The idea behind GO Brooklyn Open Studio Tours – and other open studio tours like it – is to foster a giant, borough-wide interaction between neighbors and the artists who live and work beside them. That chance to socialize was one of the reasons why painter Neil Berger registered to participate.
“I’m in a big artist building [at 183 Lorraine Street in Red Hook], so… I think this will be good opportunity to go and visit other people,” Berger explained. “I’ve been in other buildings with three to five people where you know each other, but with 100 people, it feels like a labyrinth.”
Add to that the fact that Berger paints from memory – exploring Brooklyn, traveling to different cities, and then returning to his studio to paint out the indelible impact that those sights had on his mind and soul – and one can see how, as Berger put it, having someone to talk to is “kind of a fun adventure.”
It is also something of an adventure to browse through the portfolio of this 40-year-old native New Yorker who grew up in Ithaca, NY, surrounded by the painting supplies and constant encouragement of his artist mother, and the baffled admiration of his father. With imagery such as a lone figure walking away from the viewer, down a bleak street that leads to the waterfront; or a mother and child shopping for flowers; or three men planting a tree in the frost-bitten patch of soil on a sidewalk, Berger’s scenes are dream-like while capturing the feeling and movement of Brooklyn’s streets as vividly as if it were happening right then.
That would explain why he says that his “first heroes were from Impressionism,” such as Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne.
Is he trying to tell a story through his art? “No, not exactly. In an art way, I tell stories,” he said. “The figures in a strange way are relating to the buildings and architecture and expressway overpasses. I am actually interested in an artistic narrative… I would say I am interested in beauty, and also fidelity to the place.”
“I want to represent the place [and] convey my experience of Brooklyn, not just painting the facts,” he explained, noting that in his eight years living in Sunset Park and, now, Red Hook, he has realized that he is drawn most to the waterfront.
“I find in a lot of my artwork there’s an escape to the infinite – portal to the harbor. I like the density and hubbub of the people and the diversity and intensity of the visual noise,” he added. “I like to contrast that with nature in the form of skies or reeds pushing through the sidewalk or the sight of a person walking through the oppressive neighborhoods in the form of an expressway.”
In addition to paintings, Berger creates prints – including prints of things that he didn’t get around to painting. As he explains it, “they inform each other and me, technically and thematically. That’s an important conversation in my work.” He also creates one-of-a-kind art prints. “Applying paint in different ways to a plexiglass plate, laying moist paper on it, putting it through the press – that’s a big passion of mine.”
Still, his daily practice is painting and he has managed to cobble together a living out of it, having gallery shows at Small NY on Van Brunt Street, the Painting Center, Philadelphia, Red and Ithaca, where, every two or three months, he also teaches weekend workshops in printmaking.
Going forward, Berger said he hopes to exhibit more of his work as he produces them at a faster clip than he can sell them. Thus far, he said he has found the most success with his “Brooklyn people-scapes.”
“ I have this new thing I’m doing where I leave the ground behind and just paint skies. It’s funny to me how can you have a Brooklyn scape without Brooklyn,” he noted. “Does the sky count as Brooklyn? I’d say those are a little less accessible. But the hits are people because people like people.”