There is a palpable intimacy to the phantasmic and fantastical photographs of Dutch artist, Sebastiaan Bremer, who has been working out of NYC since 1992, exhibiting internationally at such venues as Hales Gallery, Galerie Barbara Thumm, and PS1 MoMA to name a handful. The multimedia works present rich visual palimpsests wherein Bremer draws appropriated images, private symbols, and expressive patterns directly onto photographs. To hear him describe the intricate process of finding a photo (often stashed away in his personal collection for years) and “caressing” it with the X-ACTO knife, is akin to listening to a surgeon recite the details of an operation, and if a surgeon’s science is the body, then Bremer’s craft is a psychological study in how the mind processes art. His awareness of how a viewer’s eye surveys an exhibition space and sweeps across a photograph and works at detail is precise as well as exhaustive. This is perhaps why these photographs—never staged or intentional—trigger a sense of the real becoming realer (which is a very welcome impression in a hi-tech, data-driven world). Of many artists I’ve talked to, Bremer is the most obsessed with the dexterity of the eye.
His studio in Williamsburg is nominal: a big empty table and chair. A couch below a shelf. On the opposing wall an enlarged, severe photograph of crop rows in Brazil, which he will tell me is from the early part of the 20th century.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
What are you currently working on?
I have just finished the last works I’m creating for a show for the Edwynn Houk Gallery here in New York. I’ve used other people’s work before, found photographs or in some rare cases pictures that I really needed to use. But this time I took this a bit further. I discovered other, older artists that had intervened on the surface of the photograph in different ways. Brassaï really cut and scratched into some of his negatives. So I decided to work with parts of this imagery, but then combined it with other works that seemed related. I made collages, really quickly and partly chance based, in Photoshop, which I would normally never do, and made marks, cutting into the surface of the photograph with a knife. So I started making these collages and cutting into them, and these became new alloys. Part of it is reflecting on my practice. “What am I doing, where am I going?” I’ve been making art with photography for about 15, 20 years, and I got to a certain point where I am able to reflect a bit more objectively.
What is your interest in Brassaï specifically?
He was a photographer who hung out with a lot of painters in Paris, like Picasso, Matisse, and everybody else in Paris it seems, and he photographed their studios among other things. He’d take pictures of the sculptures by Picasso as documentation on commission, but then sometimes he would leave photo negatives behind in the studio, and Picasso started scratching and drawing on top of those negatives, bridging the two practices, and then Brassaï got inspired to do the same thing on his own work.
There have always been boundaries between the different arts. Photography was definitely the newer and lesser cousin of painting. Brassaï was able to bring it to another level, and play with the medium. Man Ray is another of course. By now, photography is entirely integrated in artistic practice all over, but there’s still kind of a separation in a sense . . . I think it’s changing, and this upcoming show is a comment on the history of that. I decided if I’m going to go steal from these people, I should steal from the best, (like Pablo said) so I’m using a little bit of Picasso on top, without holding back, just trying to collage something completely new out of their work, a little bit like Frankenstein.
The Picassos are what is etched onto the photograph?
Yeah, sometimes, or I took a photograph with my iPhone of an image in a catalogue and used that. It’s hard to tell by now what is what, even for me. There are works where there are five images or more images layered on top of each other. They turn into something else, they turn on each other almost, all these spirits crowded together in one image suddenly, creating a new and in some cases abstracted composition. It feels a bit Shamanistic.
I didn’t blur the transitions and edges, I used them as part of the composition. In some places too, you can see the different processes used in the parts that make up the collages, in some parts clearly a digital photograph, in some parts the Ben-Day dots of printing. I think when you see it, you can smell where it comes from.
How do you do the etching?
Just with a small X-ACTO knife. I just draw basically with a knife to cut into the surface of the emulsion.
And you take some of your own photos, but some of them are found.
I usually take my own photographs, but in this particular series it’s almost all other people’s photographs. Normally I work photographs from my family or pictures that I took myself. It’s all over the place. Like, this is a picture of a coffee plantation from 1900 in the north of Brazil (points to large photo of rows of crops) and a friend found a glass slide of it in a yard sale. I don’t know what it is going to be yet, I have worked on other slides like this, but that was a few years ago. This image just looks so strangely modern because of all the rigid lines and the empty space, but it’s really from a long time ago.
How did you come to photography?
My relationship to the arts is kind of funny. I never really had any formal training. I was always drawing and was a comic book fanatic and ended up working in a comic book store. They figured they should pay me since I practically never left the store. When I was finished with high school, I decided that the next step was to go and paint, it seemed like the logical next step.
Growing up I spent a lot of time at home just looking at photo albums over and over again. I have this particular relationship to the object, the photograph.
