When we last caught up with Shaun Berke, he was busily preparing for his previous showing at La Luz de Jesus gallery, ” Sisters of the Inquisition.” Berke returns to La Luz on November 7th with an inspired take on Impressionism and 17th century Dutch painting, in “Sacrosanct”. His new pieces exhibit his learned classical compositions mixing religious iconography, as in his nun subjects, with some recognizable faces. Some of his models have included fellow local artists Soey Milk and Christine Wu. The work is also modern looking in its minimalism, focusing on the figures placed in subdued, apocalyptic environments. Berke also appreciates a minimal lifestyle in Los Angeles, where we went behind the scenes of his show.
HF: How would you describe your show’s aesthetic?
SB: I like to think of it as cave painting, after waking up for the Renaissance, and then being hit in the head by Modernity. In general, I describe the work as traditional, figurative, allegorical painting. More specifically, I would say it is Gothic piety and Sienese humanism in a Venetian light, only with more chaos. The aesthetic of this show parallels the Kitsch school, as they are rooted in a love for classical antiquity and long dead friends.
HF: Where are we in your paintings?
SB: We are at Mars, breathing without spacesuits. On the plains of a war god, disagreeable to being alive; on the Elysian Fields, being dead with Kronos; in the Book of Revelation, where everything has gone to shit and eulogistic hymns carry on the wind. A world of ghost-oceans, where water is sacred.
HF: What is the theme of your exhibition, and how is it different in theme, color and style from previous shows?
SB: The theme is Spirit and Intuition, disregarding Reason as the frequent mews of a domesticated animal. This show is an examination of sanctity and instinct, expanding from the previous series’ emphasis on carnality. The color is mostly limited palette, building from prehistory and antiquity. The style is my hand, with Chaos, in the Bellini-Titian school. The Bellini-Titian school is a lineage of teacher-student that is traced from Fra Angelico, through the centuries, to this idiot-with-a-brush.
HF: Is there a piece that you particarly liked how it came out, or a piece that was especially challenging to work on, and why?
SB: I’m pleased with how Mudlark turned out, in particular. It was the least troublesome, and the most adaptive. I learned of the term ‘mudlark’ from Odd Nerdrum when he was speaking at a painting conference earlier this year. It’s a lovely analog. As a mudlark scavenges a river for anything of value, the kitsch painter sifts through history for exemplars. I like the term.
HF: You typically dress your subjects in 17th century Dutch fashion and often depict nuns, but you yourself are not particularly religious. How do you explain your affinity for this style and the inspiration behind it?
SB: Well, Dutch and Spanish painting was certainly formative for me, and it continues to inspire. But the whole nuns thing stems from a heathen’s penchant for sacrilege. Christianity won a popularity contest over the gods of the earth; and for the dead gods, a heathen might appropriate the brides of Christ to haunt the faith.
As a youth, I was baptized Christian. That did not last, and eventually I found science to be a clearer window to the world. And as reason guides science through nature, so intuition guides the spirit. It was always Chaos, it will always be Chaos. Anyway, with adding panes of history and mythology to the window, I came to recognize religion for living-mythology. And I really like mythology, so I warmed up to it all. I have a great deal of respect for the devotion of nuns. Their devotion happens to be Catholicism. In my paintings, Catholicism is the window to speak about a hominid’s sense of spirit. Or else, nuns because lulz.
HF: One of your pieces reminded me of Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, which is notoriously a self portrait of the artist he painted on the walls of his home. Are your paintings more personal to you like Goya’s, or are they meant to address broader themes that can be universally understood?
SB: Thank you, Goya is an inspiration. Ideally, my paintings would be an entanglement of the personal and the universal. I paint out of necessity, however, it is good to know that we are not alone.
This painting of mine is called Corpse Swallower, which comes from Old Norse, Hraesvelgr (a giant who liked to be an eagle/windmill). In my picture, a reverend mother, or eagle-transfiguring giantess, cannibalizes her children. A frame I considered for this piece had American flags and fourth-of-July sparklers. In this piece, the embedded mythology is an undercurrent. The broader theme of patriotism and religion, mortality and ethics is intended to be understandable. However, the language of a visual narrative is out of common use, generally relegated to obsolescence.