Kelly Berg: Emergence
September 10 through October 22, 2022
By LITA BARRIE, October 2022
Kelly Berg’s current exhibition of volcanoes and pyramids is her breakthrough to the next level of accomplishment. As a young artist her jewel-like paintings and encrusted low-reliefs showed tremendous potential. Now, she has evolved into an assured artist who makes spectacular large-scale paintings that are installed with a 54-inch, mirrored pyramid sculpture that charges the optical experience of the space by reflecting the surrounding paintings from different angles. As Berg told me, she wanted her installation “to bring nature into the gallery.”
Berg’s dramatic paintings of erupting volcanoes, lava, lightning bolts and tidal waves reference Mount Vesuvius, Amboy Crater, the volcanic islands of Hawaii and Giant Rock in Mojave Desert and parallel the philosophy of the sublime (espoused by 17th century Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke) because her work awakens the viewer’s feelings of primal dread of the destructive power of nature. In our current apocalypse of terrifying climate events, Berg’s reminders of the ancient history of natural catastrophes give the viewer a heightened sense that geological time is more stupendous than human constructions of time.
Even so, Berg’s play on light emerging from darkness transcends the pervasive pessimism of our current era. When I spoke to Berg, she emphasized that she is always an optimist and she wants her exhibition to remind viewers of the rebirth of natural beauty that comes from disruption. Berg’s fascination with Pyramidion imagery is a complex message that climate change can be the catalyst for driving human psychology into deeper respect for the spirituality of nature.
The exhibition also includes interesting photographs that document the small pyramid sculptures she took to Mojave Desert and carried to the volcanic rocks on hikes during her Joshua Tree residency in 2021. Berg has loved rock climbing and nature hikes since her childhood in Minnesota, which ignited her geological fascination and keen observation of rock formations, volcanoes and triangular shapes. She was born in Massachusetts like Henry David Thoreau, the 18th century American naturalist, essayist and transcendentalist philosopher - who had a similar view of nature, as the great teacher.
From childhood, Berg knew she wanted to be an artist, and she drew things that she saw in nature while reading the science behind the cracks and crevices caused by geological movement. She told me, “I was always attracted to the unknown and mysterious places.” She has travelled to ancient cities and volcanic sites: including Egypt (2008), and many visits to Point Dume in Malibu and Kilauea volcano as well as two artist residencies in Naples, Italy (2019) and Joshua Tree (2021) During the latter residency she took her portable sculptures on hikes, in order to photograph them placed in volcanic environments.
Her pyramidion concept was inspired by the iridescence of gold-coated Egyptian pyramids which she honors in her first large-scale pyramid sculpture, made from automotive vinyl and ceramic coated wood and surrounded by lava rocks. Many of the paintings - like The Pyramids of Amboy Crater (2021) and Heart of the Earth (2021) - use an inverted pyramid shape that Berg explores because it points under the earth’s surface to hazardous subterranean depths. Indeed, the inverted pyramid is a visual metaphor for her own artistic and intellectual processes.
The largest painting in this exhibition, Ocean Emergence (2022) was inspired by many visits to Kilauea volcano, which led her to reflect upon volcanoes in the Mediterranean. In this fantasy landscape, she imagines a black pyramid emerging from the ocean with bands of light reaching into the sky and giant curling waves that recall Japanese and Hawaiian paintings. Berg draws on many painting traditions, including the Hawaii Volcano School – in particular, the French painter Jules Tavernier (1844-1889), who relocated to Hawaii.
Berg is also an admirer of great English landscape painters William Turner (1775-1851) and John Martin (1789-1854) - especially the latter’s apocalyptic paintings of Pompeii. Martin not only influenced the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but the gothic novels of the Brontё sisters - and even the philosophic essays of American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Berg was always drawn to Renaissance painters use of light to create spatial depth and a spiritual atmosphere. She begins her paintings using only black and white, then adds many glazes of acrylic color, using the chiaroscuro technique of drawing light out of darkness known as the “Rembrandt technique “ that filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Stanley Kubrick used masterfully in Metropolis and Barry Lyndon. (In the latter film, Kubrick used lenses developed by NASA which allowed him to capture memorable scenes lit only by candlelight.) Berg has always loved film, music and poetry as much as geology, so she combines all her loves to make aesthetically and conceptually complex art with deep roots in human history and natural history.
Berg relocated to Los Angeles in 2009 a year after she graduated from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and married heritage artist Andy Moses ( son of legendary painter, Ed Moses) who shared her love of nature-inspired painting and sculpture. Moses introduced her to the L.A. artists of his father’s generation and she gained an intimate understanding of the Light and Space movement. Most of all she learned from these experimental artists, to be a risk-taker.
From childhood, Berg has followed her own path and developed her personal life-philosophy of recognizing the creative potential of living on the edge - and these qualities attracted attention from A-list artists along the way who recognized her authenticity as a kindred spirit. It is always a pleasure to watch such a graceful, elegant, Brancusi-like woman - who recalls Oscar Wilde’s famous statement: “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” This spectacular exhibition weaves all the threads of the art and geological histories she loves together into a hyper-saturated, iridescent tapestry that gives Emergence the cinematic impact of an epic movie. WM
Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.view all articles from this author