When I started painting, I started using the passport photo booth in the train station as a place to take a picture of myself or whatever I wanted to paint, and I would use that picture as a sketch or study. I would square it up and use them as a template for my painting. A lot of this practice is boring and stifling—you’re copying from a photograph and making a painting and there’s a whole problem in the transition between the two states. And it shows, you can see it at a glance when someone works this way. Projection is even worse I feel. Franz Gertsch found an interesting way through that, but few others do, in my opinion. It took me many turns and eventually I started working straight on the photograph. I realized it was the way for me go because you get whatever is underneath as the battery that’s charging what you’re doing. The mechanical kind of boring part of painting that’s just copying, I did away with.
My first impression of your work, what I found so striking about it, is that it’s just so unabashedly beautiful. A lot of art right now is more antagonistic and perhaps even anti-beautiful. I like that art too, but I’m curious about your regard for beauty.
I think perhaps that has to do with how my relationship with art started: comic books. There the art is fundamentally a language and seduction is part of this, it draws you in.
I guess that’s become part of my nature, in a sense, to automatically feel an affinity with art that doesn’t shy away from beauty. For example, I really like the paintings of Ingres. I don’t think if something’s beautiful that that immediately makes it superficial or silly. It’s my inclination to work that way and it’s my way to relate with the subject matter in a tender way, to bring certain things out. If you have something that is aesthetically appealing, you can hold people’s attention in a certain way and then you can suck them in, and then a communication can start. I never had a fear of doing that. It’s not like I was trying to make pretty pictures, but I guess just the way that I related to what I was making and the subject matter that I was dealing with. With my drawing I was almost caressing the images underneath, in the beginning especially with these undulating lines that were just squeezing themselves between the emulsion of the photographs. It is just part of language.
But I like the more antagonistic art too—don’t get me wrong. I just find myself doing what I do, and I don’t feel I should run away from that.
It’s interesting too I think in terms of how that process deals with gaze. There’s the photograph, the initial image, but then there’s this weird work of the eye that’s happening in the etching.
Exactly, it’s almost a registration of me, especially in the first works on photographs, of the process of looking at the image and my direct response to it.
It was partly subliminal and not really calculated. A ‘flow of consciousness’ kind of work and it’s a registration of how my eye goes, and I think in some lucky situations, the viewer can have that same experience, as if you’re seeing through somebody else’s eye.
After making works that had these allover approaches, my work became larger and I was perhaps more confident. I wanted to work on a different scale in order to open the work up more, rather than have this small picture that you’re gazing at. I started to work at a more painterly scale. Whereas originally the drawing was a net, a scrim that you would see through, later I started consolidating the drawing more into certain areas of the photograph, making objects that seemed to stand into the picture plane of the underlying photograph. So I would draw, for instance, a goose or something on the right bottom and try to make it voluminous and three-dimensional, and try not to have this web where you have figures hidden, but I would create more solid objects. That changed the work a little bit, but it also played [with the gaze] a different way because I became more adept at the drawing and was able to get into the atmosphere of the photograph in a different way. I could make things appear in the picture that seemed solid and had equal weight to the photography and reality. I was able to balance the two and play tricks on the eye in some cases where you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was drawn or if it was photograph. So I treated them equally in terms of volume and color and brightness. I hope to do the same thing where people would see the picture, and then step back and see how it’s made, and then have the reality of that intervene, and then again spend time with it. So you would still have that engagement without the allover treatment. I work out of my own desire, but at the same time, I want to conjure up something for other people to see and spend time with.
That’s intriguing because that was my experience with your work—this game of zooming in to see the detail then zooming out to take it all in then zooming back in to examine the detail some more.
That time spent is precious because this is the experience I’ve had seeing other people looking at my work and I see myself doing this. It can happen that you walk into a gallery or a museum exhibition and you kind of scan the works and it’s: “This is my thing” or “This is not my thing” and then you walk out again. If you have this moment where you are able by whatever means to capture somebody and hold them just a little bit longer so that they investigate, then the communication starts and it’s not just a relationship to an object against a wall, but a gateway to someone else’s ideas and psyche and materials and whatever. Viewers can still disregard it, but it’s a communication process that has started, and that’s something that I appreciate.
Can you tell me about how you gather the subject matter of photographs?
I usually have some kind of obsession or interest already going, and I find a photograph that goes with it. I spend a lot of time browsing through my own collections of photographs that I’ve taken over the years and it’s often that I take a photograph and only end up using it six years later or ten years later. It’s not very often that I go goal-oriented with a camera to capture an image that fits a particular idea, though I have done that. I’m not a real photographer per se. I use photography.
