it, so a work is either abstract or figurative. One day, while working in my studio, I played Frank Zappa's LP Guitar – a record featuring only guitar solos. I naturally started to paint lines that I heard in Frank's solos. Instead of painting what I saw, I painted what I heard. This was the beginning of a new period with completely abstract works. It lasted seven years, painting on music.
In a matter of weeks, I made hundreds of sketches in preparation for a big painting. It was to become focused and concentrated... to get into the flow and then, in one moment… BANG! A big size in one fast movement with a few brush strokes. It happens in 5 or 10 minutes. Music on canvas. I used extremely big brushes and made a deal with myself not to touch these works again, simply to accept the outcome. Using colors that were inspired by each song, I painted on the vocals of pop singers like David Bowie, John Lennon, Lou Reed, Amy Winehouse, Nina Hagen, Herman Brood, and Mick Jagger. This series is called Vocals By. I let go of everything and became truly free. I felt that this had been waiting in my DNA for a very long time, just waiting to come out. The most difficult thing was enlarging a small sketch to a large canvas. I had to use the movement of my entire body.
Explain for your ongoing love affair for characters in classic films – namely how you pull an impression and create the striking visual…
After this completely abstract period, I felt the need to change the content. I returned to the human figure and painted self-portraits – the painter who paints the painter, a time of reflection… By accident I found some photos I made from film stills. For fun I used them to paint figures I saw in these photos, it felt like a good idea. I watched movie after movie, making photos. Once I started, I couldn't stop. Actors are the best translators of the human condition. Their performances can be so special in films; the situations, the scenery, the light... everything you want you can find in movies.
Actors have this expression in their body language. If somebody carries a bag, he really carries that weight. The film director, the cameraman, the lighting man – they already did such special work. Thanks to them I find these wonderful images. I use films from all periods. A Hitchcock film has a completely different impact than Pasolini, Fassbinder or Tarantino. Of course, in the end, it all comes down how to paint this and what I want to express. I make choices every day from this fantastic material. I recently started using the idea of the film poster in my works, just for the fun and the experiment.
Describe your creative process. How do you approach new ideas or concepts? How long does it take to create a painting and when do you determine whether the idea is complete?
It is nothing you can really explain. Painting comes from within. It's funny to talk about it because painting isn't words. Like "orange" is only a word, the color itself says a lot more… But I'll give it a try… I make sketches every day. Working quick and intuitive. I step inside my world to become loose and get ideas. They are not meant to be beautiful. Then I make works on paper and add color. This is the experimental phase where I can do anything, use any color or start with color. While I work I see colors in my mind that a painting may have. I just have to let things come out organically, anything goes.
A lot of things can go wrong here, but I don't mind. I also make paintings on canvas and linen of course. They are like a conclusion. Because of the preparations, I feel at ease and just let things happen, using intuition and experimentation. This is a joy. It shouldn't only be a good painting – I want to make progression. I try to do something new, something different. Even here things can go wrong, but I accept the outcome as something natural. I want to have some kind of truth in it. Often I can see their potential only after a while, when I am no longer emotionally attached to the work anymore. After I'm done, all my works, from sketch to painting, are numbered since 1993. Today I am at number 092.543.
Which artists have been your primary influences as a creative being?
When I was a kid I saw a book with Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Gauguin. I was fascinated. Since than I discovered the world of great painters, such as Goya, Cézanne, Picasso, de Kooning, Richter. After that I was influenced by all kinds of art. From Rodin to Duchamp... all the surrealists... from Donald Judd to Dan Graham and Marcel Broodthaers. I love many kinds of art forms and subjects.
How do you think art reflects upon our world? What is the significance of a painting whether it sells or not? How important is art in the history of our civilization?
Art reflects life and takes it somewhere else. Art does something that life itself cannot do, therefore all kinds of art are so important for the world and life to evolve. Through art we discover our sources. We fight fears and express our desires. We show great ideas and deeper feelings. The importance of art lies within our heart. It's a discovery. Without culture we would still be living in caves. Can you imagine a world without Shakespeare or Hermann Hesse? Without Bach, John Lennon or the sunflowers of Van Gogh? It would be a very sad and dark world. Art is the light of life. It is a language that goes through barriers and borders – it is universal!
Is art is an extension of the soul? What does being an artist mean to you on a spiritual level?
Of course. The soul desires to make art. Music for example. It is a miracle that people can write melodies that make other people cry, or that can unite people. What is it that people from all over the world are attracted to the Girl With The Pearl Earring, the Nightwatch or the Mona Lisa? It must be a very spiritual thing. I am not a philosopher, but it must be something deep down in all of us that is united through art, and for me it is the purpose of my life.
Any additional skills, hobbies, or interests you'd like to share with the audience – fascinating statements about the artist known as Sef Berkers?
Ha-ha-ha! I read a lot of books and I don't watch much television. Instead, I listen to the radio or watch movies right on YouTube or Netflix without commercials. I love architecture. Music was my second love... playing guitar and singing. I've played in seven bands, some really good ones. In the summertime, I become a street musician. I've done this for 25 years and always survived with my guitar, except for last year and this year because I did sell a few paintings... The Times They Are a Changin!