New York

Mike Berg

Fine Art Studio

How refreshing, in this year of the politically correct, to come across a painter who is completely unashamed of the decorative aspect of his art, a painter, furthermore, who does not so much as nod in the direction of social and political concerns. Although it might seem traditional, such a stance is not always easy to maintain. It requires cunning, indirection, and virtuosity.

At various times in the course of his career, Mike Berg has favored flooded baroque interiors, Biedermeier furniture floating in midair and gold Cyrillic lettering. Floral motifs have a long history with him, and, in his current work they are linked to a fascination with patterns and repetition. There are patterns of lilies, roses, and small flowering sprigs; tendrils curl into spirals and arabesques, and some pieces appear to be covered with lace.

Berg has developed a number of elegant strategies for preventing his repeated motifs from lapsing into the monotony of mere prettiness, beginning with the way they are applied to the surface. Some are painted in the conventional manner, others are printed from lino cuts. He also attaches etched-steel flowers to canvas or wooden board. The motifs can be smudged or partly overpainted. They are often cut off at the canvas edge and usually applied to unstable grounds that seem to shift and shimmer, upsetting any idea of perfect symmetry. In Gray Eminence, 1992, (which may be the most daring piece in the show) steel rosettes are simply attached in a regular pattern to an extremely weathered piece of board: the grain of the wood replaces paint. Other pieces are streaked with rust or show signs of second thoughts. Levity Against Gravity, 1992, in which flashes of brilliant blue break upwards from handsomely murky browns and blacks, consists of an old painting that Berg judged unsatisfactory, cut into strips, and rearranged. By these means he lends his work a tangible sense of history while avoiding the fake old-master effect that can undermine a painting. It is not antique imagery or painting techniques that Berg evokes so much as the work of the elements and the passage of time—the idea that an image will inevitably be altered or lost.

Though Berg works well on a small scale, the two most beautiful pieces in this show are relatively large. In On Burning Mirrors, 1992, a fluid design that seems half art-nouveau and half Mayan is superimposed on a gray and turquoise ground like shot silk. In Sussurations, 1992, the delicate white flower known as baby’s breath is scattered over a crimson ground; the canvas is creased in two long arcs and the crimson is applied in horizontal and vertical strokes that suggest light reflected in water; the blossoms are fugitive dabs of paint and their stems are drawn in pencil over the paint so that they appear and disappear as the viewer shifts or the light changes. This haunting image of evanescence may be Berg’s central theme. It is not surprising to learn that the painter he admires above all others is Watteau. In its present phase his work has something of the charm, unease, and pathos of a fête galante.

John Ash