I’m more of a painter because I have to find the material that suits the idea that I’m working with. But none of this process is particularly linear. It takes a while.
For example in 2006, it was palpable that there was a shift in the balance of powers in the world. The West had been the center, the dominant power, in art, economy, what have you. Here one didn’t really consider contemporary not-western art very much. But in 2006 you really could feel a shift, and everybody started talking about China for instance, for the first time as a serious cultural and economic force. Finally the dominance of European culture shifted and rightly so, and it was really funny feeling. I felt like this automatic dominance of western art and the whole iconography that is part of that, the still life paintings or the interiors, the European tradition of landscape painting and the particular styles and ideas related to it were all thrown into question. It felt that the west was the decadent, tired old man, and I wanted to make work that reflected that. It was a looking back, a saying goodbye.
I started to make a lot of work on black and white pictures, and used imagery that was related to the European seventeenth century traditions. I wanted to show the inside of a tired, rotting, old castle. I took pictures in the style chambers in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I used some older interiors that I’d shot over the years, some pictures that I found that my uncle Paul had taken around the 60’s and 50’s around the Netherlands, dark and gloomy interiors. So that’s how in that particular case that I found my imagery to fit my story. The bulk of this work I showed in three solo shows: at Galerie Barbara Thumm the solo show titled Cold Turkey, and Tryptich (Spinoza’s Trials) at James Fuentes LLC, and the third at a presentation Hales Gallery organized in Basel. There is still a lot to be reevaluated I feel, about the history of the Western dominance and how we depict it. So many stones left unturned.
With the mountain series, the Schoener Goetterfunken works, the opposite happened. I was looking to work with colorful work and something much more positive, alive. The dark I had surrounded myself with was getting me down perhaps. Color, and a sense of present and energy showed up first in works I showed in the Panta Rei show I made for Bravin Lee in Chelsea. I had found a bunch of old color negatives that I had never seen before, had never seen printed. When I found these images, they seemed just way too strong. The magic of developing these for the first time, and see them appear, so colorful, so alive, so glorious there was nothing I could do, I had to surrender, I had to fit my ideas around the pictures. In some experiments I seemingly reduced the photograph, but the photograph was so strong and so ebullient and joyful that I had to put my personal concerns and preconceptions aside and allow myself to delve deep into and surrender to this really blissful, happy imagery and not critique it in any way, but just try to pump up the volume and bring it fully into the present.
In those photographs, that’s your family in the Alps, but you weren’t there, right? They took the pictures and then you worked with them?
Yeah, they were shot in 1973 most likely, and I was a baby at that time, and not there. I was left with my aunt and uncle for the summer. The thing is that like any personal narrative, things are not as they seem, but you have dreams and hopes of how you wish it to be. I have a good relationship with my brother and my sister and my father and my mother, but we don’t gel as a group that often. That’s okay, but seeing these perfect slices of this wonderful family and everyone is dressed to the nines and the sun is shining and the mountains are beautiful. No melting glaciers, no pollution in the air, no labels, no pettiness, no strife. This is not how they remember that trip of course, but they just look so great. Then I started thinking: I should look at the history of ‘happy art’ and found there is almost nothing, very little. The art I did identify with was the beginning of the Romantic era around the 1800’s when Beethoven was making the “Ode to Joy,” the beginning of Enlightenment. So I used that thought as a template to see how far I could go. I wanted to see how far I could go into making those people in the pictures appear to realize how lucky they were to be in that moment. This multidimensional magical reality we live in all the time, but you rarely ever really experience, truly, fully, completely with all the energies that are a part of it. I ended up rubbing and painting these large, colorful blobs in the works and on the works, making it seem as if they were in touch with the power of it all, the wonder of it all. It was a way, again, to relate tenderly to the individuals in these pictures who mean something to me, but they also could be anybody’s family, an uncle you don’t know about. My parents never took pictures that well, they are truly sublime. And also the film was never developed, so I was the first one to really see them, so magically happy, perfect. And since I wasn’t there, I had not been part of that trip, this is my participation in that situation.
As a fiction writer, sometimes I think about that. Just once and awhile, I want there to be a happy ending. I want the love affair to work out, but I want it to still feel authentic, not cheesy.
It’s difficult and I think it’s the same thing that a lot of writers and directors say about making a good comedy. A truly good comedy is supposedly much harder to make than a nice dramatic, dark, gloomy story.
There is funny art. I would consider some of the work of Claes Oldenburg happy. There is David Hockney . . . I think there’s not a lot of happy art because people mistake beauty and joy and happiness for shallow, and perhaps fear of being perceived that way too. And there is a common mistake to equate dark, dirty, and gloomy with deep. It’s just a default position that people fall into. If they look for something profound, then they think it has to be dark and morose. Maybe that’s a northern European thing.
