Peek Into the Process

American artist Mike Berg lives in Istanbul but recently took up residency at MCASD Downtown, where his large, abstract kilims are on view through February 23. 
MCASD: You have painted, made sculptures, and for the past decade worked with textiles. How have you employed pattern in these various media? Do you regard pattern as a kind of abstraction or as a reference?
MB: My earliest work was figurative, evolving into figures in architecture, eventually leading to architectural space (without figures) as a visceral thing. Surface and architectural detail, proportion and ornamentation lead to abstraction. 
The tactility of the art in the 80s in New York had a big influence on me, but not the heavy symbolism or narrative. I was also being drawn to Indian miniatures, or parts of them, the rich repertoire of geometric pattern. Japanese prints and screens were things I loved too.
In a free-form way I became more and more interested in Arshile Gorky’s loopy painting compositions and the extraordinary graphic linear tone quality of his drawings, a lot of which he stole from Picasso (I love this too), the drip paintings of Pollock and Islamic script, both geometric and calligraphic.
Upon entering the covered bazaar in Istanbul, I saw for the first time the extraordinary embroidery work from Central Asia, in particular embroideries called Suzani from Uzbekistan. Immediately I saw what to me was an unmistakable connection to Gorky’s work. Gorky, an Armenian living in Eastern Turkey until the Armenians were erased from the country, undoubtedly had to have seen Suzanis. 
Most Suzanis have a flowing, funky abstract quality, a kind of biomorphic plant and flower feeling. I immediately related to these works. The drawing was spontaneous and quirky, the color was often inspired and the texture was very seductive to me. I liked the idea of making color, in effect, painting in thread. But it wasn’t just the embroidered textiles that I loved. It was also the knotted rugs and kilims, or flat woven rugs from many parts of Anatolia, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and many other parts of Central Asia. Before I moved to Istanbul I had become committed to abstraction. I was completely satisfied with its expressive potential. I’m sure that is why I felt an immediate attachment to Islamic art. Because of the prohibition of figuration in Islamic art, the limitation led to a great flowering of abstract form and design.
MCASD: After you moved to Turkey in 1999, you began creating compositions with embroidery and woven kilims. These geometric works are derived from predetermined moves: can you describe the role chance and systems play in your work?  
MB: Years before coming to Turkey, I got tired of how I was solving my paintings, my natural propensity—what colors, what shapes, the drawing. I had been working on a section of a painting with a dead area that I could think of no solution for. I remember walking into a show of William Burroughs’ paintings on plywood. He had shot holes in them. I thought what a great idea; if there’s an area that doesn’t work, blow it away.
I work with pattern but it can be dangerously boring too. I like to give the overall sense of pattern but subvert it, make an imbalance or distortion. That can happen by establishing a set of rules that have to be followed. There have been many different sets of rules that I’ve used to create paintings and sculptures, such as random color or shape selection, combinations of layering, natural migration of a repeated form. It’s amazing how different the results can be and it helps to keep the work fresh for me. I like not knowing what a work will look like until it’s done.
MCASD: What themes are you  investigating in your current work?
MB: The themes of my work don’t change so much, but the material and techniques do. I was a painter for years before I became a sculptor. The sculptures to start with were ink drawings. I imagined line drawings in space, line drawings minus the paper mounted off the wall a short distance away, casting shadows on the wall. Later, I had the desire to make the pieces move into space. I took flat ink drawings that were cut in steel and rolled them so they could stand. I also began to work with scale; small ink drawings became large metal sculptures. I like translating ideas into different materials and different scales, learning about new techniques of fabrication. Right now I’m making small scale, almost architectural designs, that I’m having hand cut by brilliant craftspeople into minimalist, wearable sculpture. My focus is always evolving but working within a basic set of principles.