Frederik Jan van den Berg was born in Gouda, the Netherlands in 1973. At 12 years of age he moved with his family to Indonesia, where he spent 4 years at the International School in Jakarta before relocating again to Singapore and attending the United World College of South East Asia for another 2 years. In 1991 he returned to the Netherlands to study art at the Royal Academy of Art and Design in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. After graduating in 1995, Frederik Jan frequently commuted between the Netherlands and Buenos Aires, where he met his future partner, the Argentinean photographer Bea Fresno. They finally settled in Rotterdam in 2007, from where Van den Berg has been working methodically on the development of his themes and ideas ever since.

 

 Van den Berg Neometry

The work of Frederik Jan van den Berg is just as coherent as it is enigmatic, and just as deliberate as it is the product of chance and experimentation. The pieces can be subdivided into a number of formal categories, but it is far more rewarding to see the entire body of work as a whole, as the distinct and varied expressions of a single artist in the different phases of his life and work, and using the various media at his disposal. While the work undoubtedly complements any architectural space, the actual relationship to architecture is more inferred than explicit; the work is more a representation of an inner architecture, a personal structuring system that involves much repetition and rhythmic reiteration, but also moments of deliberate upheaval, when the prevailing system is radically revised and a new order is sought.

The objects seem to be as much about the reassuring dependability of geometric principles as they are about the desire to flout these principles, to add the painter’s impulsive hand to the otherwise rational ‘domestic’ geometry we are all so familiar with; that of the largely rectilinear architectural form or space, the volume or the void, the exterior or interior of a structure.

The pieces are not directly derived from existing or proposed buildings or spaces and much of the work could be said to refer to the simplest, most basic form/space: the cube/room. All the pieces display the material evidence of the meditative confinement required to create them; indeed, in terms of the sheer dedication involved in the production of the pieces, the work has more in common with devotional icon painting than with modern architectural depiction. And although Van den Berg is not constrained by the ‘sacred’ geometry of the iconographers, the works attest to a personal belief that is every bit as devout and sincere.

The use of colour has evolved steadily in Van den Berg’s work. In many of the earlier pieces the colour was largely determined by the specific range in which the base material – silicon rubber – was available. The artist’s use of this industrial sealant was a conceptual choice to increase the material unity between the work and the (industrial) space for which it was intended. The idea that the work should enter into dialogue with its architectural surroundings, and thus increase the observer’s awareness of the space, was a guiding principle throughout this period. As many of the large pieces were effectively pure material, they inevitably took on the sometimes incongruous ready-mixed colours that were matched more to the shades of bathroom and kitchen tiles than to one another. But gradually the material began to open up, revealing other colours in the spaces beneath, vibrant painted colours in stark contrast to the greys, browns, jades, blunt blues and beiges of the silicon rubber. The intensity of these painted colours, these pure hues, introduced an aspect of immateriality to the work that now allowed the heavy material to visually hover in space, and which accordingly resulted in a far greater emphasis on three-dimensionality and a broader use of colour in general.

If the language needed to describe the composition of the work is rooted in formal geometry, then the phrase best suited to convey its content might be ‘personal geometry’; the self-created, self-imposed laws that govern the individual and that guide and shape the artist.

Naturally the work invites comparison to the work of other artists in the long tradition of geometric abstraction, from Malevich and Mondrian to Ad Reinhardt and Bridget Riley. But Van den Berg’s work does not refer directly to his predecessors in this specific field of art. It was never his intention to simply follow in an already established tradition. In his pictorial genealogy, this abstract geometric work can be regarded as the genre and period in which Van den Berg defined his artistic principles and honed his personal method. Geometry offered the perfect descriptive framework for this, as it allows for the depiction and manipulation of recognizable forms without the baggage of culturally determined meaning that unavoidably attaches to objects from the physical world.

Thus the relative purity of the depiction made it possible for Van den Berg to evaluate his own work in very fundamental terms, and to draw conclusions that would eventually provide the artistic constitution to which he adheres in all his work. Because while his artistic practice is rooted in unwavering principles, his work continues to evolve in several directions simultaneously. In a recent series he applies his personal method to the depiction of iconic 20th century vehicles, bringing together the abstract and figurative strands in his work. These vehicles are again subject to the same subtle deformations and deviations as the purely geometric pieces, but their recognisability and cultural significance adds a new layer of meaning to the works, which despite their pop art appearance acquire a certain self-critical aspect.

As mentioned previously, the entire body of work is most satisfying when seen as a whole, and in that context one can assert that Van den Berg certainly has a fascination for suggesting space and volumes in elemental terms, and though the three-dimensionality of much of the work is striking and often illusory, the painted surface itself never becomes part of the illusion, it never becomes an invisible vehicle for an optical effect, nor does it endeavour to camouflage the artist’s hand and appear mechanically produced. It remains a constant reminder that what we are seeing is not, in fact, a description of space or a representation of something else. What we see is an autonomous painting, regardless of its material composition, with a unique, human story revealed in every brushstroke or ridge of silicon rubber, the artistic gesture incarnate in the guise of a geometric study or abstracted representation. At this distance the depiction becomes irrelevant, subordinate to an appreciation of the physical act of painting.

 

Mike Ritchie