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Artist Feature ://
Billy Myles-Berkouwer
Posted August 2018

Digital imaging and its impact on painting is an overarching concern within Billy Myles-Berkouwer’s art practice and research. Investigating the relationship between the digital and the physical, the virtual and the actual, is something that has concerned Billy almost from the moment he began to explore abstract painting. Within this, he has used painting techniques that relate to digital aesthetics to explore a variety of themes.

“At present I am interested in exploring materialism and the limits of self-expression in the contemporary world. Brands have become symbolic elements in my paintings, symbols that under global capitalism have been associated with wealth, luxury and success. If you look at popular music today, you’ll see that brands have come to function as a medium for self-expression. This alarming condition has deep political ramifications, which I think makes the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, specifically Adorno’s critique of the culture industry, more relevant today than ever. My work from the ‘Branded Content’ series attempts to reflect and question this new reality.”

Branded Content V - Put Prada on my Mama’, Billy Myles Berkouwer. Acrylic on canvas, 2018.

Branded Content I - In YSL I Make A Pitstop’, Billy Myles-Berkouwer. Acrylic on canvas, 2018.

The following interview is transcribed from a visit to Billy’s studio.
See the studio post here.

Float.: Could you give us a brief introduction about yourself and your art practice?

Billy: I graduated with a degree in philosophy and politics last year from University of Brighton. That was a three year BA and throughout that time, alongside my studies, I was painting. After I graduated, I moved to Costa Rica where I taught English, developed my art practice, and held an exhibition.

When I was younger I was into figurative painting and portraiture, and I had a strong interest in Renaissance and Baroque painting. I would do a lot of studies of Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings and his paintings. After I finished school, I had a gap year living on a boat in Greece, then I went to university and this is when I started abstract painting. I was also doing quite a lot of life drawing, once or twice a week. In second and third year my practice really started to evolve, with life drawing and abstract painting going on simultaneously. Then, when I moved to Costa Rica, abstract painting just took over. I think that’s because it’s with abstract painting that I can really engage with the aesthetic and conceptual problems that most concern me.

Float.: What have you been focusing on in your work for the last year?

Billy: The last year is really when my practice evolved, for sure. I was working on a range of projects but the main one has become the ‘Branded Content’ series. A couple of years ago I was interested in abstract expressionism (classic), but in the last year I’ve been trying to underwrite and problematise the idea of the individual artist being seen as this expressive, unique subject. Like, there is still this assumption that as an artist, you must really be expressing yourself, but I feel that in our culture today the term self-expression has been abused and overused. I want my painting to reflect this problem, so in the Branded Content paintings the lines and colours appear striking, expressive and gestural but in terms of the process of painting they are the opposite – I’ve gotta be meticulous when I’m painting them. Each line or colour represents the sort of mark you would make on the computer; they are painted re-imaginings of the interaction between human and machine.

The paintings each begin with a digital sketch. That initial process, the digital process, is very important. Every mark is made extremely quickly, almost instantaneously with a graphics tablet, but there’s also a long process of undoing, deleting, and redoing bits through careful consideration of the composition. It takes a long time to do that. This places a kind of limit on the paintings in this series, giving them a digital look, so it kind of underwrites and questioning the notion of pure, direct self-expression.

Every painting in the ‘Branded Content’ series features a brand logo; specifically luxury fashion labels because they’re often referenced in popular culture. In this materialist culture, they have become symbols of success, wealth and luxury. I mentioned Adorno earlier and he spoke a lot about what he termed the ‘culture industry’, which is basically his critique of the capitalist mode of production encroaching on culture and the effect this has on culture. With trap music – which, to clarify, I love and I’m not criticising the music as such - it's almost like what Adorno was talking about has come full circle, in the sense that you get these bare, naked kind of references to luxury brands and people expressing themselves in lyrics by associating themselves with brands. These brands become a symbol of success and wealth, a positive expression of the self.

I think clothing has had this association for a long time too. When you look back to renaissance paintings, you see pictures of the Pope wearing amazing garments and you see Kings and Queens represented the same way. You get that now with branded clothing, clothing that is mass-produced. So, in the way that these designer brands have become signifiers in pop culture, they’ve also infiltrated my painting.

Branded Content VI - See Both Sides Like Chanel’, Billy Myles-Berkouwer. Acryclic and irridescent plastic sheet on canvas, 2018

Branded Content III - Gucci On My Sister’, Billy Myles-Berkouwer. Acrylic and metal leaf on canvas, 2018

Float.: I suppose colour in these paintings was also a signifier for wealth, for example certain pigments were more expensive than others, for example the Virgin Mary was always associated with having a blue robe as opposed to a different colour.