I think in other cultures there is a stronger tradition of joyful, happier emotions reflected in art.
This is something I really envy of people who work in music. I don’t think a lot of artists consider being on the stage such a wonderful experience all the time because it’s not the creative part necessarily, but I would say that the energy communicated and experienced by live performance; by standing on the stage can be extremely powerful, and must be invigorating and reinforcing.
I must be hard to do, but if it’s done well, it hits home in a powerful way. The moments that happen like that for me in the studio are just excellent, it doesn’t happen all the time but when it does it is just such a sense of moving forward, of change, of tapping into some current, which makes it really clearly a worthwhile endeavor. I feel really lucky then. I imagine that sensation experienced in a group, on a stage, must be even more invigorating. I am at this moment also full of desire to go there again in my work because it’s just so exciting, if you can hit the right vein, to be able to transfer that kind of energy. I am starting on new work where I will go straight for this. Hopefully.
You said you were the first one to develop the film for those photographs too?
Yes, and when they were printed, it was like they were taken yesterday. The colors were incredible, crisp, like few I had ever seen before.
For me, there is still this preciousness, a magical thing about the photograph. I have almost an aversion to taking photographs to add to the enormous amount of photography that is being taken all the time because I have this feeling that there is so much there already and it’s so precious. I can’t throw photographs away. You have all these slices of time that need to be treated well. I mean, it’s silly to think that way, but I really, truly feel that.
Your work is sometimes described as nostalgic, and as I hear you speak I notice this interesting idea of relating to art in the present tense, but life itself is happening all within memory.
I think “nostalgia” is maybe not the right word because that is reductive and takes away from direct experience and is maybe more like a pining for something that was there and is never going to come back kind of thing. I think your medium is really important and carries a lot of weight for free. If you have an audiocassette tape and you play it, there’s a sequence of the songs, the clicking of the tape and the texture of the sound. I’m not saying one thing is better than the other, and the same is true of a camera phone picture or whatever. They all have their own set of parameters and own language. It ticks off boxes in your head automatically and puts somebody in some place, the same way smells work. I have the same relation to books. I’d say I’m more of a bibliophile than a nostalgic person. I just like objects from different periods. You can mix them all. It’s not like you have to be reverent and sit on your knees and put them on a little silver pillow. I feel that you should just use it. I think, especially in art making, there should be no rules, anything is game, and you should feel as free as possible in order to go where you want to go. Play and irreverence are quite important.
When I came to New York, since I never really went to art school, I went to people’s studios or curated small shows and tried to contribute something, and so I found my way into other people’s studios just to see how they did stuff. Seeing what others did, I found a possible road. One of the first studios I visited in New York was Dona—that was really cool. I saw him make his paintings and he had these bits of embroidery that he had bought in Egypt. They were ancient, they were like 3,000-year old little pieces of textile, and he would just throw them on the painting and then with latex paint would just make them part of these enormous collages he was making. I was a bit of an Egyptophile as a kid so I was like, “Oh my god, this is really wonderful embroidery and it’s really old, and you just smack it in there?” And he said, “Yes, never respect your source materials.” By putting it in there, of course, he does use a little bit of the magic and a little bit of the history or the texture or the smell from something else. It’s a magical object, you imbue it with power, but at the same time, it destroys it and kills it and puts it in there.
I likewise relate to objects. Even the x-acto knife that I’ve been using for the past few months has now become bendy in the right way and blunt in the right way, and I got to know it really well and now it’s imbued with a history of my hand. If somebody would come in here and take that, I would be more upset than if they took anything else. I think you can relate to photographs that way too, and to textures and mediums and so on. I wouldn’t say that’s nostalgic, it’s also practical.
Does your process ever fail?
What do you do after that?
I do something good.
On the same work?
I try to, yes.
There is no mistake. In music, for example, there is no false note if the next note in relation is right and then the one before it becomes right. At least, that is what Miles Davis said I think. Sometimes, of course, you really make it muddy and nasty and muck things up, but I’m pretty neat and I have a good steady hand. And I can fix things, save things. And I know that things are going to go wrong. I just have these prints out too long, the process can spread out over years, so something might happen. I’ve had plenty of accidents to have had hundreds of heart attacks while working. But the mistake might be an opening to something else and you just don’t know. Every time you start something, it’s just having the courage to manifest things and see how they end up. Of course you do tweak things later, but the crucial part is having this attitude of a naked warrior on a horse like Don Quixote. You cannot have fear while you do something.