I've always been fascinated with the figure beautifully rendered and by pattern and decoration. In my new work, I focus on these two interests: my figure studies are given a context within the designs found in erotic Japanese "Shunga" prints, Persian miniatures and the pattern traditions of Eastern Art: realism and pattern/Eastern and Western aesthetics.
The history of art can be seen as an attempt to balance these two intentions: to create the illusion of three dimensions, or focus more on an interpretive, abstract quality, thereby enhancing pattern and decoration. This reflects the contrast between a literal and symbolic view of the worldconfirming what we perceivecontrasted with what we feel about what we perceive.
When you include a narrative, the dynamic becomes even greater. What is the meaning of what we're doing, how does it look, and what pattern does it create? If we relax the need to separate what is real from what is imagined it becomes simply a relationship, and thus gains power. Those relationships are the potentialities from which we construct our culture, our sense of self, and our identity. Time and space are in play, and "play" is the operative word for what I'm doing.
Michael Bergt 2007
I realized while working on the Shunga Series how important it is to build on a vision and to refine a direction. With my current works I see a similar thread that ties them all together. While the Shunga Series dealt with juxtaposing erotic Japanese prints with mostly the portrait studies of an Asian/Caucasian model I've moved past both of those references. I continue to deal with the figure, erotic elements, and patterning but now most of the reference material comes from India and the Middle East. Persian Miniatures and Indian Mugal paintings along with Hindu references have become a subtext for the work. There's a Sanskrit word for this tying together; it is "Sutra." A sutra, which literally means thread, implies something more to me—the need for opposites to be stitched together. In India this was also implied, because a Sutra is an aphorism or a single piece of wisdom that brings together the material and spiritual worlds. My images serve the same purpose, crossing boundaries between the erotic and the spiritual, East and West, past and present.
Many of my thoughts about the dynamics at play in the world today center around this conflict of how we'll be able to thread together all these diverse elements. For instance, the global economy has forced all of us regardless of our culture, education and beliefs to deal with one another. The conflict is one of integration. Shunga was my attempt to stitch together East/West, Realism/Pattern, along with Internal/External dynamics. This new body of work deals with similar issues, but is referencing India and the Middle East to create new "Sutras." Therefore, this body of work is the "Sutra Series."
Shunga in Japanese literally means "springtime," with its promise of new life. The word also has a special meaning in Japanese art. From the late 17th century onward, Japan was undergoing a major social shift as the influence of the burgeoning business class began to overtake the traditional ruling and samurai class. The new power base perceived the world as a transient, ever-flowing "Floating World." The pleasures of the Floating World were to be enjoyed by all. One form of expressing sensual pleasure were the erotic prints known as Shunga.
The traditional Shunga images that inspired this series of paintings and drawings are rich on many levels: as beautiful designs, as cultural references, as expressions of the erotic. Their highly stylized yet direct treatment of sex is shocking and compelling, foreign and familiar. The grossly enlarged genitalia typical of the genre are both comical and overwhelming: a multi-layered play of opposites.
Seen out of context, these images have often been dismissed as simply pornographic instructional manuals. However, major artists were commissioned to produce these works to help cultivate an erotic ideal. Utilizing an aesthetic that incorporated Eastern philosophy, these artists created erotic images depicting the individual playing in a field of opposites.
The play of opposites was a well-known concept throughout the East. In China, the I Ching, or "book of changes" had taught these principles from ancient times. The symbol of Yin/Yang demonstrates this basic tenet through the opposition of male and female. Even earlier, the Vedic sages of India taught that all matter is an illusion brought out of dualityphysical form isn't so much "created" but emerges in dualistic relationship to formlessness. All life is change, and all change happens through the play of opposites. The sages realized that sex is a metaphor for life's dance of duality.
Personally, duality can be felt as a crisis in the unfolding of one's awareness. Occasionally, artistic or personal awareness can collide with traditional values or social structures attempting to suppress or deny one's expanding consciousness. Great art is about this tension, for it is in the realm of art that duality can be freely explored and ultimately transcended. Art transcends the duality of the material world by expanding the frame of reference, transposing ever-larger patterns onto its meaning. The specific becomes universal, and the timely, timeless.
Shungas, as I have used them, introduce a dialogue that isn't possible through a literal reference. It is as a play-within-a-play that they truly begin to resonate, raising the question of pattern and dimension, imagined and realized, East and West, context and culture, thought and action. Different levels of meaning are brought to mind, further shaded by experience and references from various angles. We dance along with the play of contrasting relationships, all the while invited to expand our frame of reference. In that spirit I offer these new works inspired by a fascinating erotic tradition.
A paradox is a seemingly absurd, or self-contradictory statement or proposition when we hold firm to the oppositions: believing if this is true then that can't be. However, paradox is more than opposition, it reflects the dynamic nature of opposing forces. We understand something as being white, in relation to something being black - left in relation to right. Yet we tend to focus on only one aspect, for example: the object and its movement separate from the space surrounding it - they are in fact, interdependent.
In my sculpture "Paradox," I'm playing with these relationships. One head/direction/color is in direct relation to its equal and interdependent other. We sit on top of this situation realizing it as a paradox, because we're no longer able to see just one aspect separate from the other. We can't just see one direction, or one color of horse. Through the tension of this paradox we can achieve insights.