Billy: Yeah definitely, and the history of these pigments is really interesting. It’s funny too that paintings and art generally aren’t valued in terms of their material costs. They aren’t commodifiable in the same sense as some other cultural products. Paintings are usually unique objects existing in only one locality and they don’t serve a particular function anymore. Like, you won't get ‘Atlantic Records’ signing painters and churning out tons of original paintings, it’s not going to happen because there isn’t a popular and exploitable market for them. But here within my paintings, you see the same brands coming through like they do in popular music produced by corporations like Atlantic Records.

Float.: Something I found interesting about your work and your processes is the idea of you having these very physical and quite large paintings. This physical presence about them is interesting as they were originally conceived in a digital format where you have been quite expressive. Then through your process you are editing things out and putting things back in. It makes me think about the relationship we have in terms of interacting with other people through social media and online networks in the sense that you are always putting out an ideal version of yourself through language. Whereby you may begin quite expressive, you then remove words and add other things in order to create a simulation of self-expression and identity. Is this relationship something that you think about in your work or is it a parallel that has come about naturally?

Gestures in a Digital Landscape I and II’, Billy Myles-Berkouwer. Acrylic on canvas

Billy: I would say it has come about naturally, since a lot of my concerns are aesthetic in nature and about balancing opposites within a composition; balancing different kinds of lines, gestures, shapes and colours. But it's funny that you say that because I'm very interested in social media and the effects that it has had on subjectivity. It functions as another channel which we use to express ourselves. Look at the certain types of photos people take of themselves, certain types of posts people write and make, and you can also see that a lot of these ‘individual’ expressions can be easily categorised. I'm interested in exploring what the limits of self-expression are today, particularly on social media as you are very confined through a variety of social pressures and the restrictions of the platform. These paintings can be seen as a parallel to those forms of expression on social media. They're very gestural and intense and they can have a big impact on the viewer, but when you look closely you can't see my hand, you can't see the brushstrokes I've made. They don't look like brushstrokes at all, they look like digital marks and that's something I think is quite poignant.

Float.: I was interested and wanted to find out more about your time on your residency in Costa Rica because I know a lot of people who look at Float. are interested in the opportunities available to them. So could you offer any advice whether it’s around the confidence to take that leap or where to go to find out about these things? Also what sort of things should they be looking into? In summary, could you tell me a little bit about your time in Costa Rica, how it influenced you, how you heard about the opportunity, and how you are adjusting now you are back?

Billy: I moved to Costa Rica because Latin America just struck me as a very exciting and diverse place. TEFAL (teaching English as a foreign language) is quite a good opportunity if you are an English speaker. It's a really good way to move abroad and earn money, and there are a lot of jobs available. Overall it was a great opportunity to experience a new place whilst also focusing on my painting. Especially if you choose the right place you can get quite cheap rent, so it’s a way to spend more time on your practice and less time worrying about money.

My time in Costa Rica was crucial. It was where I began to develop a lot of the ideas that have informed my painting. I found out about it [TEFAL] through a friend who had done it, so I got tipped off. This friend was already in Costa Rica so I had the chance to visit him and then later join him. Going with someone if you’re moving abroad is a really nice way to do it because it takes some of the pressure off. I also found that in Costa Rica there were quite lot of art stores, and hardware and fabric stores were on every corner and quite inexpensive. So I could make canvases and get paints cheaply and easily, whereas here in the UK a lot of hardware stores are based at least a car drive away and are quite expensive, which can ultimately limit the amount of work you can produce.

Branded Content V in process’, Billy Myles-Berkouwer. 

Float.: Name one thing that you would like to change about the art world?

Billy: I speak to my dad about this a lot since he's an artist. I think it's difficult to say one thing. I would like to see more opportunities for emerging and older artists. I would like to see art communities become less insular. I would like to see these communities become more culturally relevant and diverse. Definitely funding becoming more readily available for emerging artists would be key.

Float.: What would you like to achieve in the next year?

Billy: Really, I would like to have increased my work’s exposure. I want to have shown my work in several more exhibitions by this time next year and I want to have curated a few exhibitions as well. I’m also beginning to sell my work now, so I want to continue that. In the past I have been incredibly precious over my paintings. Everything was for my portfolio and nothing was for sale, never ever. But now I’m ready to sell my work and I’m looking for buyers. Longer-term plan is to really develop my practice and research, and hopefully make it profitable.

︎ www.billyberkouwer.weebly.com

︎  @p4intings___   

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