Tom Berenz showcased in Rhinelander ArtStart debut exhibit
The exhibit, “Wisconsin Contemporary”, opens July 19, and features the work of six artists chosen from the prestigious Wisconsin Triennial Exhibition that was shown in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA).
Berenz, one of the six artists, will display paintings from his Flooded Car series, completed in 2009 and shown widely in galleries around the nation to rave reviews. Berenz, 31, has just completed his MFA from UW-Madison and will teach at Beloit University this coming year.
The paintings for this exhibit were executed in oil on wood or canvas surfaces and are relatively small in size. They depict in realistic style cars stranded by floodwaters in auto parking lots.
As detailed and realistic as the paintings are, they give off a thought-provoking, abstract quality that comes from the manner in which the semi-submerged cars are shown from above in seemingly random arrangements, completely surrounded by flat, mud-tinged, utterly calm water.
The effect is unnerving. The viewer is compelled to imagine what else lies concealed beneath that almost sinister opaque surface of water, and to reflect on the news of recent floods and how devastating they must have been for both people and natural habitat.
“All my work deals with the struggle between man-made structures and the environment,” said Berenz in an interview. The Flooded Car series, he explained, came about while he was researching images online for another series.
“I came across this arresting topographical view of Fond du Lac,” he said, adding that he had lived in Fond du Lac and frequently gets inspiration from images related to the area. “I was also thinking about the collapse of the Big Three in the auto industry, so a layering of ideas came together of a flooded car lot, the economic collapse, and the effects on the environment.”
Instead of painting from a photographic image, however, Berenz decided to try something else that would allow him to have more control over composition. He purchased a number of 8-inch die-cast, highly realistic miniature cars-“all Fords”-and filled a tank with water. He stained the water with coffee and various dyes to get the right murky tone, and enjoyed the challenge of the set-up. “It was an entirely new way of working for me,” he said.
In essence, Berenz returned to an older form-painting from still life. So it’s not surprising to learn that he loves the two-dimensional compression of ideas that the medium of painting allows. “I have a deep passion for the act of painting, and its history, and being part of that historic process by basing my work on what has come before me,” he said.
Berenz takes inspiration from one of the most painterly of historic movements-the 19th century Hudson River School of landscape painters who captured the sublime beauty of the wilderness and its collision with the Industrial Age.
“While they were concerned with different things,” Berenz said, “they portray the overall development that came with the Industrial Age as a brewing storm. You see that especially in Thomas Cole’s large-scale work.”
Berenz’s more recent work is also large-scale and deals less with actual events like floods, he said, and more with images of “deconstruction, such as the fragility of man-made structures like houses, after a disaster.” His recent Collapsed House series is realistic in style, like the Flooded Car series, and yet also abstract, again more about creating mood.
“I am intrigued by the wonder of the natural environment and I’m disturbed by its devastation,” he said. “I’m interested in the fragility of life and question the way we inhabit the land. My work tries to represent what happens when nature and man collide, with neither one fully on the winning side. Society’s ambivalent attitude of both pillaging and protecting nature lies at the thematic heart of my work.”
Berenz’s paintings, along with Wisconsin artists Nancy Mladenoff, Chad Hallblade, George Williams, Jr., Sonja Thomsen and Gina Litherland can be viewed at ArtStart Art Gallery, 68 S. Stevens St., Thurs. through Sun., through Sept. 29.
For more information and gallery hours, visit ArtStartRhinelander.org.