A traditional Russian Icon inspired the painting St. Michael of the Apocalypse. The Icon reads: St. Michael trumpets in the final hours as he conquers the devil with cities toppling below. I've always been drawn to images of St. Michael because we share the same name. Icon painting has also fascinated me because of its use of egg tempera (my primary medium) and its stylized, narrative format. I bought an Icon of this subject a couple of years ago with the intention of working on my own version as a self-portrait. However, it was not until after the tragedy of September 11th that the Icon's image began to have a greater meaning for me.
As I watched the evening news, images of collapsing buildings, discussions of evildoers and unrest in far off lands made the apocalyptic subject of the Icon come alive. I decided to do a self-portrait based on the Icon. My need to rise above the turmoil meant I embraced the idea of riding a winged horse while holding a book of knowledge (a laptop computer). In the place of the devil, I painted a female nude. Not because I feel the nude is evil; rather, it's an acknowledgment of our desires, flesh and humanity a reminder of where we come from and the subject I'm most fond of painting.
In my painting, the winged horse will never escape the bounds of this earth because a carousel pole holds it aloft we simply ride round and up and down. The toppling buildings are more than metaphors for us today, and the spare desert landscape is a view out of my window. On the horizon, one sees a fire approaching a specter the west has known by the smoke in this summer's air. Further portends of disaster.
While I don't believe in a literal Apocalypse, I do believe there are times when we face relentless questions. One's spirit longs to find greater meaning, and the promise of a new day (a rainbow) and maybe the need to identify with an angel....
Art can never exist without Naked beauty displayed. William Blake.
I use the figure as a metaphor for the human condition. Though representative, my work is symbolic. The image of man is based on the premise that his feet are planted on earth, while his head scans the heavens. Therefore, man possesses the ability to reach for the heavens while subject to the laws of earth. I love the tension this creates, and man's endless attempts to reconcile these two conditions. The consequence may be noble, or at times ironic.
Fallen Angel ironically illustrates this state a common, portly man with his gaze fixed dreamily towards heaven imagines he can fly; however, he will soon discover that he has only one wing, and must deal with the laws of nature as he takes his leap. In Delicate Balance, a man is poised on the tip of a pyramid, his large frame countering gravity by blithely balancing a huge ball on his head. It is man's fate to dance between these two states, one of grace, the other laws. It is man's character to defy limits and to dream; it is in that process that he flies.
The Wake reveals the effect man leaves as he moves through life, one hand touching the water, the other seizing the air. In Trilogy, the elements of earth, water and air are balanced with the depictions of the figures lying, standing, and floating. Finally, the fourth element, fire, is expressed by the human assent, and the light of the stars. Naked beauty is displayed through a merging of the cosmos and humanity.
Relativity is an exercise in opposites: male and female, forward and backward, top and bottom, inside and outside, and the physical and mental limits of our own making. At times the box we find enveloping man may not be of his own making, as in Black Box, which is a box imposed.
I see man not as entirely noble, nor pathetic, but rather unique. The puzzle resides in the choices available and the actions taken. The question is, will man move towards heaven or dwell on earth?
The curtain rises, separating light from dark, heaven from earth. Adam and Eve wait in the wings looking towards center stage. On stage, a giant apple sliced in half is suspended in front of a paradise backdrop. The apple partially obscures the snake-like tear in the backdrop demonstrating that paradise is only an illusion. At the core of the apple is a fetus, the seed of knowledge and the awareness of life and death. To eat of this fruit is to understand potential life and ultimately, one's own death. Adam and Eve stand in their changing booths at the point of transformation. We all know what happens, and the play begins.
From Paul Cadmus' introduction to the exhibition catalog Michael Bergt: A Delicate Balance, Midtown Payson Galleries, New York, 1993:
"Michael Bergt. Here is an artist who is very serious indeed, one who believes that ART, his own certainly, should prod, should point out, should arouse thoughts, should make the viewer cogitate. Even if unwillingly. the works must definitely not be merely decorative, merely pleasing, merely a background for an owner, nor something that can be passed by with a 'How Nice!', 'How charming!', 'How well it fits!', 'What color, what pattern!' No. He is concerned with the state of our world.
"'THINK!' He keeps saying. He says it without shouting, without raising his voice. No bullying, no pretentious obfuscation. The pictures are small and given the subject matter as simple as possible.
"The works have a kind of directness that seem to relate to British political caricature - Gilray, Rowlandson, and even comic strips. In a way they remind me of Spectator magazine covers. His characters are often small people (aren't we all small people?) enmeshed in major problems (aren't we all?), struggling, struggling, often helplessly.
"Aristotle said, 'Man is, by nature, a political animal.' This one is an example, but one who does not stomp or kick, does not paint with hooves. He is an animal with the digital dexterity of a goldsmith working in that most delicate of mediums, egg tempera.
"Repetitiousness is not for him. His subject matter is varied, influenced by what is happening in the world around us daily. Therefore, some are frightening, grim, sad, as in much Renaissance tempera painting where we are given martyrdoms, crucifixions, hellfire. These representations of horror and violence can delight in spite of the themes because of the impeccable technique and delicacy (How unlike the bloodiness of films and television). The craftsmanship of Bergt's works is so assured that viewed alongside, say, a Crivelli, or a Cossa it need feel no shame."