Portrait of the Artist
An interview with painter Angela Berkson
While exploring the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History’s Albuquerque Now or Inpost Artspace’s I Also Make Art this fall, you likely noticed the works of Angela Berkson. Whether in acrylic or encaustic (hot wax painting), Berkson’s compositions evolve from diligently layered surfaces. Her final forms rest on the balance between geometric precision and organic freeform—her work plays with the contrast of black to white here, the complement of mustard to celadon there. On a visit to Berkson’s Second Street studio, the Alibi learned how her creativity first took root and what now makes it bloom.
First thing’s first: How and when did you discover that you are an artist?
My parents gave me an easel and some paints when I was 4 years old, and I just fell in love with the magic of it, that you could take these things and create another world. I have been painting ever since. It sounds funny now when I look back on it, but I always had a studio, too. I had an older brother who was into music, and they ... gave him instruments and places to make music, and I ... had a similar thing with my artwork—I always had a big workspace, a big desk, an easel, a place I could get messy. Because my parents were always supportive, I was always painting.
And in high school, in Corrales – well, we moved away, and when we moved back I went to [Albuquerque] Academy. Throughout, I was always taking art classes, and in high school, I had this one art teacher who taught me an important lesson: That art is work. That you have to work on your art like you work on the rest of your work. You have to take your pieces home. I learned that art is a serious pursuit. That yes, I was good at it, and I loved it, but that I had to take it seriously and work hard. And that the harder I worked, the better I got. So that was instilled in me in an early age. I took it so seriously that I didn’t think the Academy’s art program was serious enough, so I enrolled at UNM concurrently and took their art classes while in high school. I’d leave school at Academy and go to UNM for art courses. So when it came time for me to apply to college, I knew I wanted to go to art school.
What was the most artistically definitive experience of your educational years?
“ I’d go to a party after a full week in the studio, and I’d have such a hard time with that transition to society. I just couldn’t really talk to anyone. And then I realized that I think that’s why people think artists are so weird.”
After two years at Otis [College of Art and Design in Los Angeles], I decided I wanted to come back to New Mexico. My parents were living in Santa Fe, so I did a semester at College of Santa Fe, which I didn’t like. But they had an affiliation with the New York Arts Program, which offered internships in various disciplines. I didn’t have a predetermined idea of any particular field; I just wanted to work with a professional artist who was actively exhibiting. So they set me up with Rachel Friedberg, an encaustic painter who had a studio in the Village. We had an interview to make sure that we clicked, and I can’t completely describe it, but there was something about her work that I could really relate to.
So I got the gig, and we worked for six months. I’d go into her studio every day as an assistant, and she’d never had one before, so it was a new world for her, too. Neither one of us knew what to exist, but she was working in encaustic, this wax-based medium. I knew of encaustic because of Jasper Johns, whom I studied in Art History. But this was 1988, so there weren’t a lot of people working in encaustic. You didn’t come across it very often. But [Friedburg] had developed her own techniques for the ratio of wax to other ingredients, which she shared with me over the 6 months I worked as her studio assistant. I would help her prepare her boards, and I would lay in the borders of this particular bordered series she did, and she would lay the central imagery. I learned so much just in that semester. Probably more than I learned in all the other years of art school—how to be an artist, how much discipline it takes, how much work it requires.
You’ve been back in New Mexico for nearly 20 years. What is your life like here?
I’ve always had part-time jobs to help balance my life between my studio pursuit and my art work, just as I’ve done for 18 years or so. And Box Gallery in Santa Fe shows my work and has since 1999; it seems to sell well, but it’s not enough to live on. I’ve tried to find representation in other galleries, but for whatever reason it just hasn’t worked out. It’s tough to break into a new market, and so that’s an ongoing pursuit. I’ve shown a lot of other places, in a lot of group exhibitions and juried competitions, but getting more commercial galleries has been a challenge. The great thing about Albuquerque—which you see when you visit Albuquerque Now—is that there are dozens of artists working here, many under the radar and many with great success. But they’re all really working.
