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Man and Machine

How Rauschenberg and architecture collaborate at Ken Berman's studio

By Gretchen Giles

Some artists know from childhood what they want to be. Others stumble into it. And so it was that when Sebastopol architect Ken Berman was but a callow New Jersey graduate student, he went with some friends to a book signing. That the event was in the New York loft of artist Robert Rauschenberg, then 64 and secure in his high rank among the Great Men of 20th-Century Modernism, meant little to Berman. He was just tagging along.

Who was tagging along with Rauschenberg? His buddy and fellow Great Man, pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg.

Berman may not have known who Rauschenberg and Oldenburg were before he walked in the door, but he knew who they were--and he knew that his life had changed--by the time he left. During the short course of one afternoon's visit, Berman had become an artist.

"I asked them all of these questions about what it is to be an artist, because I had no clue," Berman remembers. "I was just studying architecture. For me, art was a fascinating world, but, growing up, my parents said . . . you know, 'You're going to have to be a professional.'

"As soon as I met Rauschenberg, a switch just got turned on," he continues. "I didn't know what I was going to paint, but I suddenly knew that I was going to pursue it. He's one of those people who gives you the sense that whatever you want to do, you can do it. And when he was talking to me, there was no sense [of ego]; it was the reverse. He was asking me all of these questions."

And so, with the unknowing help of Bob Rauschenberg, good guy, Berman began to balance his architectural studies with the unpredictable world of painting. With no formal training other than that found in books, he consumed the old masters, admiring Michelangelo's ability to set forms free from stone, Rembrandt's depiction of golden light sluicing off a soldier's helmet, and the centuries-old technique of underpainting and overpainting a canvas--an ideal method of stop-and-start glazing for a busy man trying to become a professional in two careers.

"In talking to Robert Rauschenberg, he said that if you're an artist, there's no way you won't work," Berman says. "You might put it aside, but you'll always be drawn back to it like a magnet. It's always going to call to you. It made me realize that that's the way I am."

His parents presumably satisfied, Berman and his wife Clare Monteschio now run the Red Maple Workshop architectural firm from their home. Slaking his inner Rauschenberg, however, has proved a less straightforward road. Gathering his courage, Berman opens his living room--wholly given over as a painting studio--to the public with his first foray into the Sebastopol Center for the Arts' ninth annual Art at the Source Open Studios tour, May 31-June 1 and June 7-8.

Growing in popularity each year, last year's Art at the Source event found some 4,500 people squinting over maps and careening around West County in search of beauty, spending over $220,000 in the process, according to executive director Linda Galletta. Perhaps most interesting to veteran event-goers, a full 50 percent of the exhibitors are doing it this year for the first time. "We have a whole new energy," says Galletta.

Berman, a gregarious man in a Rage Against the Machine baseball cap that mostly protects his head and partly describes his method, exemplifies that energy. One needn't know that he studied as an architect to sense it from his meticulous canvases. He uses his trade's tools, working out his mechanical images on the AutoCAD machine before overlaying and tracing them onto canvases and coaxing them into life.

Rauschenberg's fame came with his introduction of Combines, in which he took such disparate items as a stuffed angora goat, a tire, a police barrier, the heel of a shoe, a tennis ball, and married them with paint. Berman, too, is an indefatigable collector of perhaps far-flung connections. But instead of angora goats, he paints machines, pipes, trains, and other mechanized products of human society. Mythologizing these items in an almost dreamy subtle monochrome, he aims to paint the souls of the objects as viewed through an architectural lens and by an architectural computer.

Berman says, "It's part of the meticulous nature of when I first started. I go into a painting knowing what I really want to achieve. It's about extracting the imagery, giving it life. Not just flat rendering, but really something that the machine can come alive to."

Why machines?

"I see them almost as human," he explains. "Nowadays everything is mechanized, you can't get away from them. Because of that, I see man and machine almost melded. I don't see it as a takeover of human nature, but I see a way for the machines to explain what I see as human nature. I also wanted the pieces to connect, so that they connect into other paintings. The idea is that they could be reassembled and rearranged, and that permeates this avenue of thought."

Berman's house is easy to find--with the addition of five huge panels in the side yard depicting one of those lovely old smoke-blackened steam trains that aided the growth of the Industrial Revolution. He's purposefully not finished the final two panels, intending to show his visitors how he builds the machines that inhabit his canvases.

"I've always liked Legos and trains and the idea of connecting and reconnecting and reformulating ideas as time goes on. The marriage of man and machine began with trains," he says. "I use that as a metaphor for what I see as the transformation of people and machines into a new hybrid. I don't know what to call it, so I paint it."

Like a strange game for grownups, that hybrid invariably includes a pipe or two running right off the canvas. The pipe on such works as Helmet Head can be matched up almost exactly with the piping running off the side of Gondolier, even though the two paintings have nothing else in common. It's a sweet conceit that works for a Lego lover who has the philosophy to sustain it.

"I like the idea of collectors being able to take two paintings and switch them around or to add more paintings to the collection and create new hybrids," Berman says. "It is analogous to human beings. It's what we do as we go on; we don't just stay in one path."

Later he reflects, "There's a certain lineage to these works; they're all connected [like family portraits], and as an architect, you always feel this certain responsibility to tradition. Even if you design something that's really modern, you're trying to fit it into the context of what's come before. Machines are something that are so prevalent that I almost couldn't not respond to them."

All of this might teeter toward that pile known as "hooey" if Berman's work weren't so tender in its representation of the human-made world. Berman's objects are burnished with light, and they mimic unexpected aspects of human form, the swoop in Gondolier suggesting the sweep of the rower's oar.

While each work's underpinnings may be digitally precise, as rendered by the AutoCAD machine, it is Berman's own physical touch that imbues the canvases with their muted glow. And while his subjects may be the train or the ready-made plumbing part, his depictions are about each object's essence. With this almost spiritual examination, the precision of his architectural training is slowly straining to break loose, allowing him to make larger strokes on the canvas and to adapt his idea of what perfection might be.

"I'm getting to the point where I can see, 'OK, it's a little rough around the edges,'" he smiles, "but it's how I feel."


Art at the Source Open Studios 2003 takes place over two weekends, May 31-June 1 and June 7-8, 10am-5pm. Admission is free. Ken Berman's studio is at 155 Watertrough Road, Sebastopol. For details and maps, call 707.829.4797.

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From the May 29-June 4, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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