Interview with Tom Berenz

Neoteric Art: Give us some history on yourself.

Tom Berenz: I was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in 1981. I received a BFA from UW-Oshkosh in 2005 and a Master of Arts degree from Northern Illinois University in 2008. I was a full-time Lecturer of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Ripon College from 2008-2010. Currently, I’m a MFA candidate at UW-Madison.

NA: There definitely seems to be a sort of “destruction” present in all your work. Please elaborate.

TB: The work is in response to the way I see the contemporary landscape. For me, these paintings are as much about destruction as they are about beauty. Everything we live with as Americans is delicately balanced, including cars (magic carpets/death traps), houses (castles/prisons) and the wilderness (paradise/oblivion). I’m trying to be in direct lineage with the history of landscape painting, more specifically with the Hudson River School, up to present day. The battle between man and nature and its powerful force is a major focus in my work. I examine the fragility of our architecture and I question the way we inhabit the land. The so-called “environmental crisis” is now pretty well established as a fact of our era. Natural disasters are a part of our lives; it is commonplace to know someone who was recently affected by a disaster or to open Yahoo! to find out about a new disaster. The history of land management in the United States is a history of neglect and abuse and the number of severe storms and droughts are increasing.

NA: Discuss in more detail your current work and also your previous series “Flood Cars”.

TB: Currently, I am rejecting painterly and gestural forms in favor of flat, precise paint application and hard-edged geometric shapes. I’m interested in blurring the lines between realism and abstraction, life and death, beauty and horror, devastation and the sublime. This results in a striking dichotomy between the strong emotional subtext of the work and the stark rigidity of its execution. I’m working on a series of large-scale natural disaster paintings (64″ x 72″) – acrylic paint is the hot new thing in my studio. I’m obsessed with an isolated pile in the central part of the canvas. I’m removing each event from its surrounding into a space that is an almost meditative stillness. At this point, my work is more of an exploration about painting than natural disasters. The work is ultimately about two-dimensional space; the language of painting and the way an aftermath site is transformed into a painting.

The “Flooded Cars” series was in response to the fall of the “Big Three” of the auto industry and the economic collapse along with my concerns for natural disasters. I had a hard time finding images of flooded car lots so I purchased 8” die cast cars. I set up a still life and painted them from observation. It was new and exciting; I was experimenting with new ways to tone the water and organize the group. It was also a new way of working. I felt a different connection with that set-up than from a found image online. It resulted in flat hues ranging from brown to olive green, ruddy or purplish tones; I presented the calm surface of floodwaters after the rain stopped. The roofs of cars emerge from the turbid water, their hoods and lower parts visible as ghostly outlines just below the surface. The ordered lines of dozens of cars parked at a shopping center or in a dealer’s lot have disintegrated as floodwaters have pushed the cars around, yet, all is still, calm and quiet. I was also investigating concerns for minimal abstraction.

NA: Discuss your work/thought process when starting a new piece.

TB: My process begins with a rigorous search for an image that satisfies my appetite. As I weed through thousands of images, my journey encompasses enormous space. I think about a photograph as a reference rather than a good photograph. I have a list – a secret list – of what I need a painting to do. This list is in constant flux; it’s a way to stay focused and a way for me to think through ideas. After finding an image, I take the photo into Photoshop and manipulate the composition. The final painting is sometimes very close to the image while for others it is far removed. I’m thinking about what makes a good painting rather than painting a photograph.

Every painting is in response to a previous painting or idea. I try to tackle a new inquiry in every painting. I’m a fearless, fast painter, constantly making moves with little hesitation. I move through my idea via painting. A lot of the work that I make never gets shown and I edit before an exhibition.

NA: What does it mean to you to be a painter?

TB: For me, it’s about being in direct dialogue with other contemporary painters. I’m constantly thinking about painting and the nature of 2D picture making. It’s about constructing a painting that is about painting. There is an inner logic to a painting and I’m always participating in that dance. I think about how something is a painting and how something can be converted into a painting. I am always thinking about painting.

NA: You recently received your Masters from Northern Illinois University. Discuss your overall experience and one of your most memorable moments?

TB: I went into graduate school right out of undergrad. I truly thought I was going to get all of the answers. Graduate school doesn’t give a person answers, it only opens up more questions. Everything that the faculty threw at me was exciting and challenging. It was sort of a dark time. It was non-stop art making and art thinking. I worked hard and my paintings started to reflect my work habit. Northern Illinois University’s relationship to Chicago is great and the majority of the faculty is directed linked to the art scene there. I worked under Frank Trankina and Katie Kahn whom are amazing artists, professors and people. Also, Nina Rizzo, Geoffrey Todd Smith, Michael Barnes and Ben Stone – also great people at NIU. There was a strong community there and I made some life-long artist friends.

A panel came through the graduate studios every semester. The panel consisted of five members; most were respected people in the art world. They asked hard questions and gave excellent critical responses. The first time they visited, I had a hard time seeing one-to-one with the panel. As I followed the committee around to fellow graduates’ studios, I quickly realized that I agreed with them on the majority of points. I said to myself, “If I agree with them in other studios they must be right in mine”. Every critique after that I started learning more and listening and applying the information. I figured out how to use a critique to benefit my work.

NA: Concerning your art career where do you see yourself ten years from now?

TB: I try to take my career one painting at a time. Stepping-stones and momentum is important in an art career. Every year my work and career has gotten stronger and I hope to keep the momentum moving forward. But to your point, I see myself somewhere making paintings and being part of academia. I try to avoid projecting my career. If I’m 80 years old and still making art, it will mean that a lot went my way and there was a reason and drive to continue working. For me, that is success.