Rick Berry’s dealings with mythic figures began young and left a mark. His father was one such figure. The man was a brilliant mathematician. He was also a fighter pilot who fought in two wars. He was one of the only Westerners to land a plane in China’s Forbidden City. Berry’s father was a superhuman who was taken from him, a the comics Berry read as a child seemed super like his dad was. Berry was nine when his dad was killed, and he saw his mother and sister patch up their lives and struggle to move forward. At 17, he left home with a few key skills: he knew how to flirt, how to fist-fight (if forced), how to drive fast and how to draw.
Before Berry’s father passed away, his family lived on Air Force fighter bases. “We lived in a science fiction world, surrounded by the endless tarmacs, inhumanly enormous hangars, and deafening silver birds,” says Berry. It was in the comic book stands and K-Mart racks that his love for comic books and drawing developed. These worlds seemed to live up to the example his family set for him, and when his dad died, he sank into them even more. “After a while, you realize that the darkness at the edges of things crowds back in. You realize there is heavier stuff than this.” He never lost that sense that life is fragile. “A single thing can change it all from a wondrous territory to trying to find your way through the wilderness. There was this glittering change all around us congealing, and I was built for that. I could see it clear as day. And I saw it riven with danger, and thrill and excitement, and no clear idea about how it was going to break for us. We were there at the tipping point, and so many tipping points at one time and place,” says Berry.
Berry is an illustrator and painter with a curious career trajectory who has always been inspired by the mythic figures in comics he read as a child. He cut his teeth in illustration making covers for books and graphic novels. Before that, he held many odd jobs. At 15 he worked as a cowboy in Montana. In Denver he airbrushed shirts at Hari Krishna’s Sunny Day Duds Factory by day, painting rainbows and UFO’s while surrounded by bald acolytes. At night he returned, reeking of incense, to his job as a bouncer at Kitty’s Pleasure Palace. He soon realized that these gigs were dead ends (he was fired as a “demon” by the day job; how’s that for incompatible?).
While hitchhiking to the East Coast, Berry ran into some trouble when the cops mistook him for an escaped convict. They bought him donuts and let him loose on the New York/Massachusetts state line. He found his way Boston and got a job in a frame shop, where he met his wife, Sheila. Hitching back and forth to NYC, he started doing book covers, though he had no real training in illustration. He grew bored, however, with accepting briefs that laid on unnecessary constraints or shut the door on the most interesting thing to do with the assignment. This caused him to develop a reputation for being difficult—he didn’t know when to stop pushing back.
“I was in an athletic phase of my life where I’d say okay, hit me, I can figure it out, to pretty much anything,” says Berry. The downside to this is that you can become known for the wrong things. He changed horses midstream to dedicate his time to oil painting. “Work quits coming in,” says Berry. “You really go through skinny shit, a world of doubt. But I did it because I began to understand that someone who grew up on paperbacks and comics wasn’t necessarily an illustrator.”
Then what was he? He began doing oil paintings and experimenting with digital forms, and generally taking on only projects where he felt he was learning and his creative process remained unfettered.
Painting, for Berry, is about seeing. Most important are two things: the first is the human form, and the second is breaking out of what he terms the dog-tricks of classical consciousness into something more instinctual.
The writer Richard Boswell defines the short story as being about a moment after which nothing will ever be the same again. Berry’s work has this sense of immediate, irreducible clarity. His paintings’ subjects are isolated in a moment of transition. “And there is something breathtaking about seeing a minimum of marks pull this off,” he says.
One of Berry’s considerations is, what manifests in the human form? He believes that our psychologies, our cares, our wants, are all bound up in that shape. “So, when you paint, figuratively, you are assaying all of the psychological frontiers, all of what you care about, what could be. When you alter it, you’re playing with huge and magnificent formulas that almost seem to bear on destiny,” he says. Figurative art shows, for him, “the changes that are falling upon us.” He believes this change will culminate in a new kind of genus. “I think we’re at the beginning of a speciation event. We’re talking about wedding with our technology. If something on the Internet becomes self-aware, it’s probably going to think of itself as human,” he says.
Berry’s paintings are largely concerned with evolution, and with what he calls “the agony of choice” our fast-changing times present us with. Humans as a species are moving quickly. We have the ability to change ourselves with body modifications and piercings. We are becoming increasingly integrated with electronics. We are beginning to join machines with our bodies to create stronger humans. Berry’s process replicates this change in many ways. He does not use models or references, but instead makes marks intuitively, allowing for movement on the page. There is the sense of lines that once dropped don’t stay put. “You want drama to occur early in the piece, because that will stoke the engine. This means you can’t be careful, otherwise you won’t have drama. You have to use big, sword-slashing moves. I tend to load up a surface without knowing what I’m doing, and then as I move the paint around, things start to kick in.”
Vision, according him, does not occur on the board. The painting isn’t where the painting is finalized; the painting is finalized in the viewer’s head. The great masters knew how much to give, and how to not give more. “If you don’t give enough room for the viewer to participate on some level, the work is airless and flat,” he says.
Berry is not afraid to destroy work by taking risks. “You take clever-handed work and push it further, so that new possibilities emerge,” he says. “As with science, even your failures are interesting. Some new opportunity has appeared in that spot.”
Consciousness tells us that it is the penultimate achievement of our mind. When you have to do extraordinary things, however, something else takes charge. “I think consciousness is like the idiot little brother of this thing we call subconsciousness,” he says. He tries to explain. “When you reach for something and knock it over, you think, I saw right before. Why did I knock it over anyway?” The reason he gives is that consciousness says I’m here, in the now, when in fact it’s about a half-second behind. The illusion it presents in such situations is that you were in the present, but you weren’t. You shouldn’t trust that illusion —so-called subconscious wiring is much much faster.”
He enjoys what he calls “that iterative application to railing out your vision over and over again, not even correcting for error, maybe even extending on interesting error.” How do you get yourself to draw what you don’t expect yourself to draw? Sometimes, you blow it. But painting triggers things you didn’t know you knew. “So, you get on these sorts of jags that you pursue.”
“I like the loose ends,” he says. There’s this old tradition in Navajo in carpet weaving where they always leave a loose thread so that the spirits can come and go in the carpet. It’s the same with painting: if you button everything down, it becomes finite and flat. How do you get yourself to draw what you don’t expect yourself to draw? Painting is exploring. Art is trying to see, not trying to predict, at least for me.
“The painting occurs in an atemporal space. In this one, for instance, it’s not quite clear which of those lines is the current edge of a figure. One might be a minute before, to come.” Atemporality gives you this notion, this bizarre sense of animacy of thought. That the piece is something unfolding rather than painted. “And that typically transcends what I think I know,” he says. Berry has trained himself to become adept at triggering those moments that allow him to escape what he thinks he knows.
Rick Berry’s work appears in novels by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and William Gibson. He created large digitally-rendered panels for Tuft’s international symposia on global issues, acted as Keanu Reeves’ cyber-stunt double for his team’s award-winning CGI climax in Columbia TriStar’s Johnny Mnemonic, and made the first digital cover for a work of fiction (Neuromancer by William Gibson). He also had a residency with Opera Boston and working with Amanda Palmer at the American Reportory Theatre. His paintings for her production of the hit musical, Cabaret, won a Silver award at the NYC Society of Illustrators.
Students of Rick include Phil Hale, Richard Pellegrino, and Kristina Gavhed, among many others.
– written and photographed by Maria Anderson for Warholian
To find out more about Rick, visit his studio here: http://rickberrystudio.com/