Social Life Magazine presents an exclusive interview with our art editor and multi-talented artist Kevin Berlin.
Giovanni Rossi: In the Hamptons you are probably best known as a painter and performance artist, but you also work in a lot of different mediums. Is there any common theme to your work?
Kevin Berlin: Yes. Desire. I have always been focused on the theme of temptation and desire. There are certain things that are universal, things that we all want. Some are immediate, such as Nutella, an Italian gelato, or a good cappuccino . . . which is something I could really use right about now. Of course, we also desire to be loved, have friends, look good, live in beautiful surroundings, build something, and watch it grow, and to be a part of the future.
GR: Your new paintings focus on Nutella. Tell us about your new series
KB: Well, I spend almost half of my year in Florence, Italy, and Nutella is an important part of my everyday life. The image of Nutella seems to be one that almost everyone responds to. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, rich or poor, or what your educational background is, people love Nutella. There are few images I can think of that gain such a universal interest. Because I love to paint narrative paintings, paintings that tell a story, I find an image of Nutella a good starting point. The new paintings include towers of Nutella, aliens eating Nutella, and religious themes, such as The Buddha Della Nutella.
GR: You will be showing a few special works at ArtHamptons with Vogelsang Gallery on July 10 to 13, including paintings from your series on classical ballet.
KB: Yes, desire does not always have a light side. In contrast with Nutella, I often paint about the darker side of things that tempt us, including our hopes, our fears, our attraction to beauty. For more than 15 years I have worked backstage at some of the most famous ballet companies in the world, such as the Kirov in St. Petersburg, or the National Opera and Ballet in Kiev. I find that backstage is a lot like Shakespearean theater. Behind the scenes the dancers go through the full range of human emotions: they laugh, they cry, they fall in love, and often they are betrayed. I love painting and sketching the stories that I have heard and observed in this closed world. The stories are personal; the emotions are universal. Like Giselle and Romeo and Juliet, rarely in ballet is there a happy ending.
GR: Tell us a little about your approach to painting.
KB: The basis of all of my work is drawing. I am kind of old fashioned in that way. I was always impressed by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. He proved that there are some things that you can express in a drawing that you cannot say in words. There is no greater tool to assist in the creative process. I use mostly black and white for my ballet scenes, cocktail parties, and other figurative paintings. I paint in full color for my still life work, which focuses on Nutella, cash, and empty cigarette packs. In the end, I use color only when necessary.
GR: Why do you choose painting as a medium? Some people say that painting is dead.
KB: I love painting, I can’t help myself. I tried to quit several times and it didn’t work. Most painters today accept the fact that they may be misunderstood. The modern audience has little access to education about how to look at a painting. If you go to the Uffizi Museum and look at Botticelli’s Birth of Venus you will discover that most spend the same amount of time looking at the painting as they do looking at the descriptive tag next to it. Today’s audience is better trained to view a short video, like the kind you see on the internet. There is an expression often used in the Russian ballet: hope dies last. My hope is that in the future, art education will be considered more important and reach more people.
GR: I have often heard you say “Politics and religion tend to divide people; art brings people together.”
KB: Yes. I have said that a lot. The more I travel, the more I realize that it is difficult to talk about politics, religion, sex, or death without offending somebody. Art allows us to have an open conversation about many sensitive topics. I started my paintings of cash and cigarettes for a solo show I had in China. I became very interested in the subject my first day in Shanghai, when I ran out of Chinese money at a souvenir shop. I offered to pay the balance of what I owed with a twenty dollar U.S. bill which I pulled out of my pocket. The saleswoman looked at my American money with visible disgust, as if I had picked up something dirty off the street. She did not accept my twenty dollar bill and she said, almost as if reciting poetry, “That’s American money. It is worth nothing. You should have Chinese money. Our money is very valuable.” It was at that moment that I realized that we all have something in common; we desire not only money, but that our money is valuable. This inspired several paintings entitled East Meets West.
GR: What’s next?
KB: You can see my work locally year round at Gallery Valentine here in East Hampton. In Brussels, later this year, Vogelsang Gallery is presenting a major Nutella show. I also have shows coming up in The Hague, Istanbul, Miami, and Berlin. I am currently writing a travel/adventure book about an American artist working with the ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The artist’s works are found in the collections of Kim Basinger, Luciano Pavarotti, David Letterman, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Henry Buhl, and General Motors. Berlin, a Yale University alumnus, studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Shanghai Daily, The Miami Herald, USA Today, MTV, Tokyo Television, BBC Radio and over 40 television stations across the United States. Kevin Berlin’s recent solo exhibitions include shows in New York, London, and Shanghai.
Kevin Berlin is represented by Gallery Valentine in East Hampton and by Vogelsang Gallery in Brussels. The artist lives in Southampton, New York, and Florence.