“My parents gave me an easel and some paints when I was 4 years old, and I just fell in love with the magic of it, that you could take these things and create another world.”
This might be like asking you to pick a favorite child, but do you feel more connected to your work in encaustic or acrylic?
The encaustic medium is just so seductive. There’s something about it that immediately draws you in. It’s very skin-like, very captivating. Working in acrylic is harder in some respects; the medium itself isn’t as seductive, so you have to manipulate it more and work harder on your imagery to pull people in. The movement and the composition have to be that much stronger because you’re relying on them that much more. But with the wax, the medium itself is so intriguing that people want to look at it for its own sake, for the sake of its own unique properties.
There’s an interesting presence of both very controlled geometrics and organic, free-flowing movements—like the drips—throughout your work. How do you balance them?
Well, that’s really what [my current] body of work, this Parallel Play series [now at Box Gallery], is about—balancing the force of the rigid lines, of their attempts to impose order on the organic, energetic shapes. Really, they’re conspiring against each other, and that’s what I’m playing with all the time, whether it’s hot versus cold, or surface versus depth, or concealing versus revealing. The trick is finding balance without eliminating the struggle and the reasons you want to look at the work in the first place. I try to use shapes, colors, lines that activate your eyes, that give you something different to look at every time. That’s the beauty of abstract art. There’s not a narrative or a representation. It’s about your eye, about you taking pleasure in what you’re looking at. It’s really just about seeing.
So with your encaustic, how much control do you exercise over the medium? Does the process dictate the outcome?
Wax is notoriously difficult to control. It’s going to do it’s own thing, and I have a healthy respect for that. But I also feel that’s where my years of experience come into play; I can anticipate some of the properties, know what to expect. I can put this color over that color, put heat over it, and know what will happen to an extent. See—there’s always those opposing forces, that need for balance, for knowing when to exert control and when to let it do what it’s going to do. That’s what makes it interesting.
How involved do you get in your acrylic process? How much do you work your painted surfaces?
A lot. I’ll start out with random layers of color with the goal to get rid of the texture of the canvas. And then as my color emerges, I play with the divisions, the stripes, the organizing elements of the composition. And then I’ll add the shapes, more stripes. It’s like licensed play. Give the shapes freedom and then come back in and discipline them. It’s controlling these energies then letting them release. Parallel Play speaks to the idea that there are similar things happening simultaneously that may or may not connect.
I often think of art as a solitary pursuit that incorporates a communal consciousness because the beautiful things around you seep into your work somehow. But the actual act is ultimately done alone. With your marriage to an artist and your part-time work outside of your studio, how do you reconcile this need? These influences?
It’s what I love and hate about art. It’s a very solitary pursuit, which is why I always liked the balance of having another life outside of the studio. Because when I only work in the studio, it just feels unnatural. Last year I devoted the whole year to studio practice, and it was a difficult transition [from always having had a part time job] because I was living in my head so much that it became so much about the work that I felt like I’d lost touch with my community because I was so focused on this one thing. Even though I was seeing other art and talking to other artists, it was really hard for me to talk about my day because my biggest conflict was that I couldn’t quite get the red I wanted. I’d go to a party after a full week in the studio, and I’d have such a hard time with that transition to society. I just couldn’t really talk to anyone. And then I realized that I think that’s why people think artists are so weird; I was having such a hard time relating to others, because this was my world—Oh, yes. There’s that drip. I really got it! And it made me so happy—and I didn’t have many things to contribute to a conversation. But living with another artist and sharing a home studio has kept me anchored. And it’s been really interesting. I kind of absorb some of his aesthetic, of his color sense. So when I’m working, I often try not to go to too many galleries or museums, to look at too much other art, because I’m really sensitive, and I can feel ruined by it for days. So I try to just think about my shapes, my colors, my compositions.
Portrait of the Artist
is our new monthly series highlighting Albuquerque artists.
See her work at angelaberkson.com.